A recent study published in Educational Researcher sheds light on how students were impacted by the transition to remote schooling during the COVID-19 crisis. A survey of high school students revealed that those who attended school remotely during the pandemic fared worse emotionally, academically, and socially than those who attended in person.
One of the most notable consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the widespread school closures that sent millions of students home from the classroom and into remote learning. Researchers have suggested that this abrupt move to online schooling will be followed by widespread declines in academic performance, especially among students from lower-income families.
Study authors Angela L. Duckworth and her team wanted to investigate how remote schooling may have impacted students beyond their test scores, specifically from the students’ perspectives. Using a self-report questionnaire, they examined how the switch to learning at home affected students’ emotions, social experiences, and academic engagement.
“Many news stories have reported on individual stories of teenagers who have suffered from anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges during the pandemic,” said Duckworth in a news release. “This study gives some of the first empirical evidence of how learning remotely has affected adolescent well-being.”
Duckworth and colleagues analyzed data from over 6,500 high school students in grades 9 to 12 who completed surveys in February 2020 (pre-pandemic) and again in October 2020 (mid-pandemic). During the fall session, students were given the option to either attend school in person or remotely. At the time of the second survey, 2,374 students were attending school in person and 4,202 students were following their lessons at home.
The surveys questioned students about their school experiences along three domains of well-being — social, emotional, and academic. With this data, the researchers were able to compare well-being scores among students who attended school online and those who attended in person, while taking students’ pre-pandemic well-being scores into account. They also controlled for multiple covariates such as gender, socioeconomic status, grade point average, and school.
No matter how the researchers looked at it — whether socially, academically, or emotionally —the students who attended school remotely fared worse compared to those who attended school in person. Students studying from home felt less like they fit in with peers and perceived less support from adults in the school. Where emotions were concerned, they experienced more negative emotions (i.e., sad) and less positive emotions (i.e., happy, relaxed). Their academic well-being also suffered — those learning remotely found their classes less interesting and felt less able to succeed in school.
Notably, the researchers found that these differences in well-being were concentrated among older students in grades 10 to 12. Among ninth-graders, those learning from home had comparable well-being scores to those at school. The study authors theorize that older students may have been more affected by the social isolation of remote schooling since maintaining close relationships with peers becomes more important in later adolescence. They also note that ninth-graders were likely already facing social, emotional, and academic adjustments due to entering high school for the first time, and these difficulties may have masked any hardships associated with remote learning.
“As policymakers gear up for national tutoring and remediation programs–which we agree are urgent priorities–we must recognize that our nation’s students are not just lagging as performers, they are suffering as people,” Duckworth said. “Meeting their intrinsic psychological needs–for social connection, for positive emotion, and authentic intellectual engagement–is a challenge that cannot wait.”
Among other limitations, Duckworth and her colleagues note that their study focused on group differences. They say that future studies should attempt to uncover individual differences in how distance learning impacts well-being, to possibly pinpoint which students fare poorly with online instruction and which might actually thrive under these circumstances.
The study, “Students Attending School Remotely Suffer Socially, Emotionally, and Academically”, was authored by Angela L. Duckworth, Tim Kautz, Amy Defnet, Emma Satlof-Bedrick, Sean Talamas, Benjamin Lira, and Laurence Steinberg.