April 4, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic transformed learning environments across U.S. institutions. However, its impacts on learning are yet to be fully understood for improved resiliency during future pandemics. This study is part of a larger nationwide research to explain decision-making in STEM students during COVID-19. A mixed-methods approach with purposive sampling was utilized to enroll 63 students from six institutions. Data was collected through surveys, academic transcripts, and interviews. Through interviews, research participants (RPs) narrated salient experiences. Data was analyzed using the NVivo software for coding and constant comparative analysis.  

The analysis of 30 coded interview transcripts revealed an emerging theme - Professor-Student Interactions Impact Learning and Adaptation Decisions. Salient Professor-Student Interactions are coded as: Online Instructional Delivery Methods; Professor Caring Attitudes; Professor Leniency; Professor Availability; Student Workloads; Professor Technology Proficiency; and Professor Teaching Resources. Negative interactions worsened learning challenges coded as: Illusion of Time, Procrastination; Lack of Focus; Challenge of Asking Questions; Poor Understanding; Poor Quality Assignments; Poor Intermediate Grades; Stresses; and Lowered Motivation. While most RPs experienced high stresses, a few experienced low or no stresses. To minimize the negative impacts of challenges, RPs made adaptation decisions coded as: Refined Scheduling; Alternate Learning Resources; Professor Office Hours; Teaching Assistants; Peer Collaboration; Relaxation Strategies; and Pass/Fail Options. Compared to their fall 2019 GPAs, improved STEM performance is partially attributed to professor leniency, pass/fail option, and cheating.

Findings indicate that while professors were adjusting to modified teaching environments, STEM students were developing a sense of self-discipline, self-teaching, and independence. Students relied on various professor and non-professor generated resources to improve learning and performance. Recommendations for improved interactions and adaptation decisions are discussed for potential replication in STEM communities for improved adaptability and resiliency during future pandemics. Future research will focus on quantifying the long-term effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on STEM performance.

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