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Adjusting Instruction for A Range of Learners

Managing the Impacts of the COVID Pandemic


As we prepare to teach during the 2021-22 academic year, it is helpful to anticipate where our students are developmentally, academically, and emotionally.  Adaptations to the learning environment as a result of COVID have altered what we might normally expect from our students.  Simply resuming our courses as normal pre-COVID runs the risk of diminishing student learning and success. We should consider the state of our students, learning impacts, and the strategies we can utilize to anchor and frame student success in our courses.

The State of Our Students

Even under normal circumstances, transitioning from high school to college requires major adjustments (e.g., living independently, managing different course schedules, learning how to interact with faculty and advisors). Due to the COVID pandemic, our incoming first-year students will need to adapt even more. Since many will be coming from situations where they were virtual, hybrid, or managing mutliple modalities during their senior year of high school, they will need to adjust to a return to more in-person learning environments. Emotionally, they may still be disappointed that their senior year was not what they anticipated, and/or they may be managing some anxieties about the upcoming year. 

Our upcoming sophomore students, in many ways, will experience a second "first year." For some, issues that would normally arise in their first year will now be deferred to their second. They may now have certain beliefs and expectations about courses and their learning environments that are not based on the unique circumstances of the 2020-21 academic year.  Programs and social events that would normally help acclimate them to the university during their first year (e.g., orientation, sporting events) were significantly altered or canceled. Even dining on campus was not an easy task.

Juniors and seniors, who were in the midst of deeper dives into their major/chosen fields, may have missed out on some experiences that would enhance their disciplinary frameworks and schemas. For some students who may feel less confident in their chosen fields, the pandemic may have added to that insecurity and increased thoughts of isloation or disconnection from their field. In fields where belonging was already an issue for particular groups (e.g., women in STEM), these feelings may have been amplified.

Yet, while many students struggled, some students found success in the different educational structures presented to them. For some, the ability to have on-demand access to instructional content (e.g., lecture videos) aided their study habits. It allowed them to arrange learning at a time that was right for them. Supports not normally provided during a face-to-face class were suddenly present in their online environment (e.g., live captioning in Zoom, transcripts of class sessions). Some engaged in opportunities (e.g., interacting with international scholars) that may not have been otherwise presented in a "normal" semester. For these students, the question becomes how can we match those support structures and unique learning opportunities.

Learning Impacts

A survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse found that 52% of students believed they learned less in academic year 2020-21 than they did during pre-COVID years. A majority of first-year students, whose final year of high school was disrupted along with their first year of college, responded that they felt unprepared for college (23% very unprepared, 35% somewhat unprepared). This is compounded by the fact that most students did not actively chose online learning as their learning modality, but rather were forced into it due to the pandemic. As a result, the experiences they had hoped for were diminished.

While there is a strong perception among students that they learned less last year, whether or not that is true remains to be seen. There are several issues, however, we should consider when thinking about how students learned last year. Click on the topics below to learn more.

Attention is an important element in the encoding process. However, paying attention in an online environment requires much more effort than it does in a physical classroom. Why is that? In a physical classroom, there are multiple environmental cues that help you refocus your attention if it is waning. For example, a shift in volume or tone from the instructor,  other students start participating in an activity, moving from lecture to a video demonstration are all changes in environmental stimuli that regain attention. In an online environment, students do not experience as much of these shifts. Furthermore, whatever is on their screen is competing for attention with what is happening in the physical environment around them (e.g., roomates walking by, pets wanting to be petted). Our students experienced less than optimal environments when it comes to attention, so it is likely that they may have missed some information or didn't encode as deeply as they needed to. These factors affect learning and later retrieval.

A body of research supports that we encode contextual information as we learn. Context-dependent memory, in general, refers to the idea that we recall information better when we try to retrieve it (i.e., use it) in the same state that we encoded it. For students, picturing what classroom or space they were in when trying to remember information from a particular course helps (e.g., a student pictures sitting in McBryde 100 for biology). In an online environment, those environmental contextual cues disappear. "The classroom," in this case a student's dorm room, apartment, or family home, becomes the space for each class. With the additional environmental cues gone, instructors may need to help students activate prior knowledge.

Stress and lack of transition time between courses also affected our students' learning. Stress impacts long-term encoding, so again our students are going to need to work harder to remember some information. The lack of transition time between courses (think of this time as a walk from McBryde to the New Classroom Building when transitioning from one class to the next) also took away valuable time needed to process and decompress from one class to the next. Many students reported being overwhelmed with work loads or not having the time management and work management strategies to handle a full courseload of online courses, which require more self-regulation skills. Some really struggled, and they probably did not learn the information as well as they would have under normal circumstances where their learning environments are more structured.

Strategies to Improve Student Learning and Success

The strategies and techniques that follow are intended to help learning in a multitude of ways (and not just during pandemic times). Consider how implementing these strategies can help adjust your instruction for different levels of learners and promote self-regulation for your students.