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First-year college students’ learning during COVID-19: What they told us


By: Dr. Joyce Z. Schneiders and Dr. Raeal Moore 

The COVID-19 pandemic upended learning and instruction for students around the world in the past year. In June 2020, ACT wanted to understand first-year college students’ learning experiences after the transition to online instruction during the pandemic, so we asked those who graduated from high school in 2019 and enrolled in a postsecondary institution in the 2019–2020 school year to share their experiences with us via a survey and open ended responses.

Students experienced academic challenges and had concerns about future academic success

Two out of three students reported that their coursework was somewhat or very challenging.  More than three-quarters of the students were “a great deal” or “somewhat” concerned that online learning during the pandemic would negatively affect their academic success next year. Three out of four students believed that such a negative effect could have long-term consequences. For example, two student respondents said:

“Next year, school will be harder because there are certain classes that are better for in-person than online and I plan on taking more credits for my degree.”
“I am a studio art major, and my classes are not the type that can be transferred to online. Materials, working space, instructor-student time was few and far between. My major cannot be successfully completed online.” 

The fewer perceived academic challenges and academic concerns students had, the more certain they were about enrolling in the same institution the next year

Students who experienced relatively low level of academic challenges and concerns were more certain about enrolling in the same institution the next year. Also, when schools provided outreach to students during the pandemic, they were more certain about enrolling in the same institution the next year.

Increasing access to technology and the internet, reducing the learning resource gap, and providing online learning experiences before formal instruction help to alleviate these academic challenges and concerns

Students who had limited access to technology (i.e., quality computers, stable internet), received limited learning resources (e.g., manageable number of assignments across classes, timeline and specific feedback on assignments from their teacher, and clear and understandable class materials/assignments), and had no prior experience learning online were more likely to experience academic challenges and concerns than those students who did not have similar limitations. There were differences by race/ethnicity, family income, and first-generation status related to access to these resources. When students received the same technological and learning resources, the differences in perceived academic challenges and academic concerns were no longer significant among students from diverse groups (i.e., gender, race/ethnicity, college type, ACT score, family income, and first-generation status). These findings imply that ensuring students from low-income families, students of color, and first-year students’ access to technological resources and learning resources is critical for online learning.  

Considering that it is very likely that postsecondary institutions will continue some form of online learning in fall 2021, we have provided some recommendations for supporting and improving online learning among incoming first-year college students. 


Address the inequities in access to technology and the internet. Universities and colleges should develop policies and plans to support students who lack access to technology and the internet, especially students who come from underserved populations. Additionally, postsecondary institutions need to ensure that students are comfortable with the technology and are able to use it effectively.

Close the gap in learning resources. Universities and colleges need to collect information about first-year college students’ needs in online learning environments in order to identify (and close) gaps in resources. Common learning resources include timely feedback from instructors, access to well-organized course materials, manageable amount of assignments, reliable systems to submit assignments, and online tools that allow opportunities for collaboration.

Promote online learning preparatory programs. These preparatory programs could give students a chance to learn how to use learning management systems, how to collaborate and communicate with other students and instructors online, and how to solve potential technical problems.

Advance (and advocate for) student outreach. Universities and colleges should develop policies that include periodic student outreach to better understand student concerns in different conditions and over time. Making sure that students’ voices are heard, and their concerns addressed, could provide students with a greater sense of belonging and promote their mental health.

Support professional development for instructors. Postsecondary institutions should consider offering professional development opportunities for instructors to help them develop skills for effective online instruction. Such trainings should focus on areas like online course design, organizing online course materials, ways of interacting with students online, effective use of learning management systems, and enhancing students’ motivation and engagement during online learning.