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Is the Pandemic Affecting Science and Engineering Undergraduate Students?


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Each year, during the fifth week of the Winter semester, a survey is distributed to all Technion undergraduate students (about 10,000 students) . The purpose of the survey is to let the students' voices and perspectives about their learning experience at the Technion be heard, and to take relevant actions according to the survey findings. This year (2020-2021), a new set of questions was added to the survey that addressed the learning taking place at the Technion during the Corona pandemic. The purpose of these questions was to discover what is bothering the students during this special time and to address these issues as part of the Technion's proactive approach and activities for coping with the pandemic and with the need to transition to on-line learning. This survey will be referred to in what follows as "the 5th-week survey."

Two of the questions in this survey address students' concerns regarding six factors, which were grouped into on-campus factors (specifically, end-of-semester exams, students' social lives, and the extension of the duration of their studies) and off-campus factors (specifically, students' financial situations, the future of the labor market, and what the world will look like in the future).

The first question, which addressed the students' feelings with respect to the above factors, was: For each of the following factors of uncertainty, please indicate whether you are concerned/not concerned by its existence in this time of distance learning. The students were asked to rank their feelings on a three-point scale: Not concerned, occasionally concerned, and concerned. The second question requested the students to estimate their peers' concerns with respect to the above factors: For each of the following factors of uncertainty, please indicate how, in your opinion, the other students feel. Students again were asked to rank their answers on a three-point scale: Most students are less concerned than I am, most students are as concerned as I am, and most students are more concerned than I am.

Table 1 presents the number and percentage of students who answered the 5th-week survey by their year of study. The students who answered the survey represent their respective cohorts in terms of their faculty, gender, and mother language.

Table 1: Number of students who answered the 5th-week survey and percentage of their relevant cohort, Winter 2020-2021

Freshmen

Sophomores

Juniors

Seniors

873 (36.2%)

397 (18.6%)

369 (18.7%)

294 (16.5%)

The picture that emerged with respect to four of the factors—the students' social life, the extension of the duration of their studies, the future of the labor market, and what the world will look like in the future—was understandable and consistent. For the remaining two factors—end-of-semester exams and the students' financial situation—a different and surprising picture emerged. Specifically, while for the first four factors, students' concerns were distributed more or less evenly among the three optional answers, and the majority estimated that most of their peers feel more or less like they do, the following picture emerged with respect to end-of-semester exams and their financial situation: Most students in all years of study were concerned about end-of-semester exams and estimated that their peers feel more or less the same. With respect to their financial situation, the majority of students in all years of study were not concerned, but estimated that their peers are more concerned than they are (see Tables 2A, 2B and Tables 3A and 3B, respectively).

Table 2A: Students' concerns regarding end-of-semester exams

 

Freshman

Sophomores

Juniors

Seniors

Concerned

63%

60%

57%

51%

Occasionally concerned

30%

27%

27%

30%

Not concerned

7%

12%

16%

19%

Total

100%

100%

100%

100%

 

Table 2B: Students' estimation of their peers' concern regarding end-of-semester exams

 

Freshman

Sophomores

Juniors

Seniors

Most students are more concerned than I am

33%

30%

38%

43%

Most students are as concerned as I am

65%

67%

59%

54%

Most students are less concerned than I am

2%

3%

3%

3%

Total

100%

100%

100%

100%

 

Table 3A: Students' concerns regarding their financial situation

 

Freshman

Sophomores

Juniors

Seniors

Concerned

19%

28%

28%

30%

Occasionally concerned

28%

33%

32%

24%

Not concerned

53%

39%

40%

46%

Total

100%

100%

100%

100%

 

Table 3B: Students' estimation of their peers' concern regarding their financial situation

 

Freshman

Sophomores

Juniors

Seniors

Most students are more concerned than I am

48%

54%

59%

62%

Most students are as concerned as I am

44%

39%

35%

32%

Most students are less concerned than I am

8%

7%

6%

6%

Total

100%

100%

100%

100%

To understand the different pictures that emerged with respect to the above two factors, following the 5th-week survey, a second, follow-up survey was distributed to students who expressed willingness to answer an additional survey designed to clarify observations from the 5th-week survey. Four hundred sixty-one students provided their email addresses in the 5th-week survey, of which 141 answered the follow-up survey (a 31% response rate).

Along with other questions included in the second survey, we used this opportunity to ask the students to explain the different picture that emerged from the first survey with respect to students' concern regarding the end-of-semester exams and their financial situation.

