What if learning is harder when you’re lonely?

One of the things that’s consistently irked me throughout the pandemic are various people’s attempts at clumsily separating the academic experience from “the social side”.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Some of that has resulted in a significant devaluing of the educational and social mobility benefits of extra-curricular activity. And some of it has been to over-centre the actions of a university and its staff in the learning process at the expense of understanding support from other students.

We know that students are desperately lonely, and more so if they’re stuck at home. So as England awaits news on return to campus for students not on health or practical courses, what if continued social isolation is harming their cognitive ability – and therefore their actual learning and attainment?

In the past we’ve only really been able to test cognitive deterioration on the elderly, and on and/or specialist groups like astronauts, or desert trekkers. When that’s done, while social isolation is in the mix, the results are noisy – because things like physical deterioration, or the lack of oxygen, or sand and heat (sometimes literally) get in the way.

So the pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to test cognitive ability. In this study of 350 Scottish adults (some of which were shieling, all of which experienced a slow easing of lockdown last summer) decision making, selective attention, learning ability, working memory and time estimation were all tested at various points in the lockdown, with fascinating results.

Even when measuring and then controlling for negative mood, all of the indicators improved as lockdown restrictions eased. And that wasn’t just about the passage of time – on the decision making task, for example, those that were shielding didn’t show improvement until shielding was “paused” for them last summer. And in the memory test, improvements were greatest for solitary participants in later weeks, when visits inside the home started to be allowed.

Things got a bit more complicated on time perception. When isolated, participants underestimated time‐elapsed, but then overestimated time‐elapsed when restrictions were most relaxed, which apparently is also something that’s been seen in astronauts.

Taken at face value the implications here are significant. First of all, it’s preposterous to assume that a resumption of blended learning under the “Step Two” legislation alone will deliver the kind of social interaction that’s needed to get students’ cognitive ability where it needs to be, given that all that really changes is an easing of the indoor gathering rules for teaching.

Where that points us to is a need to support students who want to to delay. If we push ahead with summative assessment ahead of a significant easing of social interaction restrictions, we will be assessing most students when the science says they can’t and won’t perform to their abilities. That of course means that those universities or students that have played faster and looser with the guidance will be rewarding students with worse grades – a hugely unfair result.

What has to happen is the option for all students on taught programmes to delay summative assessment this year until restrictions have eased and until universities and SUs have been able to (re)facilitate some meaningful social interaction. Any student able to take advantage of a later deadline, an uncapped resit or even a repeat of a year would be strongly advised to do so. And a DfE position that says “we prioritised pubs over seminars” is fine, as long as that’s accompanied by “and that’s why we’re financially supporting students and universities to extend the academic year”.

And no, online Zoom socialising won’t fix it. Researchers say that constriction of life‐space (“daily extent of movement throughout the environment”) is linked to increased risk of cognitive impairment, and strategies to alleviate cognitive decline shouldn’t focus exclusively on encouraging online social interaction, “as this does not expand life‐space”.

It’s almost all enough to make you want those OfS learning gain projects back.

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