Making Sense of the Many College Student COVID-19 Surveys

It’s been a month since I suggested COVID-19 recovery and planning must include student perspectives. Three weeks ago I subsequently analyzed results from Top Hat’s COVID-19 Student Survey About Online Learning. Over the last week I found several more higher ed surveys that sought to get a better picture of the student experience this spring. In this post, I’ll try to make sense of what students are saying, what students are recommending teachers and institutions do to support them moving forward, and what the surveys may not be asking.

Let’s start with the surveys themselves. In the table below, I have listed the organizations that conducted each survey; the links to the results from each survey; the number of each survey’s respondents (n), which ranged from 500 to 25,000; and each survey’s scope, which ranged from individual institutions to the entire world.

The organizations identified fairly different goals, methodologies and levels of protocol in their efforts to collect data. For example, Simpson Scarborough’s survey was “designed to isolate [student] decisions and/or plans being made as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The Ithaka S+R survey was meant to “address the pressing needs of the community as colleges and universities have pivoted to online instruction.” EY-Parthenon’s goal was to “provide insight to colleges and universities to help them improve remote engagement and learning for students.”

Equally important, we need to know who participated–and who did not participate–in answering these surveys.

  • For Simpson Scarborough, almost two-thirds (64%) of the college student respondents were White, and over three-quarters (77%) were not in the first generation in their family to go to college.

  • In Georgetown’s survey, two-thirds (67%) of the respondents were graduate students. As Daniels et al. noted about their Georgetown survey, “these kinds of surveys are not representative of any group of students.”

  • Several other groups disaggregated their results in useful ways as well – e.g., HEDS compared responses by ethnicity and/or gender (including people who identify as non-binary), and brightspot provided multiple ways for students to identify themselves (including first-generation (28% of respondents), low-income (20%), 25 or older (24%), part-time student (19%), with a disability (9%)). [NOTE: I was not able to easily find the numbers or percentages of respondents in each attribute category for HEDS.]

  • The Student Senate for the California Community Colleges (SSCCC) was one of the few organizations to acknowledge directly that the students we need to hear from most may not have responded to their survey. In their webinar to discuss their survey results last week, SSCCC President Danny Thirakul said this was possibly due to more pressing issues or obligations (e.g., being an essential worker, caring for family), as well as inadequate access to technology or the Internet.

  • Conversely, Skyline College had “balanced representation across all ethnic groups, international, low income, first generation to college, past online learning experience,” but degree/transfer seeking students were overrepresented in the sample.

Looking at the surveys collectively, one thing struck me most of all: What institutions say they are or will be doing does not always match up to the support students say they are getting or the support students say they need. Below I break down what students reported about their experiences this spring and some of their recommendations for the fall in several areas – mental health support, financial support, academic support, academic engagement, and technology access and support.

What students say they need

Mental health support

In my analysis of the Top Hat student survey earlier this month, I shared that the majority of students described feeling anxious (52%) and/or worried (38%). Almost all of the surveys I reviewed over the week asked questions about students’ mental health, and in all cases students reported even higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, or mental distress than Top Hat found.

HEDS found that 92% of students felt some (40%) or a great deal (52%) of stress. HEDS also shared a figure that other surveys have not – namely, non-binary students may be unduly impacted: “Over 70% of non-binary students reported feeling a great deal of stress, compared with 57% of women and 40% of men.” More globally, HEDS found that “students who have less privileged identities, experiences, and backgrounds are experiencing these stresses and worries [about the evolving COVID-19 pandemic] more acutely.”

SSCCC found that 67% of respondents are experiencing higher levels of stress than usual. When asked to write or speak about their concerns and challenges, CCC students made a direct link between stress and academic performance – e.g., “Mental and emotional health are getting in the way of distance learning” (SSCCC, p. 4).

