Collective student anxiety is through the roof. We all need to act.

This may not be the message that everyone wants to hear - but there appears to be a relationship between the volume of in-person teaching experienced and student mental health.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Each batch of results from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Student COVID-19 Insights Survey (SCIS) gets us a bit closer to working out what’s actually going on on campus this year – although there’s still plenty more questions than answers.

Earlier this academic year, for example, we saw a link between academic satisfaction and hours of in-person teaching attended, and a link between academic satisfaction and mental health – this time we complete the triangle.

(As a reminder we’re looking at students in England, this time survey completed 19 to 29 November 2021, all home domiciled students, and results weighted for age, gender and regional bias)

A remarkable half of all students polled self-reported “very high” anxiety (a score of 9 or 10 out of 10), rising to almost six in ten (58 percent) for those who attended 0 hours of in-person teaching, learning or placement in the previous week.

Meanwhile 13 percent of students reported low life satisfaction (a score of 4 or below out of 10), increasing to 19 percent for those attending 0 hours. This group also reported higher levels of loneliness.

I’ve argued before that there’s a tendency in our sector to think of mental health issues as individual, non academic, student support services’ problem and something that has to be endured or survived to get the best grades.

From here, mental health issues – especially anxiety – look instead to be collective, influenced by academic practice (both positively and negatively), everyone’s problem and anyway – being a student and learning should be fun not some ordeal to be survived.

I think anyone with any level of responsibility for the teaching and learning experience in higher education should be asking themselves right now “how can my decisions or practice reduce anxiety in my students”. Better still, ask students not themselves.

Elsewhere in the survey things are pretty steady. Double vaccination status is now running at 70 percent, with 12 percent on dose one – this has been ticking up steadily as students become eligible for the second jab all term. A pretty steady 8 percent are still refusing.

There’s still a close link between improvement or decline in mental health since the start of term and academic satisfaction, we’re still on around 1 in 10 saying they’re dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the learning experience (with over three quarters of them citing delivery as a reason) and we’re still on about a quarter attending 0 hours of in-person anything in the previous seven days.

ONS has tried to get at who these 0 percenters are this time – but not very successfully. The figures show that of those who reported that their university study “mainly involved class-based learning for example learning based in lecture halls, classrooms or lab facilities on campus”, only 9 percent attended 0 hours. But we still don’t know how much of that is “it was on and I didn’t go” versus “it wasn’t offered”. And the categorisation is circular – when someone answers “what does your university study mainly involve” is a student thinking about what it’s supposed to involve, or actually involves?

Finally, there’s a tendency in the public facing position of the sector to suggest that “online” delivery is a brucie bonus rather than a replacement for the core teaching and learning experience. Here, when asked if their university was making materials available for students to access through a website or email always or most of the time, 66 percent saying yes feels low. But almost one in five saying they have been doing “group working” online always or most of the time feels high, and an obvious candidate for isolation and mental health cause.

40 percent of students say there’s online live scheduled lectures or “lessons” always or most of the time – maybe they’re being offered hyflex. And 31 percent of students said that they’re usually getting pre-recorded lectures or equivalent – which I continue to fear is a teaching method that requires more work, but has less value ascribed to it by students.

3 responses to “Collective student anxiety is through the roof. We all need to act.

  1. Nobody is argueing against the hardships of the pandemic on young adults, particularly those moving away from from home for the first time. If you don’t get on with your flatmates in halls your first year can be unpleasent. Add on not actually meeting your coursemates (who you might naturally befriend) due to virtual learning and that loneliness and anxiety is multiplied.

    But the answer to these problems lies further up the food chain and starts with GCSE exams and extends to A-levels. Because schools are judged on end-of-process examination data rather than actual quality of teaching, students are coached on revision right the way through their exam periods and not left to learn independent study skills, a vital tool for university.

    I don’t want this to be one of those ‘back in my day’ posts but when I did my GCSE’s in 1999 we had a cut off point for teacher support, normally one week after the easter break. It was then made very clear to us that passing our exams was on us and the independent learning skills our teachers had taught us and we went on study leave.

    It might seem altruistic to coach young people through exams but it is causing more problems than it solves. Future undergraduates are not getting the study skills they need and the rest of their cohort have artificially higher grades but no independent learning skills which are helpful entering the competitive job market.

    1. Joe you hit that one square on the head, many first year students need extra help to garner independent learning skills, such is the product of the lower levels of education output. My own state schooled sons struggled with it to start with the eldest effectively being forced to drop out as he just couldn’t get a handle on independent learning and the self discipline required to do it. The youngest fortunately made friends with an independently schooled course-mate who helped him develop the required skill set, as being male & white his University was more focused on providing support and assistance other groups. Too much ‘teaching to the test’ and spoon feeding enfeebles those in the state schooling system, along with ‘participation awards’ for all, something some Universities are becoming prone to doing too…

  2. It seems crucial that the study reported how much in person teaching students *attended* rather than were *offered*.

    It is to be expected that students who have mental health issues are less likely to attend in person teaching. Staying at home and missing in person commitments is a symptom of depression, so it would be strange if there wasn’t a correlation between mental health issues and not attending in person classes.

    Perhaps I’m missing some other information though?

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