Rebounding Engagement

Rebounding Engagement: Has Higher Education Returned to "Normal"?

Bouncing Back from COVID

During the 2020-21 academic year—overlapping the first year of the pandemic before milder variants and widely available vaccines—most colleges and universities conducted classes remotely, restricted in-person events, and imposed mask wearing, social distancing, and vaccine mandates. Engagement suffered as a result. Predictably, students had fewer formal opportunities to interact with one another and faculty members, and felt less support from their institutions, while other aspects of engagement—study habits, learning strategies, and interacting with course material—remained largely free of disruption. As restrictions were rolled back over the 2021-22 academic year, has campus life rebounded?

In Short

  • Aspects of student engagement largely dependent on in-person interactions (Collaborative Learning, Discussions with Diverse Others, and Student-Faculty Interactions) and Supportive Environment for first-year students have increased after declining in 2020-21.
  • Declines in engagement tend to be more pronounced for first-year students than seniors, likely because seniors were already more integrated into campus life and their major and career plans.
  • Students used their time differently throughout the past several years, in particular for time spent preparing for class and working for pay.

Engagement Climbs from Pandemic Dip

Shifts were evident in certain aspects of engagement over the past academic year but to a lesser extent than in 2020-21, reflecting the return to in-person instruction and campus life. Areas of engagement largely dependent on interpersonal interaction have increased somewhat, but collaborative learning remained below pre-pandemic disruption levels, especially for first-year students. Similar patterns were also observed for interactions with diverse peers and impressions of a supportive campus environment.

Figure 1. Engagement Indicators by Class and Administration Year Go to an accessible version of this figure: Engagement Indicators by Class and Administration Year

Students in 2022 spent more time on average studying and preparing for class than students prior to the pandemic.

With the worst of the pandemic disruptions behind us, campus life has mostly corrected course. College students across the country were more frequently working collaboratively with one another, and feeling more supported by their institutions than during the height of pandemic disruptions. It may be too early to say that things are “back to normal”—and if “normal” practices should be the goal—but they are headed in a positive direction.

Data and Methods

  • Results reflect responses from all eligible U.S. first-year and senior students, weighted by institution-reported sex and enrollment status to the US population unless otherwise indicated.
  • NSSE administers annually in the spring, asking students about their experiences during the current academic year. E.g., the NSSE 2022 administration covers the 2021-22 academic year.
  • NSSE does not collect information regarding institutional policies like masking, remote learning, or vaccination requirements.
  • Samples are derived for each NSSE administration and do not reflect a longitudinal cohort of students.

Students Experience Recommended Online Course Features

As shown in Figure 3, these good practices for structuring online courses are varied in nature, ranging from providing a clearly stated grading policy to offering clarity about when instructors will respond to students. Overall, students share that their courses include many of these practices at high levels. Over 80% found their online courses provided a clearly stated grading policy while a notably lower but still substantial proportion (68%) said their courses provided clear expectations about interacting with other students.

Figure 3. Percentage of Students Indicating Their Online Courses Included Various Effective Practices “Very Much” or “Quite A Bit” Go to an accessible version of this figure

Online courses for a majority of respondents at most institutions contain the important recommended elements.

Older Students More Exposed to Effective Online Course Structures

Using an assortment of student identities and institutional characteristics, a multivariate statistical model predicting effective online course structure scale scores also indicates several interesting findings. For example, the prevalence of effective online course structure does not vary by institution enrollment size or minority-serving status. In contrast, though, private institutions have slightly lower scores than publicly controlled ones (0.1 effect size, p < 0.05). These findings offer positive news suggesting that most schools are able to offer quality online course experiences. From a student identities perspective, most notably, older first-year students over the age of 21 and older seniors over 25 years-of-age (0.25 effect size, p < 0.001), as well as those with higher grades (0.56 effect size between students earning mostly As and those earning mostly Cs, p < 0.001) have greater exposure to courses with effective structure in place, compared to their peers. First-generation college students on the other hand show no meaningful difference compared to continuing-generation students.

Note: The model controlled for administration year, public-private control status, institutional enrollment size category, minority serving institution, class level, part-time enrollment status, gender identity, race/ethnicity, self-reported cumulative grades, first-generation status, and age group.