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:

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 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.

2 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. 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.



  2. 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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