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CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – When the worsening COVID-19 pandemic prompted colleges to close their campuses and switch to distance learning in the spring of 2020, fears arose that many students were under-represented in the disciplines science, technology, engineering and math would be demotivated and even drop out more.

However, a study of 182 undergraduates in a university biology course found little evidence to support this belief. Instead, across demographic groups, the impact varied: some students were more motivated, others less, and some saw no change in their level of interest in the topic, researchers from the ‘University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“There is resilience and a lack of resilience in all groups,” said educational psychology professor Jennifer cromley, the first author of the study, which was co-authored by graduate student Andrea Kunze.

Published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, the findings are a warning against stereotypical assumptions about the engagement and persistence of individuals based on their demographic characteristics such as socioeconomic status or being a first-generation student, researchers say.

“We don’t have to assume that they’re going to be resilient or non-resilient,” Cromley said.

“We should check in with them and see how they’re doing. Viewing people as oppressed or resilient does not reflect the realities of the situation. “

Students attended an introductory biology course that was traditionally delivered with in-person lectures, but was replaced by online instruction in the last eight weeks of the spring 2020 semester. Face to Face has been suspended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus, most of the students have returned home.

At the time, the researchers conducted a semester-long study of changes in motivation among current biology students. When teaching went online, they shifted focus to examine how the motivation of at-risk students – especially women, students from under-represented minority and ethnic groups, and first-generation students – was affected. .

Students who agreed to participate in the study were interviewed monthly from January to April, repeatedly completing the same two of 10 possible questionnaires that examined various factors associated with motivation according to several theories.

For example, some of the quizzes asked questions about students’ goals, such as whether their goal was to fully understand the concepts being taught or simply to avoid doing worse than their classmates or failing. Other surveys investigated whether students believed they could master the course material or whether they considered themselves good at biology.

Some surveys asked students if they intended to stay in a STEM major and if they thought the effort required was worth it in the end. While 42% of students indicated that they were completely determined to stay in STEM during their survey in January, the researchers found that this diminished as the semester progressed.

In April, changes in each of the motivation variables indicated that more students were at risk of dropping out. However, the team found no significant difference between demographic groups, Cromley said.

Because students have gone through many changes simultaneously – such as concerns about health, finances, and living at home with their families and away from the social and academic supports available to them on campus – the changes in their motivation could not be attributed to distance learning alone, Cromley said.

While the researchers speculated that students ‘interest in the material would decline over the course of the semester, they found that some students’ interest increased instead. Media reports of scientists’ efforts to decipher COVID-19 and develop effective vaccines have fostered a greater appreciation of the usefulness and societal value of science for some students, Kunze said.

This effect was particularly significant among some first-generation students, who made up 24% of those surveyed, according to the study.

One of the students, who was also from a minority or under-represented ethnic group, wrote that she was motivated every day to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor “and to help end the disparities within of the health system ”.

Despite predictions that the performance and persistence of under-represented students would be affected by the challenges associated with distance learning, some “students weren’t just giving up. Some were inspired and still trying, ”Kunze said.

Women showed larger declines in self-directed variables, and the researchers hypothesized that their separation from supportive friends on campus might have negatively impacted their confidence and sense of competence in the course.

Conversely, living at home may have been beneficial for some first generation students, whose focus of academic goals shifted during the semester from failure prevention to a focus on future achievement and economic mobility. The separation of the highly competitive academic and social environment on campus may have helped these students focus on more positive goals, the researchers said.

Students were asked to answer an open-ended survey question about all the factors in their lives that had influenced their feelings about their classes that day, and their responses provided insight into the impact of family dynamics on student performance.

For example, one student wrote about having to lock himself in the bathroom to escape pressure from family members and do homework in peace, Cromley said.

This research was funded in part by funding from the Charles Dunn Hardie Trust at the University of I. College of Education.

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