Earlier in the year, Macquarie University conducted a university-wide survey to gauge students’ experiences of online learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of students preferred online Zoom classes and expressed a desire to return to campus for face-to-face classes. There is, however, limited information about the reasoning behind students’ preferences.

At the end of Session 1, we (the research team with the help of colleagues) distributed a survey to students across six Sociology and Gender Studies units to investigate how students had coped with studying during COVID-19 and how the pandemic’s impacts on their personal lives had affected their experiences of studying. Our findings paint a much more nuanced picture of the value of Zoom than that initially found by the University’s survey, and show that flexible arrangements that take into account students’ lived realities are key to student satisfaction and wellbeing during a pandemic. Our findings, furthermore, provide insight into how we can meet students’ needs when the University returns to business as usual.

Overall impact of COVID-19 on students’ learning experiences

Our findings indicate that most students were able to adjust to studying during a pandemic. While some did so relatively quickly (32%), others needed more time but managed OK overall (46%). However, a large minority of 22% of students indicated that COVID-19 had ‘been a major disruption to [their] studies’.

People with disabilities or learning difficulties experienced the most difficulties, with respectively 40% and 36% of students in these two groups indicating that COVID-19 had been a major disruption to their studies. One respondent explained,

This has been the semester from hell for me. I am hearing impaired and couldn’t get to my doctor to get certification of my hearing impairment and therefore couldn’t get disability assistance for lectures. I couldn’t hear the broadcasts of the lectures and found this semester nearly impossible.

Those younger than 20 years old and who came to university straight from high school were also more likely than others to have experienced COVID-19 as a major disruption to their studies (both 29%).

Furthermore, students with caring responsibilities experienced additional difficulties due to closing of schools and other institutions. Indeed, many students with some caring responsibilities (29%) found it difficult to study during COVID-19.

What is surprising, however, is that ‘only’ 18% of students who identify as main carers found the pandemic to be a major disruption to their studies. It may be the case that main carers’ lives were already organised more permanently around caring duties, so that the impact of COVID-19 on their situation was limited.

Stress and stressors during COVID-19

We asked students about their general wellbeing and stress levels. An alarmingly high percentage of students either strongly agreed or agreed that their stress levels had increased (87%) and/or that their wellbeing had deteriorated (64%).

Furthermore, students indicated which stressors had impacted their general wellbeing and stress levels. As Table 1 shows, a large percentage of students strongly agreed or agreed with the statements ‘I was unable to find a suitable place to study’ (33%) and ‘I did not have a good internet connection’ (21%), both of which are required for successful study, and could no longer be accessed on- and off-campus with the closure of libraries and other study spaces. 59% of students furthermore strongly agreed or agreed with the more general statement that they ‘got interrupted a lot’.

COVID-19 has been linked to widespread unemployment and insecure employment, and it is, therefore, not surprising that a large number of students agreed or strongly agreed that they were unable to control their paid work situation (48%) and suffered increased financial stress (51%).

Table 1: Students’ self-assessment of stress and stressors, in %

 My general stress levels increasedMy wellbeing deterio-ratedI was unable to find a suitable place to studyI did not have a good internet connec-tionI got inter-rupted a lotI faced an inability to control my paid work situationMy financial stress increasedMy caring respon-sibilities increased
Strongly agree483110923242421
Agree3933231236222725
Neutral31191722121315
Disagree823283913293127
Strongly disagree212924411513
TotalN=99 100%N=99 100%N=96 100%N=96 100%N=98 100%N=86* 100%N=97 100%N=94 100%

*2% answered ‘don’t know’ to this question.

Note: percentages have been rounded and may not total to 100%.

Using Zoom for teaching

The University encouraged the use of Zoom to replace face-to-face teaching sessions. Our findings complicate the seemingly straightforward understanding that synchronous online teaching is the best replacement for face-to-face teaching. Indeed, we found a much more nuanced picture in our research (see Table 2).

Live lectures via Zoom were clearly not favoured by the majority of students. Only 18% favoured Zoom lectures over recorded ones, with many more students (39%) expressing that recorded lectures were better than Zoom lectures.

Furthermore, only 43% of students strongly agreed or agreed that Zoom tutorials are important. This means that 57% did not support Zoom tutorials as important to online learning. This finding runs contrary to what was initially indicated in the the University-wide survey. In fact, 30% of students either strongly agreed or agreed that mandatory Zoom sessions made their lives difficult. Therefore, while students perceived Zoom tutorials as much more favourable than they did lectures (43%), and a large minority of students prefers Zoom tutorials to discussion forums (43%), mandatory Zoom sessions were an obstacle to students.

In contrast, students appreciate optional Zoom sessions which were deemed helpful by 61% of students. Thus, Zoom sessions should be used as an extra help rather than a mandatory requirement which places additional pressure on students in an environment where it can be difficult to find suitable study spaces, sufficiently stable internet connections, and uninterrupted time and space.

Table 2: Student perceptions of Zoom, in %

 Live lectures via Zoom are better than recorded onesTutorials via Zoom are important to learning in an online environmentZoom sessions are better than discussion forumsMandatory Zoom sessions made my life difficultDrop-in Zoom sessions were helpful
Strongly Agree101826917
Agree825172144
Neutral211919717
Disagree231614210
Strongly Disagree1641051
Not sure12114
Not a relevant question2117153516
TotalN=95 100%N=96 100%N=95 100%N=96 100%N=98 100%

Note: percentages have been rounded and may not total to 100%.

The importance of supportive teaching staff

Despite—or perhaps because of—the external obstacles caused by the pandemic, 71% of students strongly agreed or agreed that teaching staff in the units surveyed understood what was needed to help students, and 73% of students strongly agreed or agreed that teaching staff provided particularly flexible learning arrangements.

We suggest that the ‘human face’ of teaching and teaching staff’s attention to the needs of students are what matters most to students. COVID-19 has allowed us to be more flexible in our approaches to teaching, with beneficial outcomes for students. As one student explained,

I achieved better than usual and felt more supported than ever and far less guilt for asking for modifications or extensions because of the increased flexibility and understanding due to COVID.

Our research during this pandemic, then, has shown that in times of uncertainty, rigid rules and set times put additional and unnecessary burdens on students who are facing stressors beyond university study.

From a student wellbeing and equity perspective, these findings about flexibility and attentiveness to students’ lived realities provide us with insights that we can use not only during this pandemic, but which we must also take with us into the post-pandemic future.

These findings are part of a larger study that investigates various measures of flexibility and student performance, progression, and wellbeing (HREC Project Number: 5202642015950). Please contact Dr Charlotte Overgaard (charlotte.overgaard@mq.edu.au) or Dr Saartje Tack (saartje.tack@mq.edu.au) for more information.

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Posted by Charlotte Overgaard

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