Online learning fosters difficulties among second-year students


Quillan Anderson

Many students are struggling to adapt to in-person classes after over a year of virtual or hybrid learning.

Katie Mogg, news staff

Sanjana Shastri opened her eyes at 7:59 a.m., just one minute before her class started. During a normal school year, this would be ample cause for the hardworking and driven student to panic, but 2020 was anything but normal.

Shastri, a second-year behavioral neuroscience major, began her college career amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the fall of 2020. She was supposed to spend her first semester abroad, but the pandemic restricted international travel, forcing Shastri to live in the Westin Copley Place, a hotel that served as off-campus housing for most of last year’s students, as part of the Boston program. 

The pandemic also meant Shastri’s courses were taught through a screen, and all she and her peers had to do to attend class was roll over in bed, log on to their laptop and join class through a Zoom meeting.

“I didn’t necessarily want to walk the 20 minutes to campus where there was going to be one student in class and maybe not even the professor,” Shastri said. “I feel like that was the experience for a lot of people, not just if they were living off campus.”

Akin to many students during remote learning, Shastri felt it was okay that she would only be half-awake during her 8 a.m. online lecture because she knew she could just rewatch it later. During the pandemic, many professors recorded their classes to give students the flexibility to learn the content on their own time, an option that would never be afforded during normal semesters. After all, the global community was collectively experiencing a traumatic event, and students needed all the flexibility they could get.

As a second-year student in the fall of 2021, where classes are almost exclusively taught in-person again, Shastri wishes she could still watch recorded lectures when concepts from class are hard to understand. She is not alone. Students who developed their collegiate study habits and learned foundational information in an online learning environment muddied by pandemic-induced trauma are now facing repercussions.   

Many second-years, accustomed to recorded lectures, open-note exams and soft deadlines, are now forced to sink or swim in a learning environment they have yet to experience in college. Others, first exposed to foundational material pertaining to their major online, must now brave upper-level courses while held to the same standard as students who had in-person instruction in previous classes. 

As a result of the compromised educational environment created by the pandemic, students are experiencing greater effects of trauma, burnout, stress and anxiety. 

“Sophomores still have that uncertainty as if they were freshmen,” said Jessica Minahan, an international keynote speaker on trauma-informed teaching, and a board-certified behavior analyst based in Watertown. “Where things should be kicking in and your study skills should be more fluid … you still might feel like freshman year where you’re trying to figure all that out … and yet the expectations are the same.” 

Michael Sweet, the director of design and integration at Northeastern’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research, or CATLR, explained that the center aided professors in their attempt to provide a high-quality education despite the hurdles presented by the pandemic. The center, which normally functions to “teach Northeastern educators how to enhance student-learning” according to their website, provided professors with workshops teaching them how to instruct and organize their classes online and offered individual or group consultations to address the problems professors encountered.

“No matter how hard we worked to provide first-year students last year with a really good, rigorous education, it wasn’t the same because of all of the challenges that came with remote and hybrid instruction,” said Meg Heckman, an assistant professor of journalism. “I remember looking at my syllabi for all of my classes last year and just figuring out what absolutely had to be in there and what I could take out. And I think all of us did that. And so I do think something was lost.”

Like Heckman’s experience, Sweet acknowledged that there were intangible obstacles students and teachers faced while trying to teach and learn during the pandemic, and no amount of preparation or resources would have been able to thwart it.

“There’s a thing called cognitive load, which is basically how much you can process at the same time,” Sweet said. “We went through a time in history where the emotional load and the cognitive loads were extraordinary, unprecedented, traumatizing. And we’re all still figuring out what the new normal is.”

Second-year data science major Michelle Lim has been struggling to manage the new normal. Like Shastri, Lim relied on recorded lectures to learn the material while completing her first year of college during the pandemic. This semester, Lim finds the pace of in-person classes to be much quicker, and now there’s no way for her to review a lecture later if she missed material. 

“I think it would have been more helpful for [past classes] to all be in-person, for sure. I think I focus better if I’m in actual class rather than just being online,” Lim said.

Nowadays, Lim finds herself working twice as hard to succeed on homework assignments in her upper-level coding classes. Some nights, she will spend countless hours staring at the blinding light of her laptop screen until the clock strikes three or four in the morning. Other nights, Lim will push herself until her mind and body succumb to the excessive amount of stress, anxiety and lack of sleep caused by her schoolwork, and she’ll wake up the next morning realizing she had fallen asleep on her keyboard.

“I feel like even though a lot of things are in-person this year, it’s still not back to normal, and we didn’t get the same college experience that everyone else did before COVID,” Lim said. “This gives me a lot more anxiety than having remote classes.”

Educators and experts agree that more can be done in the future to support the mental health of students during and after shared tragedies. By incorporating trauma-informed teaching strategies, or methods of instruction that consider the aftereffects of traumatic events, students and educators can avoid trauma fatigue or retraumatization while reinforcing habits that sustain stable mental health among college students and faculty members.

Minahan, also author of the article “Trauma-informed Teaching Strategies” published on the Education Resources Information Center, said professors at universities don’t receive the same type of training as educators teaching at the elementary through high school level. Because of this, professors may be aware that students are traumatized by shared tragedies, but they don’t know how to handle it.

“What I would love to see is universities mandating trauma training for professors, like [having] modules and webinars that they have to complete by the end of the year,” Minahan said.

As a part of trauma training, Minahan said professors can learn a step-by-step “recipe” to follow when handling a distressed student. First, the educator should validate the student’s feelings by acknowledging that they are reasonable, and then they should reframe the issue in a more positive light. 

 “Reframing is really helpful, like reminding [students] they do have some control in the pandemic,” Minahan said. “[A professor could say] ‘Well, you’re washing your hands or socially distancing, you are wearing a mask, you’re doing a lot of things to prevent yourself from getting sick.’ That’s a therapeutic answer.”

For Minahan, mental health check-ins are crucial to executing trauma-informed teaching. Understanding the mental state of a classroom can guide a professor to adjust the day’s lecture accordingly. When a check-in shows that many students are struggling, professors should be prepared to teach a less distressing, alternative lesson that still fulfills the objective of the class.

Edna Pressler, a trauma-informed teaching specialist and associate director at CATLR, emphasized that these strategies are not supposed to create an easier alternative to a course’s curriculum. Instead, they provide an option that avoids retraumatization by steering clear of topics that could trigger a negative emotional response. 

“So if you happen to be a student who has lost a family member to COVID-19 … it’s going to be too painful for you to write a paper on that topic,” Pressler said.  “But maybe you could write a paper on something that still aligns with the learning objectives for the course, but isn’t so personally painful to you, right at that moment in time.”