Study finds COVID -19 decreases student engagement
A study by two UH chemistry professors found that student motivation and engagement decreased in a chemistry course in 2020 when classes moved online due to the pandemic.
Chemistry professors Tom Teets and Cougar Initiative to Engage analyst Fan Wu, found that generally underrepresented minorities’ engagement decreased more than the engagement of their non-underrepresented classmates. They published their results in the “Journal of Chemical Education” this past November.
“What we found that was a little unexpected is how the overarching backdrop of the pandemic, all of the worries and unknowns that came with it, seemed to weigh more heavily on students and have a larger impact on them than we expected,” Teets said.
The study involved surveying 431 students in a 516 student introductory chemistry class for 0.5 percent of extra credit. Results included both quantitative and qualitative data.
While Teets expected to see some decreased engagement after the sudden switch to remote learning, he initially thought his students were adapting well to the pandemic because they were already used to the lecture and review session recordings on his YouTube channel.
Particularly among those surveyed in the study who identified as underrepresented minorities and as first-generation college students, issues outside of school overshadowed the transition to online learning.
Some students struggled to find quiet spaces to focus at home. Others became sources of support for family members who caught COVID-19 or who were grieving those they lost to the pandemic.
Still, more students had to work longer shifts to fill in for those who had been laid off or watched their own parents lose their jobs as well as struggle to make ends meet.
Photography and digital media senior Natasha Jordan is not at all surprised by these results. Having moved out of her childhood home at 17, she moved back to Houston and transferred to UH at the start of the pandemic. The transition distracted her from schoolwork.
“I was very unmotivated to go to class,” Jordan said. “I was a new student and couldn’t make a genuine connection with any of my classmates or teachers. I always thought I was an introvert, but being online for a year made me realize I need to be around people to feel motivated.”
The professors encourage students to develop a consistent study routine at the start of the semester, regardless of what stage the pandemic is in and implement the plan at the beginning of the semester as much as circumstances allow.
“A little bit of effort every day, learning things gradually, is always better than long cram sessions followed by extended periods of dormancy,” Teets and Wu said. “This type of approach makes the material feel much less daunting since you are only learning a little at a time, which in turn keeps your focus and motivation high.”
Jordan echoed this advice, saying she had to force herself to get into a routine with assignments for her asynchronous classes. These allowed her to be more flexible with the art projects that had less predictable deadlines.
Teets and Wu also recommend keeping the bigger picture in mind despite the many immediate concerns brought about by COVID-19.
“Thinking about why what you’re learning is significant, and what bigger goals you have that your college education will lead to, can be helpful for navigating the tough times when distracting or stressful events make your studies feel unimportant,” Teets and Wu said.
In the future, Teets and Wu hope to continue researching factors that influence student engagement, motivation and persistence in general chemistry. This aligns with the goal of the Department of Chemistry, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and UH to improve outcomes in introductory STEM courses.
“Research like this can play a small role in understanding the origins of some students’ struggles in this course and how we can improve curriculum and instruction to benefit future generations of students in these courses,” Teets and Wu said.