How COVID Has Permanently Changed College Teaching

September 14, 2021

In March and April of 2020, students and professors logged on to digital lectures thinking that they’d be “back to normal” in a matter of weeks. Since then, so much has shifted that it’s hard to imagine a complete return to pre-pandemic normal. There will undoubtedly be a joyous return to face-to-face community building, but many COVID teaching changes will remain.


Changing Expectations

‌The pandemic has shattered many expectations about learning. Students quickly realized that classes and homework could fit into their day-to-day lives instead of the other way around.

‌Students who learned at home are now accustomed to navigating school around their personal and even work responsibilities. According to one survey by Inside Higher Ed, more than 30% of students took on more paid work during the pandemic, and non-traditional students with families found a new balance at home. 

‌Even traditional college students have experienced a new merging of school and home life. It’s no longer possible for faculty to create a boundary between class and a student’s family or health needs. 

‌This has made school more personal. Students expect their teachers to be more flexible about deadlines and project completion, especially in the presence of circumstances like family illness. This expectation is unlikely to go away, even when more students return to live school full-time.

Reliance on Online Learning

‌While more than 80% of students are eager to get back to in-person learning, nearly one in 10 students don’t ever want to return to in-person classrooms. Many more want the option to switch between in-person and remote learning.

‌It’s hard to predict what that kind of a hybrid model will look like. Still, online learning will be a standard part of college teaching for many years to come. Universities will add more virtual classes to their course catalogs, which will mean more digital teaching as part of faculty workloads.

‌These online classes will reach more students in more places and will open the door for more non-traditional students to attend college. Teachers will need to offer virtual office hours, possibly at different times of day to accommodate student schedules and time zones. 

‌Those online meetings will likely be popular with all students. Already, one in three students has asked for teachers to keep pandemic offerings like virtual advising and tutoring.

Increased Use of Teaching Technology

‌The return of campus life won’t eliminate online interaction, but it will allow universities and instructors to select the best aspects. Many teachers are already planning to send their students “one-way” content like lectures and reading in advance, so they can reserve in-person time for interaction.

‌This kind of strategy fits with what the post-pandemic student needs. Around 79% of surveyed students want their teachers to share lectures online, having become accustomed to reviewing content when they need to clarify a concept.

‌That digital content will be of higher quality than it was before the pandemic. The absence of in-person learning has highlighted the need for strong digital content, and there will be no going back to anything less. Expect interactive course materials, 3D content, and even simulations.

Requiring Teachers to Engage and Communicate on New Levels

Educators know that relationship-building and engagement are key to student success. Before the pandemic, that meant connecting with students while they were in the classroom. It was easier to build genuine relationships when spontaneous conversations could spring up, or when you could pull aside a student who seemed to be struggling. 

Personal engagement had to become more purposeful and proactive in the Zoom era. To show students you care, you need to reach out individually and find out what each person needs to connect with the class. 

‌With online learning, this connection goes beyond the material. It means learning what each student’s challenges are and how you can help them meet those challenges. It means using what you learn about students to design activities that they find relevant, interesting, and accessible.

These new engagement styles are helpful for students whose life situations make in-person attendance difficult, or whose style of participation may take a form other than hand-raising.

The secondary benefit is the growth of assignments that more closely resemble real-world activities. Instead of a timed in-seat final exam, students complete applied learning projects that demonstrate their mastery and let them show you how they shine.

Recognizing the Importance of Mental Health

‌During the pandemic, more than 95% of college students struggled with mental health symptoms.  Nearly half struggle with anxiety and depression, isolation, and an inability to focus.

In another study, almost 80% of professors reported that students have come to them for help with mental health issues. Nine in 10 believe that they have dealt with these issues more often since learning moved online.

Teachers want to help, but it’s difficult to be a student’s first line of support if you don’t have training. It’s hard to know what services to suggest or, more importantly, how to know if a student is having a mental health emergency.

But as teachers became students’ first lines of defense — their only lines of defense, for many students working at home — schools have started to step up and provide much-needed training for their staff. 

Around 30% of surveyed professors say that their institutions have offered formal training to help them deal with students’ mental health challenges. Almost three-quarters of the remainder want this kind of training. With this level of demand, mental health training for educators is very likely to continue.‌

Meanwhile, teachers worldwide have realized how much students’ mental and emotional well-being impacts their learning. This awareness will influence how teachers approach students for a very long time, ideally forever.

How COVID Changed College Education

‌As higher education moves into a post-pandemic world, many COVID teaching changes will become permanent fixtures. You’ll see much more technology in the classroom and many more courses held entirely on digital platforms. 

Even online learning will look different than it did before the pandemic. Thanks to over a year of practice engaging via screens, expect more interaction and a more personal experience. 


But perhaps most important will be the renewed focus on students and teachers as individuals. Everyone has learned to take care of one another — mentally and socially — and that will become a welcome fixture of college life.

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