College students who shifted to online courses during the pandemic experienced “higher levels of psychological distress” than students who continued to attend in person, a recent study found.
Among 59,250 full-time undergraduates who completed an online mental health screening from January to June 2021, 61.2% studied virtually and 35.5% attended a mix of in-person and online classes, according to the study published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open.
Both were likelier to report anxiety and depression than the 3.5.% of four-year students who reported attending school fully in person at the time, the research found.
A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital conducted the study.
“Although the shift to online college classes has been shown to be feasible and arguably necessary in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, our study suggests a potential negative association between such a shift and college students’ mental health,” they wrote. “Our results have implications for educational institutions and policy makers weighing the risks and benefits when making determinations regarding school setting and transitions to online classes.”
The study shows the significant psychological costs students suffered at colleges and universities that shut down their campuses during the pandemic, some health officials said Thursday.
“We are a social species,” New York University Associate Professor Emily Balcetis said. “We need people and try as we might to mimic real, live human connection, there is no replacing the kind of collective effervescence, fun and joy that we get by being with people.”
Data from the study will add to a growing body of research showing that the “cascading impact of the pandemic and the mitigation measures will have a long tail,” added Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“Certain actions taken during the pandemic, such as remote learning at colleges, were done without considering their full long-range implications as the short-term was privileged over the longer term,” said Dr. Adalja, an infectious disease specialist.
The study found that 22.5% of hybrid students, 18.3% of fully online students and 17.7% of in-person students reported experiencing anxiety disorders as they coped with “geographic relocation” and the “abrupt conversion” to digital learning.
Reports of depressive disorders came from 17.9% of hybrid students, 15% of fully online students and 12.7% of in-person students.
The results were consistent across all races, genders and regions, the study found.
The findings mean colleges should “work harder to preserve in-person classes in the future,” said Ronald J. Rychlak, a law professor and former associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
“We learned some important things from the process. Using technology for occasional guest lectures or to help a student or professor through an unavoidable conflict is a plus,” Mr. Rychlak said in an email. “At the same time, we learned that community and face-to-face teaching make a difference.”
But Pamela Cheek, associate provost for student engagement at the University of New Mexico, said “multiple factors” contributed to rising mental distress among college students after campuses shuttered in 2020.
“This rise cannot be explained as resulting from online learning alone,” Ms. Cheek said in an email. “What the study does make clear is that online learning is not an easily scaled, plug-and-play approach to education because of the potential negative consequences to students of inadequately designed online courses and poorly supported online student experiences.”
While standardized test scores plummeted for K-12 students during online learning arrangements, it remains unclear from the study how much college students lost from the transition – an oversight that bothers some scholars.
“The real scandal is that most institutions of higher learning haven’t taken extensive steps to determine how much, or how little, students learned when we shifted to remote teaching,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor in the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania. “We don’t know, and worst of all, we don’t want to know.”
• Sean Salai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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