End-of-semester exams

To understand the reason so many of the students were concerned about the end-of-semester exams, the follow-up survey included a question in which a list of factors was presented and students were requested to indicate whether or not they were explanatory factors for these concerns. The question was: "Students' answers to the question: "What are the students concerned about at this time?", presented in the previous survey, revealed that one of the factors that students were significantly concerned about is end-of-semester exams. For each of the following explanations, please indicate whether you think it can explain these concerns." The six explanations presented were: The Corona period, on-line exams, the statement "Exams are always stressful," the student's study year, the student's faculty, and the statement "Exams at the Technion are always difficult." These explanations were elicited from students' answers to an open question included in the 5th-week survey, in which they were asked to explain their concerns. As can be seen, two explanations were directly connected to the pandemic (the Corona period and on-line exams), and the others were not.

Figure 1 presents the percentages of students who indicated each explanation as being (or not being) an explanatory factor for students' concerns about end-of-semester exams. As can be seen, two explanations that are not directly related to the pandemic ("Exams are always stressful" and " Exams at the Technion are always difficult") were rated the same as the two pandemic-related explanations.

Figure 1: Students' evaluation of reasons explaining students' concerns about the semester's final exams

In other words, the pandemic and on-line exams are not in themselves significant explanatory factors for students' concerns about end-of-semester exams. Thus, had we not asked the students to explain students' concerns about the end-of-semester exams, we could have wrongly assumed that the concerns stem from the pandemic period and the different learning and testing styles.

The students' answers to the open question in which they were asked to explain their perspective on the explanatory factors reveal that the exams themselves are the main source of concern, to which the on-line format of exams merely adds additional concern. This combination of reasons has, however, wider implications since it alludes to an important challenge of distance learning in general, which the Corona period only highlights.

Financial situation

As described above, the picture that emerged of the students' concerns regarding their and their peers' financial situations was different than that revealed with respect to the other factors mentioned in the 5th-week survey. While more students, in all years of study, declared that they are not concerned about their own financial situation, when estimating their peers' concern about their financial situation, more students, in all years of study, chose the statement "Most students are more concerned than I am."

To understand this result, we included the following question in the second survey: "In response to the question 'At this time, what concerns the students?', it was found that most students are not concerned by their financial situation, but they assume that their peers are more concerned than they are by their own financial situation. How can you explain this phenomenon?"

We were surprised by the students' answers. We assumed that they would explain this phenomenon using what could be interpreted as projection. Projection is a self-defense mechanism exhibited when a person does not want to admit something about his or herself (usually a trait or a feeling). In other words, we assumed that the students would say that the students would not admit (in the 5th-week survey) they are concerned by their financial situation, and therefore project their own concerns about their financial situations onto their peers.

The picture that emerged was, however, different. Table 4 presents the most frequent explanations students gave for this phenomenon (93 out of 119 answers). As can be seen, most of the students not only thought that the students are not concerned by their own financial situation, but they do not even know of a peer with a financial problem. They just assume that their peers are concerned by their financial situation, following reports in the media about financial difficulties. Only six students explained this phenomenon using what could be interpreted as projection.

Table 4: Students' explanations of students' estimation of their peers' concern about their financial situation

Explanation

Number of students who gave this explanation

Their financial situation is good (they saved money, their parents help them, they work, etc.) and since they are not familiar with their peers' financial situations, they assume it is worse than their own financial situation.

48

They know from the media that people are facing financial difficulties and conclude that their peers are as well. 

35

Projection (they do not want to admit that their situation is bad).

6

They know friends who were affected by the pandemic.

4

Thus, had we not asked the students to explain this phenomenon, we could have assumed that they face financial difficulties (and project). However, by asking the students to explain this phenomenon, we revealed that they did not in fact project and, indeed, are not concerned by their financial situation.

Conclusion

This blog has illustrated the importance of listening to the students' voice. We showed that in two cases, the Technion could have taken incorrect actions had it not asked for its students' input regarding possible explanations for phenomena that had no obvious explanation. In the case of students' concerns about end-of-semester exams, had the Technion failed to listen to the students' voice, it could have wrongly attributed this concern to the pandemic while, in fact, from the students' perspective, nothing had changed during the pandemic with respect to their concerns regarding end-of- semester exams. With respect to students' financial situation, had the Technion failed to listen to the students' voice, it could have been wrongly assumed that the students had projected their concerns onto their friends, and could have addressed this issue more broadly than was really needed. We do mention, however, that the Technion has a very professional, designated unit that addresses students' financial problems, regardless of the pandemic.

 

Orit Hazzan is a professor at the Technion's Department of Education in Science and Technology. Her research focuses on computer science, software engineering, and data science education. For additional details, see https://orithazzan.net.technion.ac.il/. Ronit Lis-Hacohen is a Ph.D. student at the Technion's Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, and Manager of the Technion's International Office.


 

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