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Photo courtesy of Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash.

OPIRG's New Research on Student Experiences During the Pandemic

Written by
Madelin Gennaro
April 2, 2021
OPIRG's New Research on Student Experiences During the Pandemic
Photo courtesy of Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash.

The past academic year has been stressful and challenging for many students at Trent University. Diya Shah, a Trent undergraduate student working at Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) Peterborough completed a case study on student experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. They conducted this study by distributing a survey for 14 days from February 8, 2021 to February 22, 2021 to Trent students via social media and received 73 responses. Diya surveyed students’ perspectives on course loads, financial stress, professors’ communication, the quality of online learning, as well as the emotional impact of isolation during the past year.  

Chart showing the issues that impacted students the most throughout the past year. Courtesy of Diya Shah.

Students reported overwhelming workloads, unstructured courses, and increased number of assignments leading to increased hours spent on coursework. The survey showed that students felt they were self-teaching a lot of their course material.

Students found that there were no changes in tuition fees, scarcity of student jobs, no income to cover payments and bills, and higher expenditure on ordering food because of lack of time due to higher course load. This research exhibits the financial issues that students went through this year. 

Students reported an increased workload, inability to connect with friends and family, overwhelming stress due to university, inability to make new friends, and unemployment were affecting them emotionally. Diya’s survey describes the emotional toll online school students face since the pandemic started. 

As well, students experienced increased mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, loneliness, loss of communication with friends and family, and increased difficulty in maintaining relationships online. Diya’s research shows that online school makes students feel more isolated and negatively affects their mental health. 

When you email your professors, by when do you receive a response?

Data visualization showing students' responses when asked how frequently their professors respond to their emails. Courtesy of Diya Shah.

Chart displaying students' responses to the question "Do you believe online classes have the same quality of content and methods of learning as offline classes?" Courtesy of Diya Shah.

As seen in the graph above many students agree that the quality of online classes does not compare to offline classes. 

Their reasons for online classes not being the same quality as offline classes were: 

  • Professors do not offer the help needed to explain course material
  • Professors increase workload excessively, making it harder to study with lesser incentives
  • Lectures are all asynchronous and labs are reduced to assignments instead of hands-on experiential learning
  • Limited courses are available, setting students back
  • Pre-recorded lectures make it harder to ask questions about course material. To ask one question about a specific point in the lecture the professor has to be emailed and doesn’t respond until days later
  • Assignments feel like chores rather than learning tools 
  • Lack of attention due to asynchronous classes
  • Synchronous class timings are not made use of properly

I sat down with Diya Shah to dive deeper into their research and their own experiences with online learning.

Madelin Gennaro: How did you personally find the 2020-2021 online school year? 

Diya Shah:“I think it was definitely more challenging than my first year just because everything’s online and we were thrown into the situation without any help or resources in the beginning. I think Trent University assured us that our second semester was going to be in person, or with some classes in person, but when the COVID outbreak wasn’t getting any better they chose to switch to online mode. But, I don’t think they prepared for it because our second semester has also been very scattered and very unprepared. Professors weren’t prepared to go online at all and they should’ve been since we were still in a pandemic and didn’t know if everything was going to be okay. Overall, it has been very challenging in all aspects.”

MG: When and how did you come up with the idea to do this case study?

DS: “So I was hired as OPIRG’s research coordinator in October 2020 and everyone I talked to, all roommates and friends were all struggling with school. Then OPIRG gave me the chance to do my own research project and they said, ‘You can research about whatever you want and whatever information you want to put out there.’ And I think this was the first thing that came to mind because there was already a lot of research being done by external sources on the increase in tuition prices for students and people are not reducing prices even though everything is going online. But that was more to do with financial aspects of the research and I think we forgot to include the emotional aspect of students, or even the general preparedness of universities, which is why based on my personal experience as well as the people around me, I decided to research about other students at Trent especially undergraduates to see exactly what they were feeling and what sort of impact this was having on students and not just financially but emotionally, mental health-wise, and even academically. So that’s how I came up with the research project and I did a little bit of review beforehand so I researched all the research projects already done on this which is why I found out that not a lot of focus has been on the mental health of students but a lot just financially.” 

Diya then spoke about their experience with some courses without lectures: 

DS: “A lot of students that I talked to didn’t even have asynchronous lectures including one of my own courses. Teachers just posted study guides and said, ‘You can just read your study guides and textbooks and complete your quizzes and assignments every two weeks.’ So apart from all our other courses that we had to manage, one course doesn’t even have a lecture, they just have office hours. But there’s a difference between an office hour and an actual lecture where you can ask questions while the information is being given to you. It’s very hard because the professor expects us to do two to three chapters in two weeks and they expect us to do a quiz right after without any lectures. And they expect us to do textbook readings and study guide readings. So, a lot of students complain about these kinds of courses as well because the teachers are not even putting in the effort to upload videos of lectures, they’re just preparing notes from beforehand and giving them to students and they’re like, ‘This is what you’re going to do and this is your course and it’s all self-study.’” 

MG: When we can return to in-person classes would you want to be fully in-person or more of a hybrid of online and in-person? And why would you choose that?

DS: Personally, I’ve wanted in-person classes for the longest time just because that’s how I learn better. I can’t focus on being online and being on the screen all day and personally don’t find that helpful. Looking at the situation, I don’t think it would be safe to go fully in-person anytime soon. And I think hybrid would be the best option, but with that comes training that professors should definitely go through for at least online classes. I recently talked to TCSA, a bunch of student senators and the TCSA president and they said teachers are supposed to go through training to understand problems related to the pandemic for students. A lot of the training is focused on different stuff including technology problems or even just emotional circumstances that the students might be going through, but the training is not mandatory. This means a lot of professors choose to skip those training programs and sessions. And those are the professors that probably need it the most. So they choose not to do them and that’s why these problems are occurring. So, if we were to do a hybrid, which would be the best option, at least for the fall or summer semester the professors have to undergo this training because in no way do they understand what the students are going through today. 

MG: What solutions would you like to see being implemented if we have to do another semester online in September?

DS: The second solution is to make it easier for students to be able to reach at least the Trent Administration or anyone that we could give our feedback to because for me, personally, as a research coordinator of OPIRG, as someone who has been hired to do this, reaching out to Trent was very difficult. I had to reach out to a lot of people just to be able to talk to someone. And I think that reduces the impact of what we’re trying to do because someone will send me to someone else, they’ll send me to someone else and it’s a big chain and we never actually get to a solution. So I think we have to make feedback accessible for students and we have to make sure that students can reach out to someone that can instantly consider their feedback and bring it up to faculty in a way that the faculty doesn’t have a bias against the student after. Because a lot of faculty would not appreciate feedback from students and they may be biased toward them after. And we don't want someone's education or marks to be hindered because they prefer things a certain way. The feedback should be anonymous and I think it would be better to have a mediator to go to instead of directly addressing your professor. So having someone who could convey it in a more official way than we would be able to and someone that the professors would take more seriously if they don’t take us seriously. A professional who can consider this feedback and then put it across to teachers with solutions. And for course evaluation responses to compile it all together and consolidate all student's concerns and send it to professors but at a higher frequency instead of course evaluation at the end of the semester. So making feedback accessible to students and mandatory training for professors.”

This academic year has been challenging for all students and professors. Diya’s research clearly shows that online learning not only takes a financial toll on students but impacts their academics, mental health, and social life. Diya’s research also displays that if classes are to return to in-person in September, a hybrid of offline and online classes is the best option. 

The full research survey results:

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