Student wellbeing during lockdown: ‘I have plenty of time, so I do nothing’

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Have the Covid restrictions had positive effects too? That was one of the questions the exact science faculty posed to its 7000 students during the second lockdown at the end of 2020. The answers indicate that the students do see some advantages. For instance, most of the 2300 respondents wrote that they appreciated the ‘shortened travel time, ‘increased flexibility’ and ‘more time for other things’.

Aside from those, the students liked that the lectures were recorded, which meant they could be relistened to, with a different speed if desired. Some students also noticed that their ‘fear of missing out’ lessened, and that the bond with their house mates became stronger and more profound.

Students ask for more support
These advantages do not outweigh the negative consequences of the lockdown – an overwhelming majority of the students’ response to the question ‘What can the faculty do to help students?’ was: ‘offer more in-person education!’.

Noticeably, a large group of respondents want better online education. Aside from the recorded lectures, the students saw no other advantages to the online lectures and working groups, even though lecturers were able to make their lessons more interactive. Teachers should be trained and supported to be able to do this, the students say in their responses.

Moreover, many students ask for more support with efficiently organizing their day, as well as psychological help. Some of the students feel really lonely; only four per cent had no complaints about the lockdown education.

Aside from the two open questions, the students were asked to respond to sixteen statements. They could indicate their agreement with the statements on a five-point scale. Professor Wouter van Joolingen and assistant-professor Ralph Meulenbroeks from the Freudenthal Institute offered to analyze the data. To further examine their findings, they interviewed three students. The results were published in the open access journal Heliyon last month.

More profundity
Meulenbroeks acknowledges that many of the findings are in agreement with the results of other studies into the wellbeing of students during lockdown. This past November, the National Monitor showed that two out of three students felt mentally exhausted. The Central Bureau for Statistics (CBS) reported a decreased wellbeing among adolescents. There have been more studies, and a large-scale study into the topic has been performed at the exact science faculty before.

Meulenbroeks thinks that the many answers to the two open questions, which, together with the interview responses, have been incorporated into the new study, have added value. “That way, we know the things they come up with themselves” For the analysis of the answers a known scientific model was used. “Due to that combination, we now have more depth and insight. Hopefully the results will make it easier to come up with solutions and support the students better.”

Together with Van Joolingen, Meulenbroeks coded some five thousand respondent remarks. The researchers looked at the extent that these remarks said something about the three basic needs; autonomy, competence and connectedness, that the oft-used self-determination method says are the prerequisites for wellbeing and optimal functioning. The answers to the sixteen statements and the interview experiences were checked against this model too.

Meulenbroeks: “And then a rather unambiguous message emerges. Autonomy is well-served in lockdown times: many students feel like they have more time and are able to organize their lives more flexibly. But the feelings of competence and connectedness suffered during lockdown. Although students were able to study anywhere and anytime, they didn’t know how to go about this in an efficient manner. And they missed the contact with their fellow students and lecturers.”

Meulenbroeks cites three remarks that he thinks represent the situation well:

‘So it started this loop like: I am so behind with work, I don't want to do anything and then I didn't do anything and I felt like a loser’

‘I would just find myself like: "I just have the whole day", and I don't have anywhere to go and I don't have anything today except what I have to do so I would just get into procrastination’

‘…because it is the small connections that make quite a difference in the general well-being’

Need for more direction
The researcher has been in touch with the exact science faculty’s board, as well as with the university department of Student Affairs. The students are clear in their recommendations. Among other things, they want help with organizing their studies and their day, and some students have a large need for more psychological guidance. Online education has the potential to enhance feelings of autonomy among students, but some improvements are necessary. Lecturers often struggled with the switch from in-person to online education, students said. Too often, students said that they felt like they had to fend for themselves." 

Meulenbroeks stresses that the results do not just pertain to the lockdown period, but also convey a message about what students think is important in their studies. That may be of value if the university wants to consider education changes or innovations.

“Apparently, students like being able to control their schedule, but they need direction to learn how to study. There is also a high demand for being able to meet fellow students and lectures. These are not new findings – we understand this partly because we have used the perspective of the scientific model we used. We see a disruption in the balance of students’ basic needs. Covid just exposed this.”

‘Conversations about wellbeing and stress must take place in lectures halls’
According to Simon Bloo, the UU’s Student Wellbeing policy officer, Van Joolingen and Meulenbroeks’ results are largely in agreement with the National Monitor and two of the student evaluations the university executed in the past two years.

“But this structured, scientific approach does give more insight, and supported some of our assumptions. We appreciate this study and can use the results in our deliberations on the new working program that starts after the summer.”

The policy officer stresses that the university has prioritized ‘Student Wellbeing’ these past four years. Examples are initiatives such as the Wellbeing Week and participation in the Caring Universities-project.

Bloo: “What comes to the fore time and time again – here, among the exact science students, also – is that students often don’t know who they can approach with their issues. And sometimes the threshold for seeking help is too high. We are working hard to improve the communication on these issues.”

The new working program will still have a lot of attention for prevention and awareness, Bloo says. But aside from that, students should speak amongst themselves about this topic. “We want to move conversations about this topic to the lecture hall, so that students can talk amongst themselves about the challenges they encounter during their studies, and the healthy balance between work and private life.”

There also should be more room for community-building. “That means more space for students to relax and meet each other. There is a lot of demand for this after the Covid restrictions.”

To have students meet more often is also an important point of interest with the National Education Program. With their means, the UU recently decided to set up a student living room and culture cafés. Their funding also pays for the Online Coaching Center, where student coaches help their fellow students with motivational issues or procrastination, for instance.