Flexible and Adaptable

Flexible and Adaptable: Teaching and Learning in A Year of Disruption

As colleges and universities began this winter term, many pushed their return-to-campus dates out further or opted for a return to remote instruction in response to COVID-19.  Since the onset of the pandemic, teaching and learning has demanded significant flexibility among faculty and students. Instructional practices and student engagement adapted to suit changing campus conditions and institutions provided varying levels of customized support to students and faculty. Results from NSSE and FSSE 2021 (surveys conducted in spring 2021) point to strengths and shortcomings in these offerings and experiences and present considerations for rethinking approaches to teaching and learning.

NSSE results reported here are from 211,667 first-year and senior students at 344 U.S. bachelor’s-granting colleges and universities. FSSE results are from 9,022 faculty members at 75 U.S. institutions. Surveys were administered in the spring of 2021.

"Faculty had to significantly restructure and adapt to the enormous impact of COVID on students (academically, physically, and mentally) while also managing their own personal and professional impacts."



Most Students Believe Faculty Adjusted Well to the Pandemic

February 23, 2022 -- A report from the National Survey of Student Engagement found that students had positive perceptions about online and hybrid learning last year. Experts say the results reflect how faculty and students worked together during the pandemic.

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Faculty: Highly Engaged in Effective Teaching Practices

These results align with faculty responses about their teaching practices, as they reported relatively high engagement in effective teaching practices (Figure 2). For example, approximately 98% of faculty used examples and illustrations to explain difficult points. The alignment of both student and faculty responses on teaching practices can show that students recognize the efforts faculty are making to create meaningful classroom experiences.

Figure 2. Substantial Use of Effective Teaching Practices by FacultyGo to an accessible version of this figure.
Note: Percentages are the sum of “very much” and “quite a bit.”

Did You Know?

86%of faculty believe they substantially did a good job helping students adapt to the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

80%of faculty believe that their institution substantially did a good job helping students adapt to the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

73%of students believed that the faculty and staff at their institution did a good job helping students adapt to the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Older Students Have Better Perceptions of Faculty Teaching

Figure 3. Effective Teaching Practices Score by Age Group Go to an accessible version of this figure.

Lastly, we explored effective teaching practices by students’ age. Results showed that non-traditional aged students felt their faculty members engaged in effective teaching practices (M=40.3, SD=15.3) more than traditional aged students (M=38.0, SD=13.7). This relationship remained the same when course modality was taken into consideration, with over 60% of NSSE respondents reporting being in ‘mostly remote courses’ in the 2020-21 academic year. Combined with the results above, these results demonstrated that faculty adapting to more remote course options may have proved to be more beneficial for non-traditional aged students who may have experienced difficulties with access to mostly in-person courses.

Word Cloud: Faculty Perceptions of Their Institution's Pandemic ResponseGo to an accessible version of this figure.

Faculty Adapt to Teaching Challenges During the Pandemic

Figure 4. Percentage of Faculty Who Significantly Adjusted Readings and Required Reference Material by Racial/Ethnic IdentificationGo to an accessible version of this figure.

Note: Percentages are the sum of “strongly agree,” “agree,” and “slightly agree.”


Seven new items were also added for a subset of institutions participating in the 2021 Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE), to learn more about faculty members’ teaching experiences during the pandemic, specifically as it relates to how they viewed their own practices and what contributed to their stress. As mentioned previously, the 2021 academic year was characterized by adaptations to address ever-changing circumstances and to enhance access and provide flexibility for students and faculty. Of the faculty surveyed, 87% felt that they specifically did a good job with helping students adapt during the pandemic. Some of those adjustments that faculty made were some of the exact things that students asked for. For example, most faculty significantly adjusted the nature of course assignments (88%) and were more flexible about assignment due dates (89%). Although, slightly fewer faculty stated they adjusted their readings (64%) and their approach to grading (69%), it was faculty of color who made such adjustment more for their students (Figure 4).

Table 2. Relationships Between Institutional Support and Faculty Teaching Practice

I plan to use more innovative teaching approaches.I am learning to be a more effective teacher.
My institution is responding appropriately to the COVID-19 pandemic. +++
My institution is providing me the support I need to fulfill my duties as a faculty member. +
My institution is providing me the support I need to teach well. +++
My institution is providing me the resources I need to support my students. ++
My institution’s communications about changes to academic operations help me. +++
My institution is providing students with the support they need to succeed academically. ++

Key: + r > .1 (small), ++ r > .2 (small-medium); All correlations significant at p < .001

But it wasn’t just about making adjustments that would accommodate students, it appeared as though faculty were striving to be better instructors in general. Nearly all faculty stated they were learning to be a more effective teacher (91.8%), 92.3% said they plan to use more innovative teaching approaches, and 92.8% of faculty agreed that they increased their efforts to be connected to students.

Although, faculty generally felt that they did a good job helping students adapt during the pandemic, only four out of five (80%) felt that their institution did a good job helping students adapt. Table 2 shows the relationships between institutional support and teaching practices.

What has particularly impressed me about students, fellow faculty, and my institution alike has been the overall resilience and personal dedication evoked in response to this challenge and all its attendant uncertainty.  


Evidence-Based Improvement in Higher Education

Center for Postsecondary Research
Indiana University School of Education
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Bloomington, IN 47405-1006
Phone: 812.856.5824