In the Active Minds survey, students asked for more mental health resources, specifically “increased investment in counseling and coping resources.” When it came to remote learning support, the EY-Parthenon survey showed that students were most dissatisfied with access to health services (38%) and access to mental health services (37%). During the SSCCC webinar students gave some concrete examples as well. A student panelist shared not knowing where to go online for mental health support, and that the online therapy experience is not the same. As a first-gen, Latina student, she can’t talk about certain things at home because “mental health is stigmatized.”

Based on the student survey data and comments, here are a few suggestions:

  • Solicit feedback and suggestions from a diverse set of students: Remember that equity and equality do not mean the same thing. In particular, the HEDS survey and the SSCCC webinar showed that some students are feeling the effects of COVID-19 more than others.

  • Provide mental health tips and resources: Draw upon any local mental health professionals at your school or district. If you don’t have any on staff, there are pages out there already. For example, Vanderbilt has 8 Tips for supporting mental health during COVID-19. If you have a webpage like this, ask yourself, “How would students find out about these resources?”

  • Avoid forcing students to divulge mental health information to teachers (or non-mental health staff): One of the SSCCC webinar’s student panelists stated that “students are being forced to share their challenges,” including challenges related to mental health and housing insecurity. This may require making better, safer channels for students to share challenges more visible. Coupled with the first bullet above, ask campus leaders and student government leaders to take a more active role in advocating for disproportionately impacted student groups.

  • Foster peer support models: The JED Foundation recommends encouraging students to reach out to each other, as well as giving them strategies to do it. An Inside Higher Ed article, “Coping With a Pandemic,” featured The Support Network which helps high schools and colleges develop and implement peer support programs.

Financial guidance and support

Several of the surveys drew connections between higher levels of stress and finances. The Student Senate of the CCC survey (p. 5) made the most direct connections. Of the 67% who said they have higher stress levels, 45% also reported loss of income; 27% reported inability to pay mortgage, rent or utilities; and 26% reported dropping courses “due to financial or other reasons.” The Niche survey results were dramatic as well: “74% reported that they have sufficient access to technology or Internet access to succeed. 93% are more concerned about being able to pay for their education, only 2% are not.” In my earlier post about the Top Hat survey results, I included student comments about wanting extensions to pay fall tuition payments due to their parents’ unemployment or their immediate need to help the family pay rent and bills.

To help with these higher levels of financial stress, colleges and universities need to communicate proactively about how and where students can get monetary support.

  • Ithaka S+R [emphasis theirs] found that, “compared to other departments or areas of the college or university, students would like more information on financial aid, signaling that this may be an area where institutions can connect with students more frequently or in a more targeted manner depending on individual need.”

  • HEDS found that “27% of students were dissatisfied with the information they were getting about how changes at their institution in response to COVID-19 would impact their ability to pay for college.”

  • Although the majority of brightspot survey respondents felt “immediate financial burden” (over 60% moderate, very or extremely challenging), they had the least positive satisfaction ratings (under 50% positive) about how well their institution was providing financial support.

  • When SSCCC asked what they could do to help their survey takers, the top suggestion was a request for “assistance with financial aid or needed grants and funds.”

Academic support

In addition to wanting better, more visible access to support academic counselors and online tutoring, students described how their personal lives are affecting their academic success:

Like several of the organizations, Ithaka S+R found “students continue to struggle most significantly with time management and balancing family, household, and school responsibilities. Adjusting to online instruction and finding quiet places to work are also especially difficult” [emphasis theirs].

Skyline College in the San Francisco Bay Area found that 78% have reliable access to a laptop or computer, and 76% have reliable access to the internet, but only 47% of students have reliable access to a quiet place to study. Skyline’s survey administrators added a special note: “Many students commented about not being able to keep up with the academic workload due to living in close quarters with family members and other pandemic related distractions.”

Niche shared a comment by a community college student in Indiana: “The current pandemic has not affected my personal educational experience because I was taking on-line courses prior to the pandemic. However, it has been a struggle to complete my assignments, work and be a teacher for my child while they are out of school.”

