Study examines how pandemic-related changes affect college students' motivation

Published: May 26,2021 04:54 PM

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Concerns arose that many underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines would be demotivated and drop out in even greater numbers.

May 26, 2021: Amid ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, colleges were forced to shut their campuses and shift to remote learning since spring 2020. Concerns arose that many underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines would be demotivated and drop out in even greater numbers.

However, in a recent study of 182 undergraduate students in a biology course at one university found little evidence to support the belief.  Instead, across all demographic groups, the impact varied: Some students were more motivated, some were less so, and some saw no changes in their level of interest in the subject matter, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found. 

The findings are a caution against making stereotypical assumptions about individuals' commitment and persistence based on their demographic characteristics such as socioeconomic status or being a first-generation student, according to the researchers.

The students were participants in an introductory biology course that was traditionally taught with in-person lectures but changed to online instruction during the final eight weeks of the Spring 2020 Semester. When face-to-face instructions were suspended to control the spread of COVID-19 on campus, most students moved back home. 

At the time, the researchers had a semester-long study of changes in motivation among the biology students in progress. When instruction went online, they shifted their focus to examine how the motivation of at-risk students - specifically, women, students from underrepresented minority and ethnic groups, and first-generation students - was affected.

Students who agreed to participate in the study were surveyed monthly from January to April, repeatedly completing the same two of 10 possible questionnaires that examined various factors associated with motivation according to several theories.

Some surveys asked students whether they intended to remain in a STEM major and whether they believed the effort required would be worth it in the end. While 42% of the students indicated they were completely committed to remaining in STEM when surveyed in January, the researchers found that this declined as the semester progressed.

By April, changes in each of the motivational variables indicated more students were at risk of dropping out. However, the team found no significant differences between demographic groups.

Because the students experienced numerous changes concurrently - such as concerns about health, their finances and living at home with their families and away from social and academic supports they had on campus - changes in their motivation could not be ascribed to remote learning alone.
While the researchers had hypothesized that students' interest in the material would decline during the semester, they found that some students' interest increased instead. 

This effect was particularly significant among some first-generation students, who represented 24 per cent of those surveyed, according to the study.

One of these students, who also was from an underrepresented minority or ethnic group, wrote that she was motivated every day to achieve her dreams of becoming a doctor "and helping to end disparities within the healthcare system."

Despite predictions that underrepresented students' achievement and persistence would be adversely affected by the challenges associated with remote learning, some "students weren't just giving up. Some were inspired and still trying.

Women showed greater declines in the self-oriented variables, and the researchers hypothesized that their separation from supportive friends on campus may have negatively affected their confidence and feelings of competence in the course.

Conversely, living at home may have been beneficial for some first-generation students, whose academic goal orientation shifted during the semester from failure avoidance to a focus on future achievement and economic mobility. Separation from the highly competitive academic environment and social milieu on campus may have helped these students focus on more positive goals, the researchers said.

Students were asked an open-ended question on the surveys about any factors in their lives that influenced their feelings about their courses that day, and their answers provided glimpses into the impact of family dynamics on the students' achievement.