COVID-19 Impacts Learning Loss in College Chemistry

“Attention, attention span, focus and motivation have always been challenges in my online class. Very suddenly, they are now also challenges in my in-person class.” — Regan Silvestri, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at Lorain County Community College in Ohio.

by Leslie Mertz for the American Chemical Society 

Sylvestri is not alone in seeing differences this fall as students transition from all-online classes due to the pandemic to face-to-face courses. Faculty members from many institutions are also reporting a variety of learning struggles among their students today. To explore the issue, several faculty members discussed what they are noticing, what they and their institutions are doing about it, and how the ACS can help.

Impact on learning

“One noticeable change in my experience is that students who are fresh out of high school are entering college general chemistry classes appearing to have diminished math skills, and perhaps even more noticeably, poor lab skills,” according to Omar Villanueva, Ph.D., chemistry chair and associate professor at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville. “We immediately started seeing a deficiency in lab skills. In my own experience, and in speaking with other faculty, students are challenged in performing basic, fundamental techniques that they would have learned in a traditional chemistry course,” he said.

Advanced students are also showing a falloff of hands-on lab proficiency today compared to 2019, said Joseph Provost, Ph.D., professor and former chair of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of San Diego. “Many of the seniors in biochemistry and other advanced chemistry classes have never made a solution or touched a pipetter, so we’ve had to back up and give them instruction on basic skills, like doing a melt or recrystallization, or calibrating a pH meter,” he said.

And it isn’t just a drop in skills; they haven’t gained the skills or experienced all of the rigors of in-person classes, Provost noted. In a recent conversation with colleagues at an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology meeting, he said that almost everyone is finding that students simply are lagging well behind. “We’re back to the same teaching approaches, speed, and pattern as we used pre-pandemic, but we’re finding that students just aren’t ready to go back to full throttle,” he commented.

Tracy McGill, Ph.D., chemistry teaching professor and director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Emory University in Atlanta, got a sense of just how unprepared students are when she compared 2019 and 2022 scores from the first exam in her general chemistry class. “The exams weren’t identical, but they tested the same learning objectives, and I found that the number of students in the D through F range was 15 percent higher in 2022 than it was in 2019. To see that big of a difference is pretty telling.” She attributed the lower scores to a deterioration in study habits. “I have seen a definite decline in how students try to learn the material. They are learning things on the surface, so just enough to memorize and regurgitate, and it is not leading to their success.”

One reason for the lack of deep understanding is the nature of online teaching, Silvestri said. “We have experienced a change in the medium — a change in the educational media format —from large textbooks containing a substantial body of knowledge that requires substantial effort to master, to learning management systems populated with short videos and multiple-choice assessments,” Silvestri said. Such mechanized online learning gives students the impression that they merely need to sit through a video clip or pick enough right multiple-choice answers to master chemistry, whereas in-person classes demand more of students and are much better vehicles to stress the bigger picture that nature has a systematic and organized way about it, he asserted. “That kind of mechanized online teaching has been around for a long time, but it has become accentuated during the pandemic, so now students are just not accustomed to the higher level of rigor of in-person class.”

Looking back, thinking forward

How do students get back on track? All of the interviewed faculty members agreed that one of the most important steps faculty can take is to reassess how they teach. “Almost all of my faculty are talking about how they are changing what they’re doing and how they’re addressing the students’ academic, intellectual and emotional needs, so we’re talking about best practices, adjusting our syllabuses, giving extra credit and redoing tests; and we’re taking more time to make sure they learn the content,” said Provost.

As a result of the added time constraints, he acknowledged, teachers are sometimes unable to cover the full range of material during a course. That shouldn’t a problem for entry-level students, who he expects will get caught up by the time they graduate, but he is concerned about upperclassmen. Provost remarked, “We can’t expect seniors to cram in three years of work when they’re also trying to figure out how to be a person. It’s a rough balance, and I think across the globe, we’re all trying to figure out new learning tools (and methods), while also using our pre-pandemic experience to help us help our students.”

A step that McGill has taken this semester is to begin each class with a study-tip slide that gives students concrete touchstones. Examples include a reminder that an exam is coming up, a note about where they should be in their studying, or a poll asking how many of the available practice problems they have done. She also has added what she terms a “learning reflection” to the syllabus. This gives students time to think about how an exam went, or what they could do to prepare better next time, she explained. “This is a way of highlighting study skills, and it’s one that maybe I should have been doing before, but I’m definitely doing now.”

Besides the classroom additions, McGill has expanded her office hours to accommodate students who recognized they were not prepared for the rigors of in-person classes. “They packed my office the first week. They were aware that there was a challenge, or they were warned that there might be a challenge, so they sought help early. Maybe on a cynical level, I was expecting a little bit more of a the-pandemic-was-hard attitude, but I have not found that. I have found them refreshingly positive, working hard and showing a resilience that I think is great.”

Other suggestions

To build missing lab skills, some schools are offering mini courses. The University of San Diego, for instance, offered a week-and-a-half bootcamp for students. While it couldn’t cover everything students would have learned in a live lab class, Provost said, it gave them practice on many of the basics. Georgia Gwinnett College, a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HIS), applied for and obtained an ACS mini-grant, which it used to offer a lab-skills short course in the spring of 2022. Villanueva is happy to report that it was well-attended. “Part of the reason we had such a good number of students participate is that we told them they would get a certificate from the American Chemical Society. That kind of recognition from a national organization is a big deal to students who are underrepresented,” he said.

Villanueva also hopes to see additional ACS resources, including workshops,  become available to help all institutions implement techniques and best practices in online teaching. Provost seconded that notion about resources, and specifically suggested that the ACS assemble a collection of well-done, vetted-for-content videos that faculty can either incorporate into their courses or suggest to students who need extra guidance on a topic.

The most important thing that ACS can do to help departments, faculty and students today is to “continue to make this a relevant topic, so the community keeps talking about it.”

Such a close examination is important, added McGill. “For me, what the pandemic has done is amplified and highlighted many of the problems that were there before, especially for students who are the first in their family to attend college and for students of underrepresented groups where the disparities are greater,” she said. “Through the past two years, I think we’ve all gained a greater sense of awareness of these problems, and are now thinking more critically about how to address them. I’ll take that as a silver lining.”