Sac State study shows how student anxiety has increased with online learning and could lead to measures to alleviate stress

After a sharp shift to online instruction in March 2020, Sacramento State faculty looked for ways to engage their students while helping them deal with the stress of continuing their education during a global pandemic.

However, even when they became familiar with online learning, many students remained apprehensive about it and found it difficult to focus on academics while studying from home, a Sac State research project has revealed.

The results of the study, conducted by a team from the departments of biological sciences, environmental studies and mathematics, can be used in future courses to help students get the most out of their online learning experiences, the researchers said. Their work was recently published in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education.

The researchers say they hope professors will use the information to tailor future online interactions so that students feel more comfortable.

With instructions ranging from classrooms to computer screens, “we knew this was going to be something big, and we wanted to get in and get some data,” said environmental studies lecturer Cathy Ishikawa. “It was an opportunity to study stress and anxiety related to online learning.”

Researchers surveyed hundreds of students taking science, technology, engineering and math classes during the final two weeks of the Spring 2020 semester, the first for online learning, and again at the fall 2020 as the pandemic kept them at home.

On a scale of 1 to 5, students shared their level of anxiety about specific online tasks, such as “unmuting” their microphones to answer questions and turning on their video during class. They also assessed factors, such as limited access to technology and health issues, that prevented them from participating or performing well in their online classes.

Students in both semesters reported the greatest anxiety about tasks that required them to interact directly with others, such as turning on audio on their computers, working in breakout rooms, or launching video stream. About 10% of students surveyed said they were “very strongly” anxious about these tasks.

A majority of students said they became less interested in course materials after they started taking online courses. Limited access to technology, health and work-related stress, and distractions created by phones and other personal devices played a key role in limiting their participation and engagement, they reported.

The shift to online learning “was definitely weird for me,” said Eric Pennino, the paper’s lead author and graduate student in biology. Especially in STEM courses, “it’s very important to interact with each other and work together”.

“I am grateful to have connected with other students and faculty members before (COVID-19) happened,” he said. “But I was even less engaged than I normally would be.”

Researchers expected anxiety to decrease and engagement to increase in the second semester of online learning as students adapt to the new approach and more academics take advantage of the benefits. free laptops and other tools provided by the university. Instead, a slight majority said they felt more anxious about learning online in fall 2020.

“We 100% expected less anxiety and more engagement in the fall, but that was definitely not the case,” Pennino said, offering the possible explanation that the students interacted with their classmates and their instructors in the previous semester before switching to online learning.

Distance learning is likely to remain a part of university life, possibly including online lectures or Zoom meetings between professors and students.

“Having an understanding of the things that cause stress and anxiety is helpful whether you’re in person or online,” Ishikawa said. “The information we have can help us help students deal with stress.”

To read the full article, go to the journal’s archives at:

About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy birdwatching from their perch next to the living room window.

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