Students' experiences of stress increase with the coronavirus pandemic

Three semesters of "Studying during the Pandemic" have massively changed both everyday life and learning. This is the finding of a survey of students enrolled at the University of Trier.

Students who enrolled a year and a half ago have only seen  their university in photos and met their fellow students online in video seminars. Psychologically, they are affected by this situation, and they worry about how their studies will continue. We have heard that time and again. But do they apply to the majority? How are students actually doing in the pandemic? Joining forces to answer these questions, the University of Trier and the Leibniz Institute for Psychology (ZPID) conducted a survey among students on their specific situations during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Of course, this survey is only a snapshot. Yet the results reveal what this prolonged exercise in patience has produced. Indeed, the library, as a key location on campus, has been reopened for some time. However, this is not enough to improve the general well-being of the student body. Variety is essential. The monotony of the situation is stressful. This can be felt everywhere, says Prof. Michael Jäckel, University President and initiator of the study, when describing the situation.

From May 7 to 24, 1,806 students enrolled at the University of Trier completed the survey. Around a quarter of the participants began their studies in the summer semester of 2020, and these students have only attended classes digitally to date. Strikingly, all students surveyed show a high degree of agreement in the assessment of their overall situation. And the same applies to their assessment of the difficulties they face. Only 10 percent feel that it is easier to study during the coronavirus pandemic, compared to the other 90 percent who feel that studying is more difficult or significantly more difficult. At the same time, around 60 percent of the surveyed students expressed more concern about the success of their studies and their own future prospects.

"The coronavirus pandemic is not only a genuine challenge, but often also a source of stress for students and teachers. We quickly responded to the changing circumstances by implementing our EUR 50 million program aimed specifically at the digitization of universities, establishing regulations for online examinations, and increasing the duration of standard study programs," said Clemens Hoch, Minister of Science in Rhineland Palatinate. "We willingly provided funding for this study to find out more precisely what the stress factors are. Building on these findings we want to explore, together with the universities,  what can be improved. This is not just about how studying in the pandemic affects us, but also about studying in a more digitally oriented way in the future. Looking ahead to the winter semester, I’m optimistic: If we continue to make good progress with immunizations, we can look forward to an upcoming semester featuring renewed in-person attendance at our universities."

Three semesters of digital learning have left their mark. Approximately three-quarters of the students surveyed rate their mental and emotional health (77 percent) and their general well-being (73 percent) worse than in the pre-coronavirus period. Sixty-eight percent report being unable to concentrate, and 65 percent experience difficulties in organizing their daily lives. At the same time, many students do not feel upset by the burdens and limitations of the current situation. In fact, about 80 percent report that they personally fared reasonably well to very well during the pandemic. In addition, the students seem to have developed a certain resilience to the circumstances: Overall, in terms of emotional and psychological functioning, about 73 percent indicated that they are coping with the situation reasonably well to very well at the moment.

However, the pandemic has had a massive impact on the learning situation. After the first lockdown, in-person courses for the 2020 summer semester had to be converted to digital formats in a matter of weeks. Even though students are still encountering problems in online teaching, 30 percent report being slightly satisfied with their university studies under pandemic conditions, 41 percent are somewhat satisfied, and 14 percent are very satisfied. As problems, the students report difficulties in communicating with fellow students (90 percent) and working in digital learning groups (75 percent). Most students expect the coronavirus pandemic to have a massive impact on their studies. In fact, 83 percent assume that their study time will be extended by the pandemic, and 28 percent of those surveyed are even considering withdrawing from the university altogether.

The students rate their university highly in terms of its handling of the pandemic. Around 73 percent are satisfied or very satisfied with the University of Trier’s coronavirus management strategy. The majority (66 percent) of students say the university has taken exactly the appropriate actions to mitigate the pandemic. In addition, more than half (58 percent) feel that the university’s wide range of specific pandemic services has provided them with sufficient support.

"In this collaborative project, we were able to contribute our specific expertise in the field of online data collection and the measurement of psychological characteristics. We are pleased to report these conclusive findings, which are relevant for both decision making and practical action by the University of Trier. Furthermore, from the students’ perspective, these findings attest to the university’s excellent pandemic management practices," says ZPID Director, Prof. Michael Bosnjak.

Among the things students have missed most in recent months are the university dining facility (i.e., mensa) and cafeterias, socializing with friends and family, attending in-person classes and events on campus and — even more than their favorite bar or pub — the study groups on campus instead of in virtual chat rooms.

In view of the positive developments in the fight against the pandemic, some of these desires could once again become reality in the winter semester. This should further bolster the "rather hopeful" expectations expressed by 60 percent of the respondents for the second half of 2021.

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