Students Face Obstacles, Lack of Motivation in Transition to Remote Learning Amid Pandemic, Report Finds

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As students across the country gear up for a fall semester that will look much different than in previous years, a new report identifies the lack of motivation for remote learning as the biggest obstacle for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students during the pandemic.

While for this upcoming semester there will be more time for students to prepare for a fall semester likely to take place entirely online at most institutions, all three of the biggest obstacles students reported facing in the survey from the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium involved aspects of learning from home and being distant from teachers and classmates.

Notably, 76% of all undergraduates surveyed identified the lack of motivation for online learning as the biggest obstacle and 56% of graduate and professional students felt the same way. Other leading obstacles students reported included lack of interaction with other students, inability to effectively learn in an online format, and distracting home environments or lack of access to suitable study spaces.

The survey of 22,519 undergraduate students and 7,690 graduate and professional students from five large, public research universities began in May and includes response data through June 11, focusing on students’ experiences in the spring semester when studies at institutions across the country transitioned online due to the pandemic.

It’s worth noting that among both undergraduate and graduate and professional students, the lack of familiarity with technical tools necessary for online learning was one of the least reported obstacles.

The report grouped the obstacles faced by students into two categories: technical and adaptive. A majority of the obstacles identified fell into the adaptive category, which the authors noted are often difficult to identify and easy to deny.

“Although many institutional leaders scrambled to quickly resolve problems — such as renting or purchasing laptops, textbooks, or other resources for students or moving academic support and library services online — our data suggests that the majority of obstacles encountered by students were adaptive in nature,” the report stated.

The report also found that students from low-income backgrounds experienced more barriers in their adjustment to online learning compared to their peers from middle- and upper-class backgrounds.

For example, nearly one-third of undergraduate students from low-income families identified the lack of access to technology for remote learning as an obstacle, compared with only 11% of students from upper-middle class and wealthy families.

Additionally, distractions in the home environment and the lack of access to an adequate study space was an obstacle for 66% of low-income students, compared to 50% of upper-middle class and wealthy students.

Among graduate and professional students, students from low-income backgrounds were nearly 10 percentage points more likely to report a lack of access to an appropriate study space and distracting home environment than their middle and upper-class peers.

Furthermore, low-income graduate and professional students were twice as likely as wealthy students to indicate they were unable to attend their online classes at the scheduled time, highlighting the issues some students encounter when juggling their home and work schedules in addition to education.

The report also detailed differences in responses from students across disciplines. For instance,  undergraduates majoring in architecture, visual and performing arts, and education were much more likely to report that their course content was not designed for remote learning.

The report suggested that institutions should be more aware of the adaptive challenges students face when transitioning to online courses and provide resources to assist students.

To combat the lack of motivation some students experience, institutional leaders and faculty should offer students impactful and relevant course content that connects to their experiences, develop personalized learning opportunities, and create opportunities for students to connect virtually with their classmates.

“It is evident from the data that students value learning from — and with — their classmates, and that the absence of those connections is a perceived obstacle to their learning,” the report said. “Therefore, faculty should consider offering opportunities like synchronous discussions in video conferencing, asynchronous discussion boards or videos, group activities, or class assignments in which students deliver course content to each other.”

Furthermore, the report suggested that leaders at higher education institutions should be cognizant of the experiences of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students from low-income backgrounds.

“We encourage leaders and faculty to proactively reach out to students from low-income and working-class backgrounds to help them procure technology, expand learning support services hours and resources, and offer additional accommodations to students who have caretaking responsibilities,” the report said. 


Publication Date: 7/16/2020

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