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Post-lockdowns, new college students struggle to pass basic college courses

Students forced into at-home, online learning by COVID closures during their final year of high school or first years of college entered the 2021-22 academic year lacking foundational skills and are at a heightened risk for failure.

Researchers are just beginning to analyze emerging data about the losses.

The Hechinger Report, a national newsroom that reports on education, outlined the scope of the problem in an article published April 6: “After the pandemic disrupted their high school educations, college students are arriving at college unprepared.”

The article explains:

Many students whose last years of high school were disrupted by the pandemic are struggling academically in the foundational college courses they need to succeed later in their academic and professional careers. Professors and students say the remote learning that students were stuck with during the pandemic wasn’t as good as what they would have had in person. The students were also often distracted — trying to learn while grappling with health, financial and family stressors.

Now, after two years of cobbled-together pandemic learning, many college students not only are less prepared than they should be, they’ve forgotten how to be students.

And more underprepared high school graduates are likely to be coming right behind them, putting unprecedented pressure on faculty, counselors and advisers.

…The full scope of the college unpreparedness problem is not yet known.

The article profiled math professor Uri Treisman at the University of Texas at Austin, who saw a quarter of his first-year calculus students fail the class in the fall 2021 semester, compared to five percent in an average year.

“Treisman’s inbox was flooded with emails from students anxious to retake his class, apologizing for a poor performance and for being unprepared,” the article stated.

Kristin Patterson, an associate professor of instruction at UT Austin, said that student academic progress during COVID may have been overestimated or otherwise badly assessed.

For example, during the 2020-21 academic year, UT Austin allowed students to have up to three of their courses assessed as pass/fail as an emergency COVID policy. That meant students with grades as low as a D- in a prerequisite course could “pass” and move on.

Inside Higher Ed reported back in March 2020 that “more than a dozen four-year universities” expanded pass/fail options for students due to COVID. In November of that year, another Inside Higher Ed article stated that students had again requested pass/fail options. All “Big Ten” university student body presidents, for example, “asked their institutions to adopt comprehensive pass-fail or satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading options.”

Many universities gave in to student demands. All California community colleges, for example, extended their typical pass/fail deadline through the end of December 2020. University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School gave graduate students the option that semester to change any or all of their letter grades of A-plus through B-minus to S for satisfactory. Students could have grades of C-plus or below changed to “NRC” for “no record-COVID.”

As a result, an unknown number of students have “passed” courses or moved on without mastering the material, at least at a level sufficient to succeed at higher levels.

The Hechinger Report article quoted Steve Dandaneau, president of the Association of Undergraduate Education at Research Universities, who said that professors “have already begun to see first-year students coming in with significantly less accumulated learning, even if rates of low grades have not dramatically increased.”

Widespread cheating also likely contributed to lost learning opportunities and skills gaps. An NPR article published in ​​2021 described how students’ increased access to smartphones and other technology facilitated new ways to cut corners, including by faking mastery they had not yet achieved.

The article stated reports of cheating or academic misconduct had doubled at least since the onset of remote learning at three universities surveyed: Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Georgia, and The Ohio State University.

Uri Treisman, the UT Austin mathematician, expressed ambivalence about how to help students coming to him unprepared.

“It’s so tempting to lower the standard,” he said. “The big risk, from a teaching perspective, is that I give them a good grade and they’re not prepared for what comes next.”

MORE: Indiana University grades jump during COVID

IMAGE: Antonio Diaz / Shutterstock

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About the Author
Margaret has previously worked as an associate editor of Columbia magazine, an editorial assistant at DNAinfo.com, and an elementary school teacher at a charter school in Phoenix. She holds a B.A. from New York University and lives in New Haven, Connecticut.