Triangulating With Results From the Ithaka S+R COVID-19 Student Survey

In my meta-analysis of 11 different COVID-19 student surveys last month, I included a brief report by Ithaka S+R of early trends less than a week into launching their survey. Today Ithaka S+R released their full report which breaks down their comprehensive findings. Since it’s been about a month since I made sense of the many different surveys, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to triangulate what we’ve learned and what we still need to learn about how to support students as we head into the fall.

The Ithaka S+R team reached over 15,000 students at 21 different institutions, including 8 schools that grant graduate degrees, 8 baccalaureate colleges, and 4 associate’s colleges. They described a robust methodology for data collection and analysis, including cross-tabulations by demographic characteristics and by other relevant survey questions. The high number of respondents may help counteract a less diverse population overall – e.g., while 75% of respondents were white, almost 4,000 respondents were non-white.

I’m breaking down Ithaka’s student survey results into three categories – what we know, what’s new, and what we still don’t know yet (or well). For each theme, I will add my own suggestions regarding what faculty and/or campuses should do to support student success this fall. Note that the page number references are based on the PDF download of the survey, but the full results are available on a single web page.

What we know: Confirming trends

More students are juggling multiple priorities: Like several of the student surveys I reviewed, Ithaka S+R learned that many students today lead complex lives. They face a variety of sometimes competing commitments, all of which require time and energy: “In many cases, the most significant challenges that students faced during the spring semester were those they faced long before the pandemic, including balancing school, work, and home responsibilities” (p. 4). Faculty can support these students by providing asynchronous pathways to reach the learning outcomes each week.

Students want to hear from campus staff: While students said they understood campus communications clearly, they also said they weren’t getting all of the information they needed. Over half of the respondents wanted to hear more about financial aid and almost 40% wanted to hear from academic advisors (see Ithaka’s Figure 1, below). Both of these findings reiterate what students said in surveys conducted by groups like the Student Senate for the California Community Colleges (SSCCC), Niche, the Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) Consortium and Top Hat. Looking at community college students in particular, Ithaka S+R found they had greater interest in academic advising, transfer services and tutoring – “likely signaling greater uncertainty about academics and a desire for more institutional support” (p. 6). Campus units can help students stay informed by launching proactive communication campaigns.

What’s new: Building on and adding themes

Campuses need to identify which students have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19: In the meta-analysis I noted that a small number of organizations had disaggregated their survey results in different ways. This allowed us to see that some students experienced greater levels of disconnectedness, stress or difficulty this past spring. For example, HEDS suggested that some students – e.g., students of color, students who identify as non-binary – “may not see themselves as full members of your community.” brightspot reported “students with disabilities had the largest percent increase in negative view (from 15% to 30%)” on the value of their education after it shifted online. Ithaka’s survey added to this theme, sharing that “a greater share of non-binary and Pell-eligible students had difficulty” completing activities such as managing time, adjusting to online coursework, getting help, or communicating with friends and peers. Campus units should start campaigns to identify and support students who have the greatest needs, and should add time management and online learning readiness tutorials to any campus-wide orientations.

Food and housing insecurity persists: Roughly one-third of respondents reported “some level of concern” about basic needs like food and/or housing. Combining with the previous bullet, Ithaka found that “almost double the share of students of color report concern for maintaining their basic needs – both related to food and housing – compared to their White peers” (p.15). The basic needs findings echo results from The Hope Center’s 2018 basic needs study that identified food insecurity as an issue “within the last 30 days” for almost half of students at two-year colleges and over 40% of students at four-year institutions. This problem has been exacerbated by COVID-19 campus closures, which forced students to find alternatives to on-campus food pantries. Faculty should explore Open Educational Resources (OER), Open Textbooks and Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) materials for their courses. Otherwise, “[i]f students who need emergency resources and financial support the most are not adequately connected with these resources, they may be forced to choose between work and school” (p. 20).

Continuing students’ choices to remain in school may depend on factors we can manage: In one of the newer sets of question topics, Ithaka determined that around 20% of higher ed students who were in school last year may not continue their studies. What’s more, that decision is partly based on factors like access to resources, connectedness and support (see Ithaka’s Figure 9, below):

  • “only about half of the students who are not planning to re-enroll felt they had the tools and resources needed to complete their coursework compared to three-quarters of the students who planned to re-enroll” (p. 19);

  • “Approximately half as many students who are not planning to re-enroll felt connected to other students compared to those who did plan to re-enroll” (p. 19); and

  • “…these students were more likely to be concerned about their mental health”

As with the previous two bullets, campuses must make it an imperative to find and remove barriers that may prevent students from continuing their education.

What we still don’t know yet (or well)

What does the correlation between the difficulty and frequency of learning tasks tell us about how to support learners? For teachers who want to know more about what to do and what to avoid, the Ithaka S+R survey provided some direction. For example, results compared the percentage of students who had difficulty using instructional resources in different formats to the percentage of students who actually used those formats. The most difficult formats to use, like quantitative datasets, were also the least used formats. For that same question, we need more details to determine if “video, audio or other multimedia materials” includes streaming video interactions, like live lectures on Zoom. Technically, I suppose those live lectures on Zoom become “resources” once they are shared later as recordings, but it’s not clear from these survey results. Overall, the follow-up should be for academic technology units to determine how to make using each type of resource easier, and for faculty using different resource types should provide more tutorials and support options.

What strategies help students feel connected, in or out of an online course? What’s more, as the Ithaka survey and several others noted, students want more opportunities for connection with their classmates. Future surveys, then, should add more direct questions about which student-student interaction opportunities they were asked to join, how often, how difficult each interaction tool or format was for them, and to what extent it met their needs for connectedness.

What’s next

Like some of the other organizations from the meta-analysis, Ithaka S+R will conduct this survey (and a faculty survey) again this year. We are constantly updating a table of COVID-19 student surveys on the MindWires website that lists the following: 1) the organizations that conducted each survey; 2) the links to the results from each survey; 3) the number of each survey’s respondents (n), which ranged from 500 to 25,000; and 4) each survey’s scope, which ranged from individual institutions to the entire world. So let us know if you have reviewed or conducted a survey that’s not on the list.

In the meantime, take a hard look at the recommendations from Ithaka. Just as importantly, use the summer to talk to students at your institution. Use a survey or some focus groups and do whatever you can to get more information from the disproportionately impacted students. Another strategy to learn more is to engage in social listening, starting with reports by Campus Sonar. If you are a student right now, don’t wait for your campus to find out what you need and don’t wait until fall to tell someone. They need time to buy equipment and to create resources. If you’re not sure who to contact, let me know and I’ll help you.

Update 6/25: Inserted charts from Ithaka report