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PreK-12 Ed Eval TIG Week: Students Describe How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Their Engagement in Learning by Marisa K. Crowder and Samantha E. Holquist

Hello! My name is Marisa Crowder, I am a researcher at McREL International. My colleague is Samantha Holquist, a research scientist at the Search Institute. We are excited to share some of the findings from our recent study, which was conducted in collaboration with youth researchers. The focus on this blog is on findings that discuss student engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 has drastically altered the delivery of education. Numerous resources have been disseminated to support educators in their transition from in-person learning to distance learning. Many of these resources are aimed at promoting student engagement in their learning in this new context. Our recent white paper (see below) summarizes a study in which we asked students (n = 19) if and how the COVID-19 pandemic affected their engagement during spring 2020. Their focus group responses were sobering:

  • The Shift to Virtual Learning. Most students noted that the shift to virtual learning negatively impacted their ability to engage in their learning.
  • Mental Health Concerns: Many students noted that their mental health suffered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, this meant prioritizing their mental health over their academic engagement.
  • Access to Resources: Some students shared that their educators assumed that all students had access to the resources that had been available at school (e.g., stable internet to attend a virtual class, an environment conducive to learning).
  • Limited Communication with Teachers: Students noted that some of their teachers were not accessible or available during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Busywork: Teachers tended to fill students time with “busywork” rather than educational experiences.

The silver lining? Students noted that teachers who were engaging before the pandemic continued to be so. It seemed that the pandemic exacerbated the lack of engagement among those instructors who did not prioritize student engagement in the first place. Students offered their insights into how educators could support their learning during a pandemic.

Lessons Learned:

  • Partner with Students to Understand Their Experiences: Students are experts in their experiences. When evaluations are conducted in partnership with students, evaluators are better able to center students’ lived experiences and needs in their data collection, analysis, and findings. When conducting evaluations of learning settings, partner with at least two student researchers to bring additional expertise and nuance into the findings.
  • Meet Students Where They Are: Help educators to understand who their students are and what they bring to the table; encourage them to provide access to resources and offer multiple modes of communication and ways to demonstrate their learning (e.g., social media platforms).
  • Prioritize Teacher-Student Relationships: Students are more likely to engage when they believe their teacher cares about them. Help teachers show they care about students’ lives inside and outside of the learning environment.
  • Offer “Meal Prep” Assignments: Rather than assign busywork, encourage educators to offer assignments at the start of the week that build on each other throughout the week. For example, a student can fill out an assignment as they continue to learn lessons on the topic.

Students also acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for teachers. Their insights were offered to support educators in understanding the student perspective and to demonstrate their own awareness that engagement is a “collective performance” in which everyone plays a role.

Rad Resources:

You can access the white paper here: https://www.mcrel.org/the-silent-epidemic-finds-its-voice/

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Ed Eval TIG Week with our colleagues in the PreK-12 Educational Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our Ed Eval TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

6 thoughts on “PreK-12 Ed Eval TIG Week: Students Describe How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Their Engagement in Learning by Marisa K. Crowder and Samantha E. Holquist”

  1. Hi Marissa and Samantha,

    I am further contributing to this very interesting post, coming to you as a student from Queens University PME program. This topic stood out to me, as it is something that I, as an educator can relate to and have been wanting to read more about and speak on.

    Thank you for sharing your valuable findings regarding this topic, as it is something that has changed the face of not only education – but so many other areas of life. Having started teaching and the pandemic hitting, I almost feel like I have not known any other way of teaching! For a lot of these students, they have not been a part of or do not remember any other way of learning (depending on their age group). This is something that I always keep in mind. I found the input from students so very valuable and something that I will take forward even into the start of the upcoming weeks of December.

    For example, with the suggestion of partnering with students to understand their experiences – I often find that it is a worthwhile, valuable and engaging practice to involve students in the creation of expectations, routines and even rubrics for their best learning. It is also interesting to see their engagement with their learning, accountability and level of understanding prior to assessment at this time. In addition to this input was the discussion of mental health being prioritized over academic learning. At my school, we are focusing on Personal/Social Responsibility and S.E.L. first and foremost – as we have seen firsthand, how fragile student mental health is at this point. Many students have forgotten how to be a part of a cohesive class environment, how to interact and connect with others and to meet expectations academically. Social and emotional learning must come first before any other learning can take place.

    Furthermore, I have been really practicing meeting students where they currently are during this pandemic, which is a suggestion offered in this article. Seeing the diverse learning needs, differing levels of understanding and students coming from multiple backgrounds with either in-person or online learning the past two years – it has been challenging to even think about teaching in a “one way fits all” approach. I have been exploring utilizing tools such as a translator app for students that I am unable to communicate with, scaffolding word problems for math for students having trouble understanding the English component, understanding that some students learn best with hands-on experience and offering these opportunities and taking all learning styles into account.

