STEM students struggled with online learning (opinion)

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a stunningly rapid transformation in how and where undergraduate students learn. In the span of a year, the number of students taking courses online across about 2,200 colleges and universities increased by 93 percent. The embrace of online learning is very likely to continue: more than half of this large sample of institutions expected to continue to deliver some or all of the courses they’d shifted online via distance education after the pandemic.

What could this potentially permanent change in learning environments mean for undergraduates’ learning, especially for those students who are often marginalized? We are a team of researchers studying the impact of the pandemic on the learning experiences of undergraduates. Our team includes undergraduate co-researchers who bring youth voice and perspective (two are co-authors on this piece). Our research suggests some important cautions that higher education leaders should keep front of mind in considering more online learning.

Through a longitudinal study we’ve been, we have followed the 5 trajectories of a group of 60 students who have often been marginalized in STEM education. All began our study initially as participants in a high school program. Nearly all are now undergraduates or have recently graduated with an undergraduate degree.

These students are interested in science and research and had an intensive mentored science research experience in high school, and we are trying to understand what helps them stay in science. Seventy-six percent of the students in our study are people of color. More than half are multilingual, more than a third are first-generation college students (39 percent) and almost half have one or both parents born outside the United States.

As the pandemic worsened, we began to worry about the impact on the academic experiences of this group of diverse and motivated students. What effects could this profound social and educational crisis have on their learning in higher education? We were struck by findings from research on education in emergencies that points to the importance of collecting data during crises. Doing research is a key way to prepare for the future and to ameliorate the impacts of an educational emergency.

We sought and received a National Science Foundation RAPID grant to find out how this group of students fared during the pandemic. We hope our just-in-time research about how undergraduates navigated the major disruptions of the pandemic could help guide policy and decision making by faculty and administrators after the pandemic by providing some empirical data on student experiences. We surveyed a set of 190 students drawn from our larger study twice during the height of the pandemic, once in fall 2020 and again during spring 2021. We also interviewed a smaller group of 26 students. Eighty percent of the students participating in this RAPID study identified as people of color.

What we found has important implications for institutions thinking about increasing remote offerings for undergraduates. Eighty-five percent of students reported that the pandemic had an impact on their academic trajectories. Challenges with online and hybrid courses were a key source of the impacts. The drawbacks our participants shared with us not only negatively shaped their experiences but also had both immediate and long-term ramifications for them academically and professionally. Their reports make us especially keen about growing online offerings for undergraduates. Their experiences with online learning reveal problems that—if left unaddressed—could increase inequity in higher education.

Students pointed to missed opportunities in three main areas: foundational understanding of key concepts, peer collaboration and relationships. A fourth missed opportunity, specifically relevant for students in STEM, was the lack of opportunity for engaging in science practices such as asking and developing questions based on observations, planning and carrying out investigations, and analyzing data. Students would have engaged in these practices in lab or field-based coursework, most of which was canceled during the pandemic.

Students emphasize, in both surveys and interviews, a loss of deep learning. In some cases, students noted that while they received good grades, they felt their understanding was much more superficial. They believed that the online learning experience had made it harder for them to develop a solid understanding of foundational ideas in their classes—and felt that their grades might mask the fragility of their understanding. Students reported that their facial cues about confusion or misunderstanding seemed harder for faculty to pick up and interpret. Shaky understandings could lead to later confusion and misunderstandings as they progressed through coursework. One recommendation they provided was a need for professors to offer shorter, low-stakes ways for them to demonstrate learning.

Students also felt the lack of collaboration and peer-to-peer learning. They missed in-person problem-solving opportunities and missed being able to join study groups. Sometimes students found that faculty members limited student interaction on chats or discouraged student interaction during courses—a critical choice that students recognized affected their ability to share questions, concerns and clarifications. This meant students sometimes felt even further isolated from peer connections that could support them. They recommended that faculty encourage chat communication and help set up and even join chat groups designed for informal collaboration and problem solving.

Undergraduates also missed opportunities to build relationships with peers, faculty and potential mentors. The chance to have informal conversations about professional work and academics was almost completely absent for our students in a remote setting. This impeded important informal and formal advising—even the process of identifying advisors—as well as the potential for networking, collaborating and finding social and emotional support. As one first-year computer science major (who changed to a health science major during the pandemic) told us, “Before the pandemic, it was kind of a culture of working on comp sci. Comp sci is very hard and the classes are very rigorous, and the students have a culture of helping each other. There’s this community of understanding it. And it’s easier knowing you could just talk to a friend or a student next to you … you have peer help.” One recommendation the students had for faculty to figure out structured ways to get to know students outside class time.

Finally, for students majoring in STEM (approximately 80 percent of the sample), missed opportunities for hands-on experiences with science practices, such as collecting data or building and using models, were a particular obstacle. Some students felt that particular courses that required these skills were especially difficult in a virtual environment and did not want to pursue a major that included those requirements. Our survey results also indicated that for students who were further along in their major (second- and third-year undergraduate students), COVID-related disruptions were even more prominent. These challenges may have increased the difficulties of them majors.

Our students did report benefits of online teaching when it was done well. Some professors incorporated strategies that were more effective, according to our undergraduate participants. These professors pre-recorded their lectures and posted notes. Synchronous learning time was used to discuss what was presented in the lecture and notes. Notably, while both students and faculty appreciated this shift to more interaction during class, findings from a faculty survey we conducted as part of this research revealed that faculty needed time and resources to shift their teaching in this way.

Our participants, however, did not feel that these benefits outweighed their significant concerns. While most of our students did stay in science (95 percent of STEM majors reported that they had not switched majors, and 86 percent reported being fairly confident they would remain in their major over the long term), they also reported tremendous challenges, including challenges around mental health. These had ripple effects, leading to them feeling less grounded in their understandings, less connected and more worried about next steps professionally.

However, the six students who did change their major to leave STEM are a significant loss. In interviews, we learned that these switches occurred in cases when courses required computational thinking or mathematical problem solving that were harder to complete online; others pointed to the difficulty of engaging in science practices online for specific majors like physics. When even one student is not able to pursue their passion and drive, it is deeply concerned—and especially in the case of our students of color, who have been marginalized due to systemic racism. One first-generation former physics major described the sadness and loss of her dream of pursuing science. She told us, “This [physics major] is kind of a dream I have to let go … I’m going to have to pursue something more sustainable or easier, in a way. I love the sciences, but this is a hard reality that I have to face.”

If higher education heads in a direction of pursuing and even expanding online learning, we will need to be prepared to address the related challenges. Assessing for and ensuring deep understanding, enabling peer-to-peer collaboration and relationship building, as well as providing students opportunities to engage in the disciplinary practices necessary for their own professional development in their fields, areas are critical to address for undergraduates engaged in online learning.

It’s tempting to anticipate the flexibility, responsiveness and possible expansiveness of remote learning as even more responsive to students in a high-tech world, and potentially even more equitable. We need to ensure that this shift does not end up inadvertently increasing inequities and dampening and diverting the passions, commitments and potential of our students.

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