Like many others, I was looking forward to the return to face-to-face classes after COVID 19 had peaked and most of us were vaccinated. Most of my colleagues and I reentered the university classroom in March of 2022 still wary of becoming sick, but more than ready to put the worst of Zoom fatigue behind us. The numbers were still quite high here in Korea, and 5-10% of my students were absent from pretty much every class for roughly the first half of the semester. Now that that has passed, I am left contemplating whether my classes are better, worse or roughly the same as they were back in 2019. Here is what I have found:
1) Students were ecstatic to be back on campus for the most part.
At the beginning of the Spring semester here, we were told that if 10% of the student body was sick with COVID, we would return to online classes. That never happened but I did an informal survey of all of my classes to see what their attitudes were and they responded by indicating that they preferred offline (45%) or both offline and online (35%) rather than online (32%) classes with 2% having no opinion. However, when asked “What percentage of students needs to be sick for classes to go online?”, their responses were quite definitive. They chose “One student is too many” (15%), 5%(35%), “10%”(19%), “15%”(10%). “30%”(15%), “50%”(8%) and “More than 50%”(3%) which suggests that half the students across all 4 of my classes wanted a lower threshold for going online than the university even though almost half also wanted to be back in the classroom this semester.
2) Students are even worse at doing homework and meeting deadlines than they were pre-pandemic.
It is always a bit of a struggle to get all of the students to do homework, and we are lucky enough to have uncurved classes so I do not have to worry about covering grades from A-F, but the curve normally takes care of itself anyway. I have had a student or 2 pre-pandemic who did not submit most (or all) of their homework in a given class but now I have 6 across 4 classes at the moment and only 1 emailed me to tell me they tried to drop the course but missed the deadline. Homework/ assignment grades are between 10-30% of their final grades so this affects some classes more severely than others.
Another example involves my top class this term with a 90%+ attendance rate. They were slacking off in preparing homework questions based on short 3-5 page chapters in their acting class textbook so I told them to write a short essay about “What is acting?” based on the same textbook. A third of the class did it well, a third did a so-so job and a third did it poorly or not at all. I warned them that if they did not do well as a class, there would be a test worth up to 10% of their homework grade. Normally, a class would have worked hard to avoid a test like this but not this class. The actual test results mirrored their responses to the “What is acting?” question but always the same students interestingly enough.
3) Many students are treating a COVID absence as a bonus vacation.
One student is retaking 2 classes and not doing well. Missing a week of class due to COVID in mid-April but instead of using the time to catch up on the assignments the student missed or to prepare for an in-class improvisation game, the student attended to personal grooming and returned further behind than before they got sick. Too many students are focusing on the fact that their attendance and participation are not affected by a COVID or other officially accepted absence but forgetting that homework and assignments are still due on time or need to be prepared for whilst absent.
4) The reliance on digital devices and potential distractions is worse than ever.
During the pandemic, I converted all of my class materials into workbooks into PDF format. I offered to provide Word versions as well upon request but no one took me up on that offer even though it would make submitting homework a lot easier. Unlike my pre pandemic days, 50-75% of my students are using tablets or their smartphones to work with and on the class activities. Only 5-10% have Laptops or printed their materials out on paper. I am not strict about them using their digital devices in class as I think it is a losing battle at this point but I have caught more students doing unrelated tasks on their devices this term than ever before and few of them seem to feel guilty or embarrassed when caught even though they have been warned and it is listed as a class rule on the syllabi for all classes.
Attention spans are also a huge problem. Students often do not listen to the Professor when we are talking. Now, I realize some of us have the tendency to talk a lot and not really say anything worthwhile demonstrating the worst stereotypes about academia. However, my main job is to maximize student’s talking time so they can practice and build communication skills. I never talk unless I am giving instructions, offering useful tips and information or dropping hints about what NOT to do in order to do well on assignments or tests. However, the number of students who just do not listen or pay attention when I am talking, is way up and these are the same students who will inevitably email me later asking questions about what I said or even accusing me of not telling them the same information that they were busy talking to their friend during the time I was explaining it.
5) Many students and others are acting as if COVID is over.
A few students have had their masks on without covering their noses pretty much all term but they were behind plastic barriers early on so a simple warning was enough. However, Korea recently lifted the requirement for masks to be worn outdoors. Shortly afterwards, I was on a bus and the bus driver spent most of his time yelling at passengers who came onto the bus with their masks still off or below their chins. Passengers ranged in age from young to old and the problem was occurring with most of them. I realize that all of us are tired of the ever present threat of COVID but many of the young people I teach and talk to seem to think that the worst is over or that having had COVID already makes them immune.
Sadly, COVID is not over and has moved from a pandemic disease to a probable endemic disease like the Flu or the common cold. Many students have picked up bad habits during the 2 year long pandemic phase of COVID and I fear these will continue to negatively affect their studies for the short term or even long term. If these follow them into their post academic lives, they could have even more significant detrimental consequences on their careers and lives but I sincerely hope this is not the case and that other educators and students are coping better with post pandemic education.