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 instructors 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.”

The authors wrote that their survey “provided rich data regarding students’ experiences, and extends our current understanding of the convergence of varying aspects of the academic environment related to student success during COVID-19. Within each primary category, students’ voiced experiences provide insight into the need of valued resources, and opportunities, to enhance student academic achievement and overall retention.”

Rawlins Williams and Williams noted that colleges and universities demonstrated the ability to adapt and change when confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, but they arrived at several recommendations based on their findings.

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One of the biggest recommendations for the future that came from the study, Rawlins Williams says, is that institutions invest more resources into acquiring sufficient computer equipment that may be made available for students to borrow.

Other recommendations include providing students with more training in the use of preferred software used in online classes, encouraging students to advocate for the resources they need, enhancing professional development for faculty in the area of online learning technology and practices, updating institutional emergency preparedness plans, and implementing educational delivery systems that can move fluidly from one format to another during times of crisis.

In addition to focusing on students’ experiences, Rawlins Williams and Williams addressed the experiences and needs of rehabilitation professionals working with students.

“Rehabilitation professionals in higher education have worked in health clinics in various positions ensuring the physical health of students,” Rawlins Williams said. “Student mental health professionals have worked diligently to support student health, and student disability services staff have worked tirelessly to ensure students with disabilities on our college campuses have the valued accommodations needed for academic success. Each of these areas of rehabilitation, though differing in scope of practice, have improved the lives of individuals with disabilities in higher education and on college campuses.

“These professionals must be aware that students may not be able to access valued accommodations at home that they can utilize on campus,” she continued. “We must make sure all students have what they need to be successful during this time of COVID.”

The authors recommend that rehabilitation professionals make their own self-care a priority.

“If rehabilitation professionals do not care for themselves first, then they can’t be effective in any professional area in working with students in higher education,” Rawlins Williams said.

They also recommend that these professionals maintain flexibility in responding to the needs of clients.

, modifying the ways and environments in which they work to achieve results. In addition, they stress that open and honest communication with teams and others is critical in achieving goals during times of crisis.


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