Missouri university blames pandemic isolation for failing grades, mental health issues

(The Center Square) – An outreach program helped college students recover from failing midterm grades, and accompanying research confirmed that pandemic-caused isolation contributed to their learning problems.

An intensive advising program at the Missouri University of Science and Technology helped students earn a grade of C or higher after their grades were Ds and Fs at mid-semester. Approximately 25% voluntarily reported their academic performance was being negatively affected by mental health problems.

Jossalyn Larson, one of the program’s creators and an author of a subsequent study, said the initiative helps ensure the university’s taxpayer resources are maximized, along with assisting students to be ready to enter the workforce. The project was funded through the College of Arts, Sciences and Business as part of an overall initiative to support student academic success.

“So much of our attention, and by extension our funds, are supporting the student holistically,” Larson said. “When that student graduates, we’re going to have somebody who’s more ready for the workforce and more ready to do good things in the workforce. Not only do they have the educational and intellectual background, but by the time they’re done with college they will have the emotional and mental health and the self-efficacy they need.”

When in-person classes resumed after COVID-19 forced remote learning, university leaders witnessed an overwhelming trend of poor student performance. Larson and Elizabeth Roberson were tasked with identifying the problem and creating a solution.

“It was happening much more than usual; it was a collective awareness,” Larson said. “Everyone on campus – from faculty to administrators – was seeing the same thing.”

Approximately 160 undergraduate students were identified by 31 professors in the English and Technical Communication department. After the respondents took part in intensive advising created by the professors, 59% brought their grades up to a C or better.

The report found students responding to the program described “their problems stemmed from a general lack of personal wellbeing. Students complained of ‘stress’; they reported feeling ‘overwhelmed,’ and they self-described as ‘procrastinating,’ ‘falling behind,’ and ‘struggling.’ This deprecating self-talk contributed not only to students’ grades at midterm, but also to their lack of confidence that they could recover their grades by the course’s conclusion.”

“When we came back into the classroom, there was this assumption that it would be business as usual,” Larson said. “But what we found was that students weren’t ready for business as usual because they were dealing with all of the effects of being isolated for that year.”

Larson said students returning to campus and those starting after a senior year of high school spent in remote learning had significant struggles. They often struggled when starting classes and felt too ashamed to ask for help or more time to complete assignments.

Their report stated their discoveries were parallel to other research finding the pandemic is responsible for “a striking increase in depression and anxiety symptoms in college students, and that these symptoms have correlated less with COVID-19 diagnoses of self and/or loved ones, but more with the difficulties associated with distanced learning and social isolation.”

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