Objectives: We examined undergraduate STEM students' experiences during Spring 2020 when universities switched to remote instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, we sought to understand actions by universities and instructors that students found effective or ineffective, as well as instructor behaviors that conveyed a sense of caring or not caring about their students' success.
Methods: In July 2020 we conducted 16 focus groups with STEM undergraduate students enrolled in US colleges and universities (N = 59). Focus groups were stratified by gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Content analyses were performed using a data-driven inductive approach.
Results: Participants (N = 59; 51% female) were racially/ethnically diverse (76% race/ethnicity other than non-Hispanic white) and from 32 colleges and universities. The most common effective instructor strategies mentioned included hybrid instruction (35%) and use of multiple tools for learning and student engagement (27%). The most common ineffective strategies mentioned were increasing the course workload or difficulty level (18%) and use of pre-recorded lectures (15%). The most common behaviors cited as making students feel the instructor cared about their success were exhibiting leniency and/or flexibility regarding course policies or assessments (29%) and being responsive and accessible to students (25%). The most common behaviors cited as conveying the instructors did not care included poor communication skills (28%) and increasing the difficulty of the course (15%). University actions students found helpful included flexible policies (41%) and moving key services online (e.g., tutoring, counseling; 24%). Students felt universities should have created policies for faculty and departments to increase consistency (26%) and ensured communication strategies were honest, prompt, and transparent (23%).
Conclusions: To be prepared for future emergencies, universities should devise evidence-based policies for remote operations and all instructors should be trained in best practices for remote instruction. Research is needed to identify and ameliorate negative impacts of the pandemic on STEM education.