Data Shows College Students Struggling to Stay Motivated

College students are not satisfied with their courses and are struggling to stay motivated, missing interaction with their peers and professors in this new online learning environment due to COVID-19, a recent study shows. That said, most students are not blaming these struggles on poor instructor preparation or the inherent limitations of online learning.

These were some of the results of a random survey of 1,008 students last spring when COVID-19 first hit, forcing many colleges to adapt an online learning environment in a hurry. The survey was conducted by Digital Promise, which receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Barbara Means, Executive Director, Learning Sciences and Research at Digital Promise presented these findings during REMOTE: The Connected Faculty Summit. “We've all read news accounts of struggles of learning at home this last spring and many of us have ourselves experienced remote teaching during COVID, or the struggles of our own household members to try to stay involved in a course,” she said.

The survey revealed student perceptions of their courses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges they experienced learning remotely, and instructional practices that make a difference in those experiences and the satisfaction of students with their experiences.

Course Makeup

  • 66% included synchronous sessions, where students were able to have live discussions
  • 66% offered liberal pass, fail, or credit/no credit options after COVID-19
  • 60% had recordings of the instructor’s lectures, including PowerPoints with a voiceover
  • 60% included the instructor lecturing and live sessions
  • 55% had prerecorded videos from other sources

Challenges For Students

  • 79% said staying motivated was a problem
  • 55% said trying to find a quiet place to do the online course
  • 54% said balancing home and family responsibilities
  • 45% said not knowing where to get help with the course
  • 45% said feeling too unwell, physically or emotionally to participate
  • 31% said fitting the course in with work

“Now, these are the statistics for undergraduates overall, the whole population. It is important to note that they were not evenly distributed across different groups,” Means said. “Hispanic students had more common experiences of each of these challenges except staying motivated. They were equivalent to non-Hispanic whites on staying motivated, but in terms of these other challenges, they were significantly more common for Hispanic students,” she said, adding for African American students, the prevalence was generally in between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanic students and not significantly different from either.

Student Satisfaction

  • 51% very satisfied with their courses before COVID-19
  • 19% very satisfied with their courses after COVID-19
  • 87% somewhat satisfied with their courses before COVID-19
  • 59% somewhat satisfied with their courses after COVID-19

Digital Promise also surveyed students about satisfaction with some specific aspects of their courses. “One of the things I think is important to note here is the students do not seem to resent the instructor or to blame the instructor for the struggles they were having after COVID,” Means said.

Satisfaction With Instructor

  • 37% very satisfied with instructor
  • 39% somewhat satisfied with instructor

“That was actually the aspect of the course they were most positive about. They were also pretty positive about the quality of course content and even the quality of instruction, but where they were least satisfied was in how well they were learning overall. So again, I think this ties into that motivation issue,” Means said.

Course Best Practices

  • Build more interactivity in the course with live sessions in which students can ask questions and participate in discussions, breakout groups with other students, and send personal messages to see how students are doing
  • Break up class activities into shorter pieces  
  • Use examples from the real world to illustrate course content
  • Give assignments to work on group projects

“Some of these are just good instructional practices, but they're also good instructional practices online,” Means said.