    Reading this post and having further insight was very valuable. Thank you for your input to the education and evaluation community.

    -Sonika Woodwall

  2. Hi Marisa and Samantha,

    Like many of the previous commenters, I am also a student at Queen’s University taking a course in Program Evaluation.

    Having taught secondary school students fully remotely in Canada during the 2020/2021 school year, your post on “Students Describe How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Their Engagement in Learning” (Crowder and Holquist, 2021) naturally caught my attention.

    The “Lessons Learned” section of your post provided some crucial information on factors on which school boards can base upcoming professional development. I wonder how school boards might use evaluators to help administration better understand student voice and the next steps to enhancing engagement. Your figure on “Proposed Framework for Guiding Practice and Research on Student Engagement” (Holquist et al., 2020) would be a practical starting point for the myriad practices that all those in education can use to increase engagement.

    I was surprised, however, to read that most students in your study felt that learning online negatively impacted their engagement, that students felt teachers made assumptions about their access to resources, and that they felt they received busywork instead of learning opportunities. These findings contradicted the information I received from my students when teaching online, and so I endeavoured to read your white paper for more details on the methods used and data you acquired.

    The qualitative research study entitled “The Silent Epidemic Finds Its Voice” (Holquist et al., 2020) asked very important questions. I wonder, however, how the qualitative data might be backed up by quantitative data. For example, the nineteen students in your study were classified as engaged or disengaged; how was this status determined? Are there academic correlations for these classifications, and do the academics/grades span pre-pandemic to during the pandemic? Additionally, might there be external factors (like domestic issues, student employment, students taking on child-minding responsibilities, and mental health, etc.) influencing disengagement that were not considered in this study? Do you feel nineteen students is enough of a sample to draw significant conclusions?

    In Daniel Stufflebeam’s “Evaluation Design Checklist” (2004), I learned that evaluators should “plan to contrast different subsets of qualitative and quantitative information to identify both corroborative and contradictory findings”. I would be interested to see how a range of data might address your final question: “Is disengagement a Silent Epidemic because educators aren’t asking students how they can support them?” (Holquist et al. 2020).

    Thank you for an insightful post that will certainly inform my teaching practices, especially on consulting with students to support their engagement.


    Crowder, M., & Holquist, S. (2021, May 6). Students Describe How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Their Engagement in Learning [Web log post]. Retrieved November 7, 2021, from https://aea365.org/blog/prek-12-ed-eval-tig-week-students-describe-how-the-covid-19-pandemic-affected-their-engagement-in-learning-by-marisa-k-crowder-and-samantha-e-holquist/

    Holquist, S. E., Cetz, J., O’Neil, S. D., Smiley, D., Taylor, L. M., & Crowder, M. K. (2020). The “silent epidemic” finds its voice: Demystifying how students view engagement in their learning. McREL International.

    Stufflebeam, D. (2004). Evaluation Design Checklist. The Evaluation Center. Western Michigan University. https://wmich.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/u350/2014/evaldesign.pdf

  3. Dear Melissa and Samantha,

    I found your post insightful and useful. Throughout the pandemic, I have often wondered how to measure and increase my students’ engagement in their learning. I have prioritized trying to find new ways to make it as interesting and relevant as possible and to make my students feel connected to their learning, their peers and myself. To provide a bit of background context, I am a Year 6 teacher in a British school and we have been fully online since September. I am also currently completing my Masters of Education through Queen’s University. I’m taking a course on Program Evaluation and whilst it has been an entirely new field to me, I had not realized that I have been using a form of evaluation throughout the entire school year with my own class until reading your post.

    Since I teach younger students, I use a weekly “check-in” Google form where students are asked various questions relating to online school. They included open-ended inquiries into how they felt about their learning; how they were feeling in general; what they enjoyed most about online school that week; what they may need help with (and this could be anything related to school or something personal); and, what they wished I knew as their teacher. The survey also included close-ended questions asking students to rate their learning and engagement. It was fascinating to discover how forthcoming my students were. I was able to examine the quantitative data (using the Smiley Face Likert Scale) and qualitative data by closely reading my students’ written responses and examining them for trends and anomalies.

    The main theme that I discovered was that students missed the social aspect of school and missed their peers. They missed collaborating and working together on group projects, having recess together, planning events and so forth. Having this information, I was able to better plan my lessons to ensure that there was still a collaborative element to their learning. The positive side is that we have an influx of synchronous technology and digital resources that allow us to do that including using breakout rooms on Google Meet.

    In addition to that, I was able to identify issues my students were struggling with both personally and academically in order to inform my planning and instruction. If a student did not respond to the survey or I felt there was something up, I would call them directly to have a chat. Now that we are nearing the end of the year, I have realized the power of checking in – my online classes have nearly perfect attendance each day and my students have reported that they felt online learning “wasn’t so bad after all” and “actually mostly fun”.

