ETSU researchers publish COVID-19 education study

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – A study looking at the experiences of college students in the transition from the traditional classroom to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic was recently published by two East Tennessee researchers.

This study, published in The Rehabilitation Professional, a publication of the International Association of Rehabilitation Professionals, was authored by Dr. Lee Ann Rawlins Williams of East Tennessee State University and Treyton R. Williams of Walters State Community College. Rawlins Williams is an assistant professor and Rehabilitative Health Sciences program director in the Department of Rehabilitative Sciences in ETSU’s College of Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences. Treyton Williams is an associate professor of computer science at Walters State.

In their study, the researchers looked at the struggles regional students experienced in the transition from the traditional classroom to online learning while also coping with the stresses of balancing school, home and work.

Rawlins Williams and Williams sent an online questionnaire to more than 5,000 college students at both ETSU and Walters State. Over 1,600 students responded to the questionnaire and “provided a rich account of their student success experiences … during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The researchers found three primary categories that emerged from the students’ experiences: access to equipment, access to instructor and access to campus resources.

Many students indicated they experienced challenges in accessing computers and printers, as well as supplies, which often led to financial burdens they might not otherwise have undergone. Access to software and the internet were also challenging, and some students expressed a wish to return to traditional textbooks.

With online classes, students missed the personal instruction and face-to-face interaction with faculty that comes with in-person learning. In the study, “participants suggested that there was a great deal of confusion related to instructions, assignments, and timelines for project submission” and “spoke of the need for better explanation of expectations, faculty flexibility with assignments, and detailed guidance regarding work.” Students emphasized the need for better communication with faculty.

Finally, survey respondents indicated that campus resources readily available before the pandemic were often difficult to access remotely. These included tutoring and access to lab space, classroom equipment and library resources. Students with disabilities also faced special challenges without ready access to tutors, notetakers, and testing accommodations, such as reduced-distraction environments and extended time for testing.

The authors quoted one student participant who summed up the need for campus resources: “My house is far too hectic to study in. I need a library on campus I can escape to. I also do so much better in an on-campus setting and classroom. Not much gets done at home, as I have four kids, and I am a mom, student and more.”

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