Partly as a result of these non-academic factors, students expressed concerns about downstream effects – their ability to transfer, to graduate on time and without incurring extra costs, and to find jobs. The qualitative responses provide more details:

  • Leonardo, an SSCCC webinar student panelist, shared that he was “used to taking 1 or 2 classes online, but 17 units was too much.” He had to drop a statistics class because it was hard for him to do via Zoom.

  • Later in the same webinar, student panelist Genevieve drove home an equity-related point: “Grades are a factor of privilege. The most vulnerable students experience the most shame about their circumstances and are least likely to self-advocate.”

  • She raised this point right after another panelist shared that some teachers have not been able to (or have not taken the time to) put themselves in their students’ shoes. I was sad, but not surprised, to hear that a teacher had asked “Why isn’t this done? You have all day.”

This echoes an Active Minds survey finding: “Focus on soft skills: Empathy, compassion, communication, understanding, and validation for the burdens students are experiencing.” I’ll repeat what bears repeating: we all need to stop and listen to our students. These surveys give us just a starting point – a rough idea of what students might be dealing with.

So what can teachers and campuses do to help?

  • Be fair: During the SSCCC webinar about their survey results, the student panel requested the same increased academic support as the Active Minds survey takers – specifically, leniency, accommodations, and flexibility.

  • Be transparent about what will happen this fall: Also during the SSCCC webinar, student Leonardo Gonzalez suggested that all campuses tell students in the class schedule “how lectures are going to be done for online courses” (e.g., live lecture once a week, live lecture each class meeting time, recordings will be available). This “allows students to choose a schedule…[and] understand what they’re walking into.”

  • Design, promote and deliver online learning bootcamps: We’re doing a lot to prepare faculty for the fall. What are we doing to prepare students? I’ve raised the topic of online learning mentor programs in an earlier post. I’m still convinced that’s a good idea, and an online learning bootcamp could be a way to introduce the mentors. For campuses that have announced their decision to go mostly or completely online this fall, this also could be part of a new student orientation.

  • Help students with non-academic challenges: No matter how much we improve the online courses, students need help removing barriers to success. You won’t be able to add a quiet room to their living space, but you may be able to help them advocate for “quiet time” at certain times of day.

  • Help students (re)plan their future: Non-course related academic stress stems from not knowing how circumstances and their actions have affected their progress. As Genevieve put it, “It’s hard to focus while being worried about the future.” It’s critical to help them determine where they are and how they can stay on their academic path.

Academic engagement

Across the surveys, large numbers of students did not feel they had a good academic experience this spring. In the Simpson Scarborough survey, “63% [of college students] say online instruction is worse than the in-person instruction they received at their school.” In the brightspot survey, “the percentage of students saying it was ‘definitely not worth the cost’ or ‘probably not worth the cost’ nearly doubled from 15% before [COVID-19] to 27% since [COVID-19].” Also in brightspot’s survey, “when asked how this shift has affected their intent to learn online in the future, students are balanced – 31% of students say they are more likely to learn online in the future and 31% say they are less likely.” Collectively, the surveys also repeated many of Top Hat’s student survey results and identified the same negative academic experience factors, such as a lack of engagement. EY-Parthenon reported that the top “dislike” (~23%) related to remote learning was “lower quality/less engaging teaching experience.”

It’s important to note that students’ desire for engagement extends beyond the class experience. In the Active Minds survey, students said they wanted more opportunities for social connection, choosing to “replace canceled events, services, and classes with virtual ones.”

So, on one hand students want more engaging experiences. On the other hand they do not want teachers to increase the workload just because courses have gone virtual. Easy, right?