    There is no easy way for a teacher to have all students fully on board in their learning – but your post couldn’t be more right about partnering with students to understand their experience and prioritizing student-teacher relationships. Overall, what I learned from collecting data in my own class was invaluable. I would highly recommend to any teacher to survey their students weekly if they can, as it does give a glimpse into their minds when you are unable to in-person. It is an evaluative practice that I will continue with once we return to some sort of “normality” again in the fall.

    Thank you again for your post,


  4. Hi Marisa and Samantha,

    I enjoyed reading your post.

    I am currently completing my master’s degree in education, and one of the topics we have covered is curriculum development and the theoretical approaches that support different instructional strategies. Your research and lessons learned promotes a progressist, learner-centred curriculum design.

    Although most teachers have attempted to progress from an essentialist approach to instructions to a progressist or re-constructionalist, I still find many teachers unable to move away from their traditional (outdated) instruction methods during this pandemic.

    Lessons Learned
    1. Partner with students to understand their experience.
    2. Meet students where they are.
    3. Prioritize teacher-student relationships.
    4. Offer “meal-prep” assignments.

    The Lessons Learned are great ways to increase student engagement; if children have an interest, then education happens (Mitra, 2010). Item 4 – offer meal-prep is a great strategy, by providing students with a learning target and scoring criteria in advance will likely boost intrinsic motivation and a drive to learning (McMillan, 2014).

    Thank you for your valuable post.


  5. Hello Marissa and Samantha,

    I am a student at Queen’s University in Canada, pursuing my Professional Masters of Education. I am currently enrolled in a course titled Program Inquiry and Evaluation. One of our course requirements is to engage with the evaluation community through this website. This specific assignment is to find an article that we find interesting and respond to the author(s).

    First, I would like to say thank you for taking the time to complete this study and sharing the results with this community. I am a teacher in Alberta, Canada and we have bounced back and forth from in person learning to online learning over the past 15 months, as much of the world has. While I have taken time to chat with my students about what works best for them during online learning, this study does a brilliant job of addressing the big questions that I have as pandemic educator but didn’t take the time to ask in a detailed way.

    Next, I very much appreciate the insights you provided as to what affected student engagement during the pandemic. Looking back, I can see how all of these impacted my student’s engagement in both years. The Lessons Learned that you shared here in this article and in more detail in your white paper are invaluable. I really like the idea of a “Meal Prep” assignments. While I provided students with “A Week at a Glance,” not all my assignments were tied together or tied to a specific lesson. Fingers crossed that we don’t end up back in an online learning situation, but I will absolutely provide that style of assignment if we do. I also agree with the idea that prioritizing the student teacher relationship will help to encourage student engagement. I also think it positively impacts everyone’s mental health!

    Lastly, when reading your white paper, I quite enjoyed The Value of Youth and Adult Partnerships in Research section. This information links closely to what we are learning about participatory evaluation and reinforced my belief that youth bring a necessary perspective and should be considered valuable stakeholders when completing educational research or evaluation. They can bring a unique perspective to the team which results in more valuable evaluation, or in your case research.

    Thank you again for sharing your research and findings with the evaluation community.



  6. Hi Marisa and Samantha,

    Thank you for sharing your findings regarding student engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. When my school/classes turned to distance education in Spring 2020, I faced many of the issues the students mentioned in your study. In particular, students felt the shift to online learning to be challenging, as many did not have the right tools, resources, and environment that are conducive to learning. In fact, many of my students had to put their education on the back burner as they took part-time jobs to support their families. In addition to this, as most teachers had limited experience to teaching online, this lack of experience cultivated “busywork”, as you stated in your research. I am definitely guilty of that. However, I’ve reflected a lot on my practice and have since changed my attitude and approach towards distance learning.

    Your research provided four strategies to mitigate some of the concerns surrounding engagement:
    1. Partner with students to understand their experience.
    2. Meet students where they are.
    3. Prioritize teacher-student relationships.
    4. Offer “meal-prep” assignments.
    All of these strategies are indeed true and will definitely do wonders in targeting and resolving some of the barriers to engagement that are seen in your study. I’ve experienced first-hand how continued engaged teaching produces engagement in students. This is definitely through careful and intentional cultivation of engagement culture throughout one’s practice. The cultivation of engagement culture is not something that can be quickly achieved.

    On the flip side, I wonder how teacher engagement has changed due to the pandemic, as this can greatly affect the quality of teaching that is given to the students. I mention this as I am sure that teachers too have experienced challenges and familial responsibilities, such as child-care, caring for parents, second jobs, etc.

    Thanks again for both of your insights.


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