Chapter 5: Reflections
Reflection on Chapter 4 Part 2 – Enduring impact of COVID-19
Denise McMorrow, Student Experience Manager, Dún Laoighaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology
IADT students’ experiences of learning are returning to pre-COVID-19 levels as evidenced in the recent StudentSurvey.ie National Report, mainly focusing on Collaborative Learning, Quality of Interactions, Student-Faculty Interaction, and providing a Supportive Environment. The results from the survey will further assist us in ensuring that our learners reach their full potential through providing student-centred learning support models of delivery. The data enable us to highlight successes and address any challenges as a result of the learning experiences during COVID-19.
The results derived from this analysis are heartening and demonstrate the supportive levels of interactions with students, which have increased significantly – similarly to Collaborative Learning and Student-Faculty Interaction – to levels similar to pre-COVID-19. This was achieved with an enhanced on-campus teaching environment as well as advances in hybrid and in-person supports, which were of particular importance to practice-based learning.
The experiences in each of the areas are reverting to pre-COVID-19 levels. Student-Faculty Interaction was maintained very well with the support of online learning technologies and enhanced teaching and learning provision.
The comparison of results and the focus on first year students through the use of the baseline date 2018-2020, as well as the differences between 2021 and 2022, provide an excellent and useful resource to continue to improve and enhance the student learning journey in the mid- and post-COVID-19 environment in IADT. The experience of the learning environment during COVID-19 has enabled many advances in new and innovative learning and support mechanisms despite the challenges, which were successfully overcome.
Denis Murphy, First Year Support Co-Ordinator, University of Limerick
My takeaway from reading this report is one of the rupture and the repair. Over the past two and a half years, we have all experienced the rupture that has been COVID-19. We have had to stop, consider, accept, change, and adjust. The tried and trusted had to be replaced with what was possible at that time.
New entrants to third level in 2020 and 2021 have faced a more difficult transition to university than any previous group. When we consider the comparison between the Baseline, 2021, and 2022 results, this very evident. While statistically the variations may not be great, behind these numerical differences lay the stories and the experiences of the individual people who completed the survey.
The findings of the 2022 report are heartening; they show that the repair is happening. Large numbers of student groups in 2020 and 2021 had to experience university life via remote learning. Students in 2022 are now getting a student experience that’s closer to what we consider "normal". The repair has not been completed; this will take some time. During COVID-19, we found new ways of doing things and maybe these can form part of newer and hopefully better ways of providing the environment for students to reach their full personal and academic potential.
Eimear Rouine, Transition to Trinity Officer, Trinity College Dublin
The survey data are consistent with Trinity’s first year student reports of their experience during COVID-19. Students reported feeling disconnected from classmates and academic staff, as well as a perceived lack of support for academic skills development and social and mental wellbeing.
First year students did not have the advantage of having built social networks in college before the pandemic, which inhibited their ability to collaborate with classmates informally to solve problems and learn new material. They found it difficult to make friends in a virtual environment and reported strong feelings of isolation and disconnection. Although there were many online social events, they did not help students to make new friends as much as they helped existing social groups to maintain their relationships. Attendance at online events dropped throughout the pandemic. Conversely, students in Halls found abiding by the COVID-19 restrictions challenging having so many peers around.
Academically, although students appreciated the flexibility of pre-recorded lecture material, they also felt that they rarely interacted with academic staff (particularly in large courses) and did not have the opportunity to approach lecturers with casual questions about subject matter.
Despite a sharp increase in the number of students accessing counselling services and academic skills training and the continuation of the peer mentoring programme, many students still reported feeling that there was insufficient mental health, academic, and social support available to them during lockdowns. Students did not always know where to find information and were unsure whom to ask, as staff working from home meant that School offices, service desks and other drop-in areas were not as accessible. This also increased the sense of disconnection between students and college.
Overall, first year students did not feel that they had a full ‘Trinity experience’ during COVID-19 and missed out on many of the formative experiences of the year, including making friends, getting involved in clubs and societies, and creating connections within their course, with academic staff, and in the wider community.
Jane Ennis, Student Success Manager, University of Galway
The abrupt shift to remote learning and working that occurred in 2020, and persisted for most of the 2020-21 academic year, had a severely detrimental effect on student engagement across the higher education sector, as evidenced in the StudentSurvey.ie National Report 2021. In most higher education institutions, the 2021-22 academic year evolved as a ‘hybrid’ of online and in-person teaching, learning, and assessment. Nationally, student engagement appears to have ‘bounced back’ significantly in 2022. However, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis continue to reverberate. Ollscoil na Gaillimhe – University of Galway (formerly NUI Galway), in line with all universities, has seen a general improvement in student engagement indicator scores in 2022, but this institution’s scores still remain below pre-pandemic levels and below the average for other ‘traditional’ Irish universities – suggesting a lagged recovery from the effects of COVID-19.
Responses to the COVID-19 questions included in StudentSurvey.ie 2021 suggested that University of Galway students were, on average, more adversely affected by the pandemic than their counterparts elsewhere. Significant numbers of University of Galway students hail from groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in Irish higher education, with a high proportion of students applying and qualifying for financial supports. University of Galway students are also drawn from the most dispersed catchment area of the ‘traditional’ universities. In other words, many University of Galway students faced significant barriers to participation, engagement, and success even before the onset of the pandemic, and this is likely to have amplified the disruptive and damaging effects of COVID-19, and to partly account for the slightly slower recovery observed in this institution in 2022.
As highlighted in Chapter 4 Part 2, the StudentSurvey.ie National Report 2021 confirmed that the national first year student experience was significantly negatively impacted by the shift to remote teaching and learning. Comparing baseline (2018-2020) scores of the (then) nine student engagement indicators with those obtained in 2021, the following were observed to be most significantly affected:
- Collaborative Learning
- Student-Faculty Interaction
- Quality of Interactions
- Supportive Environment
It is perhaps unsurprising that those indicators of student engagement most impacted by the pandemic very much revolved around relationships – with peers, faculty, and services. As described above, the 2022 data (to varying degrees and with some exceptions) suggests that these scores are now reverting towards pre-COVID-19 levels among first year students at national level. However, it is difficult to say whether this welcome trend suggests that more in-person teaching and learning opportunities, better adaptation to a hybrid working and learning environment, or some combination of the two contributed to the observed improvement in these indicators. Of course, it is also possible that some of the actions and learnings arising from the pandemic were a contributing factor to improved engagement scores in 2022. For example, some of the measures that higher education institutions put in place as emergency responses to COVID-19, such as the provision of laptops to disadvantaged students, have been embedded and continue to contribute to improved engagement.
The long-term contribution of hybrid approaches to teaching, learning, and student support to student engagement in the post-pandemic era has yet to be fully realised. The development of strategies and approaches in this area must be informed by student experiences. It seems likely that the sector as a whole may need to explore a systemic shift towards more built-in flexibility over the coming years, not as an emergency response, but as a considered element of mainstream higher education provision. This is a complex and challenging area with potentially enormous implications for the future of higher education in Ireland. StudentSurvey.ie data will continue to form an important part of the evidence base that will underpin decision-making in this sphere.