How the COVID Pandemic Impacts Student Engagement

by Alice Anne Bailey | September 28, 2020
How the COVID Pandemic Impacts Student Engagement

Part one of a three-part blog series that highlights how to retain students in the COVID-19 era. Read part two here and part three here.

How COVID Impacts Student Engagement

At the moment, there's immense pressure on school staff to maintain current enrollment numbers in this era. This is especially true since we've seen how COVID impacts student engagement negatively.    

For many colleges, the coronavirus turned an already bleak financial situation dire in higher ed. Now, the 2020-2021 academic year is a “make or break” situation. 

What we know (so far)

Current enrollment levels are aligning with the predictions we made regarding fall enrollment in the spring. For instance, almost one-third of college students stated that they were considering not returning in the fall after this past spring semester.

We now know that many students are taking time off from school during COVID. However, contrary to our expectations, few have transferred to lower-cost or closer-to-home two-year schools.

Also, as we've mentioned in previous blog posts, community colleges have been the hardest hit of COVID in academia. They're witnessing enrollment declines anywhere from 5% to 30%, regardless of whether they're offering face-to-face or online learning this fall.

In a recent survey by Inside Track, 80% of higher ed leaders say that retention is their number one priority for the 2020-2021 academic year.  Similarly, an Inside Higher Education Survey found that student engagement is the greatest concern among college staff. This is specifically because student engagement is the strongest predictor of student satisfaction and retention.

COVID's impact on the fall semester

The higher ed community hoped to return to campus in the fall for students’ mental and academic wellbeing. Additionally, for some students, returning to campus would promote their own financial stability, if they have on-campus jobs.

In June, 74% of colleges announced they were committed to in-person instruction. However, the number of COVID cases rose during the summer in many states. Also, large outbreaks have already occurred on several campuses this fall.

Thus, once again, a major shift to remote and hybrid instruction is underway. For instance, schools using technology to mediate their curricula have already announced that they don't plan to change back to face-to-face in the spring.

COVID Impacts Student Engagement
College re-opening plans as of August 31, 2020

Changes in campus plans from July 1, 2020, to August 31, 2020

COVID impacts student engagement by creating a new learning environment

Even if students remain on campus this fall, more technology-mediated instruction and social distancing will be used. This means that students aren't able to interact with faculty and peers as they normally would–which is another area that COVID impacts student engagement. 

For most students, this transition is not a welcome one.

Surveys show that the majority of college students felt their spring 2020 learning experience was lower quality than previous semesters. Faculty who had never taught online, much less ever enrolled in an online class before, had to shift to a new medium—one that required an entirely different set of skills.

Many students without access to the necessary technology, internet access, and space in the home are also experiencing the frustrations of online learning. In other words, pursuing success as an online learner requires a different skill set. For instance, there is a greater need to stay motivated, to effectively manage time, and to proactively reach out to instructors for support. 

By the numbers

When students were asked to reflect back on a spring 2020 online course that “was most important to their future goals,” started out as face-to-face, and then moved online, 79% stated they struggled to stay motivated to attend class and get their work done. When asked what aspects changed for the worse, the three most frequent answers were: 

  • 65%: Opportunities to Interact with Fellow Students and/or the Instructor 
  • 57%: Being Self-motivated to Stay Interested and Engaged in the Course
  • 50%: Feeling as if They Were Learning on Their Own Rather Than as a Member of a Class

How online learning during COVID impacts student engagement

It's clear that students miss interacting with their professors in real-time. Meaningful relationships with faculty are crucial to cementing school attachment and student retention. For instance, of all campus staff, students typically spend the most time with their professors because they see them on a regular basis.

Students want to feel that their professors care about them personally and they want to know that faculty are just as emotionally invested in their success as they are themselves. In fact, the odds of being psychologically attached to their school are 6.2 times higher if students believe that professors care about them as a person.

This connection, however, is strained in online settings. This is especially true with asynchronous courses where students cannot ask an instructor questions during pre-recorded lectures. They also can't hear instructors' answers to other students' questions.

