Newswise — The shift to online teaching because of the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected learning, data shows, but students whose instructors had experience with online teaching tools – especially those in classes using structured peer interaction – performed better, according to a new Cornell study.

The researchers also found that the pandemic’s negative learning effects did not disproportionately affect women, underrepresented minorities, first-generation university students and students who speak English as an additional language.

“We found that disadvantaged student populations are not doing worse than in a regular in-person semester,” said Doug McKee, senior lecturer in economics in the College of Arts and Sciences and co-author of “Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: It Is Not Who You Teach, But How You Teach,” which published March 16 in Economics Letters.

“The good news is that learning gaps are not expanding,” McKee said. “The bad news is that the gaps that were there before are still present.”

The research sheds light on how pandemic-related changes have affected teaching and learning – important information for Cornell and higher education as a whole in navigating the new landscape.

George Orlov, an Active Learning Initiative postdoctoral fellow in economics, is the paper’s first author.

To gain a clearer picture of learning during the pandemic, the researchers explored three questions: how the pandemic-related measures taken in spring 2020 influenced end-of-semester knowledge; whether the pandemic affected certain groups of students to a greater degree; and whether the use of specific teaching methods resulted in a more successful transition to remote teaching.

Relying on standardized assessment tools they developed through the Active Learning Initiative, the research team assessed student learning in seven intermediate-level economics courses at four universities, including Cornell. The courses covered a range of topics, from statistics to economic theory.

To refine their understanding of how various student populations performed in relation to a more normal semester (spring or fall 2019), the researchers combined these data with information from demographic surveys of the same classes.

The data show that the pandemic did indeed have a significant negative effect on student performance in five of the seven courses analyzed.

To find out whether certain teaching strategies helped mitigate the negative impact of the switch to remote teaching, the study looked at the relationship between the instructor’s level of online teaching experience as well as whether the course used active learning strategies, peer interaction and polling.

Students performed better in courses where the instructor had prior online teaching experience. McKee said this may be because those instructors were more comfortable using online teaching technologies.

The teaching methods that had the greatest positive influence on student learning were structured peer interactions, such as pair or small-group work, and collaborative exams. McKee said there may be a benefit to using polling as well, but the results were not statistically significant in this study.

“It is the courses that have intentional, structured peer interaction that have the least loss in learning,” McKee said.

He said bringing all students into the course experience, by specifically designing learning activities in which students engage with their peers, is critically important to promoting learning, especially online.

This research was supported by the Active Learning Initiative, funded by Alex ’87 and Laura Hanson ’87. The Active Learning Initiative, developed within the College of Arts and Sciences with help from the Hansons, is supported by Cornell’s Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and the Center for Teaching Innovation.

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