It’s not reasonable to expect faculty and students to become veteran online teachers and learners over the summer. Moreover, there have been dozens of free, recorded webinars since COVID-19 hit and there will be myriad bootcamps and workshops over the summer. Faculty won’t lack for ideas, but they will need help focusing their energy. Otherwise they risk overwhelming themselves and their students. Many people are giving the following advice to the still-new online instructors: Pick one new teaching and learning technique and weave it throughout the course experience. Tom Tobin has advocated “+1” as a strategy both to keep things simple and to implement Universal Design for Learning principles: “Start where you are and keep on lowering barriers.” For more by Tom, check out his recent podcast episode with Barbi Honeycutt, his many writings, and his recent replies to @ThinkUDL on Twitter. To see my +1 from spring 2020, see the sidebar at the end of the post.

  • Remember you are not alone: We can lean on existing research-based strategies for this engagement category. That said, there are too many books, articles, blog posts and other publications about online learner engagement practices for me to cite here properly. Talk to colleagues, instructional designers (if your campus has them on staff), or jump on a listserv or LinkedIn group. That +1 sidebar I just mentioned was inspired by a listserv colleague!

  • Communicate early and often…and via multiple channels: While I’ve written previously about the importance of increasing and improving communication with students at all levels, Simpson Scarborough found compelling evidence to back up my advice: “Poor COVID-19 communications account for a large percentage of students who say their opinion of their current school has gotten worse.” In their HEDS analysis, Blaich and Wise stated that “the greater the overall sense of support that students feel, the lower their level of stress and worry.” They recommend making “an extra effort to reach out and support the students at your institution who may not see themselves as full members of your community and to consider the kinds of support that would be most helpful for them.”

Technology access and support

Interestingly, of the seven student experience dimensions students rated in the brightspot survey, online platforms and technology had the highest satisfaction ratings (~70%). In an Educause COVID-19 QuickPoll “about three-quarters (74%) of respondents reported that their institution is planning to provide loaner laptops or tablets and to offer technology troubleshooting via a virtual help desk.” On the student side, however, a different story sometimes emerges. During the SSCCC webinar last week, student panelist Coraima reported that she “didn’t get the Chromebook from campus until a month into classes [restarting after her campus closed].” If she hadn’t been able to borrow a laptop from someone on a regular basis during that period, she said she would not have been able to continue her studies.

Now that we’re past an emergency situation, campuses should budget and plan what they will do to increase equitable access to required and even optional learning technologies. Like Laredo College’s CARES Act funding page, let students know that money can be used for technology.

What’s Next

One, I’m certain that there will be more details about these surveys as well as new survey results to review over the next few months and even into next year. For example, the Ithaka S+R results were just preliminary findings. The Georgetown team wrote up its findings after the first couple of weeks, but their total response count has increased from 516 to almost 900 since then. Columbia University’s “COVID-19 Higher Ed Student Impact Study” has only just begun, and they plan to collect data 6 and 12 months after the pandemic’s onset. A few campuses and organizations I work with have announced they are conducting their own surveys, too. It will be interesting to see if those groups can get diverse sample populations or if the results start to change as we get closer to the fall semester.

Two, schools are in the throes of preparing for the fall. Jeanette, Phil and I have been musing about the decisions campuses are making, but there’s a lot of hard work being done and decisions being made by individuals too. (Putting on my lecturer hat for a minute, we appreciate being kept in the loop!) I’ve been heartened to hear that work sometimes includes designing stronger preparation and support for online learners, including campus-wide orientations. Some of you have asked for more details about what other types of student preparation might be useful or necessary. Et voilà! I have the topic for my next blog post.


Sidebar: For my one new technique at the end of this past semester, I ran “virtual work sprints.” (Special thanks to Rebecca Campbell from Northern Arizona University, who shared her idea for homework sprints based on the writing sprints idea by Katie Linder from K-State.) About 10 out of our 50 students took us up on the offer to join us on Zoom for dedicated work time. Almost all of them said they thought it was surprisingly productive, appreciating the structure and accountability.

Update 5/29: Added student survey from brightspot after initial publication.

Update 6/25: Revised a note about not finding brightspot respondent breakdown and provided this information.