Students are also are mourning the loss of campus traditions, social events, and everything they'd expected from their college experience. Research shows that the level of involvement in clubs, sports, and other groups predicts feelings of satisfaction. Also, campus participation builds relationships and increases feelings of belonging.COVID impacts student engagement–learn how.

In other words, students who don't see the campus community as a part of their self-concept are more likely to transfer or drop out.

COVID severs students' connection to campus

It's easy right now for students to feel as if their school is out of sight and out of mind. With this said, students are less likely to form crucial social bonds and feel a part of a larger community. These factors can lead to dropout. 

Furthermore, students who don't attend face-to-face events are less likely to develop the “social capital” they will need to succeed. Social capital means having friends who can tell you what you missed in class if you were absent.  

Social capital includes classmates who will share their notes and who can help each other understand concepts. Also, social capital entails fellow students who can remind you of deadlines, motivate you to attend class or campus events, and help you study for tests. 

What you can do to increase student engagement during COVID

Now, more than ever, colleges need to provide opportunities to build shared experiences among their students to increase student engagement. At the very least, colleges need to continue implementing campus traditions, clubs, and student activities–even if they're in a revised format.

In addition, it's critical to communicate when and where your school's events will take place as well as how to access them. Text-based nudges both reminds students that events are about to start and can encourage them to attend. In other words, campuses need to step up their communication efforts.

Implement engagement through communication

Whether students are fully online or on-campus–and spending more time in their dorm room–they're much less likely to be aware of the things they need to do. Thus, students need reminders about campus events, class assignments, tests, payment and/or registration deadlines.

Texting shows to be highly effective in retaining students and making sure they return after their first year. This is because this communication method not only reminds students of events and deadlines, but it also allows students to text back when they have questions.

Text-based nudges are also an excellent way to encourage students to seek help. In other words, texting can remind students of support services available to them. Texting can also provide direct links for instant access to those supports. 

Communication from schools promotes trust

Poor communication can cause anger and frustration, which encourages students to take time off, to transfer to a different school, or to withdraw altogether. It is extremely rare for students to want more communication from colleges, but that is exactly what they are asking for. This is one way in which we're seeing how COVID impacts student engagement. 

Also, students feel they are not being kept abreast of the latest COVID plans and information. In July, 69% of students reported that they did not have enough information about their campus’s reopening plans to make an informed decision. 

In order to drive this home, it's important to note the statistic that tells of how 49% of non-returning students chose not to enroll this fall simply because they didn't have enough information about their schools' fall plans. For a more clear perspective on this, read this student perspective blog about this student's – Signal Vine's intern's – view on schools' communication during COVID. 

When administrators aren't transparent, students and families start to lose trust. Furthermore, trust is crucially important right now because students need to be assured that their colleges are working to keep them safe from the virus. For instance, only 3% of students today say they want to receive less information from their school.

How communicating via texting can promote trust

Text messaging is a highly effective, cost-efficient way to provide students with the most current COVID-oriented information possible. Texting can also let students know instantly when plans change. It can also help them prepare for possible changes, including the different scenarios that are being considered.

When texting students, keep the following principles in mind to build trust and engagement.

1. Be transparent

Rather than just announcing information, it’s important to explain “the why” and give a rationale for decisions. It’s okay if plans change constantly. It's good to keep students in the loop anyway by letting them know what the current thinking is–while also being that plans may change rapidly as COVID cases shrink or grow on your campus.

2. Be personal

Customize messages so that students not only receive the information that most pertains to their needs and interests, but also so they don’t receive mass texts that do not. 

3. Listen and respond

In addition to sending out “push” announcements, use open-ended questions in order to check in on students regularly. The benefit of Signal Vine is that it allows for two-way, interactive communication at scale. Ask students about any academic concerns, mental health issues, or food and housing insecurity. Let students know you are there to help. 

Learn more

For more information about communicating to build student relationships, including recommendations and best practice examples, download our ebook The Student Retention Guidebook 2.0.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant and Adjunct Faculty Member at American University. For a list of references used for this blog, click here.

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