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"It forced me to look outward": How the switch to online learning affected student motivation

Campus lawns like this one at UC Santa Barbara were empty during the switch to online learning.
Christina McDermott
Campus lawns like this one at UC Santa Barbara were empty during the switch to online learning.

Students all over the country had their academic lives disrupted in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes shifted online, extracurriculars stopped, and social life on campuses disappeared.

The year after, once vaccines and other measures rolled out to the public, many students started returning to in-person classes. In September 2021, after a year of remote instruction, thousands of UCSB students flooded campus.

But then, as Omicron cases rose in the US, they returned to remote instruction for a month in January, before resuming in-person again in early February. Adjusting to campus life was exciting, but also fraught.

Alexis Crisostomo is a junior at UC Santa Barbara with a double major in communication and sociology. She, like thousands of UCSB students, spent the 2020-2021 academic year waiting to head to school.

"I was trying to do my best, trying to have this kind of hopeful future," she said. "But as the year went on, and then [school officials] eventually were like, 'Yeah, like this whole year is going to be online,' I felt really demotivated."

Crisostomo graduated high school in May of 2020 — meaning the start of her college experience was virtual.

"These were my first college classes ever. So in terms of my experience, it was kind of weird because I was trying to navigate, what does a college class like actually look like?"

Crisostomo said that support from professors during this time varied. Some were adept at teaching on Zoom, offering both real-time and asynchronous classes and providing relevant visual aids. Others struggled to adjust.

"[For] one of my very first professors, it was just them talking through Zoom. And since it was one of my first college classes, I was like, 'Is this how it's supposed to be?'"

Determining what was normal was difficult, Crisostomo said.

"It's really hard to be remote because you can't really gauge the other students, like if they know what's going on. So it kind of felt really isolating at that point," she said.

According to Dr. Natalia Jaramillo, Alexis isn’t wrong. Jaramillo is a psychologist who received her PhD from the Counseling, Clinical and School psychology department at UCSB. Her dissertation examined the experiences of Latinx emerging adults, ages 18-29, in California and Florida.

Beth Thornton

For many of her participants, academic disruptions were a major de-motivator.

"One of the primary themes I found was that this transition to a virtual format was really challenging," she said. "A lot of young people who participated in this study mentioned that it had affected their mood, their motivation, their sleep and their productivity."

But saying that the shift to online learning platforms was the only stressor that affected students may not consider the whole picture. Dr. Maryam Kia Keating is a psychology professor at UCSB, and a licensed clinical psychologist. She said environmental anxieties played a role, too.

"There was a lot of stress and I think that’s true for faculty and staff as well as students. And so when the whole system, the whole nation, the whole world is under that kind of strain, there’s going to be an effect on everybody," Keating said.

"So I wouldn’t ever just point the finger at students — I think everybody is interacting together, and it’s impacting everyone."

Not every student felt demotivated during this time, however, according to Dr. Jaramillo.

"I also saw in the study that some people were extremely motivated based on seeing firsthand some of the social inequities and disparities that have just been more evident as a result of the pandemic," she said.

Alexis Crisostomo said she started focusing on the social climate around her, in part because there were fewer distractions.

"I did start paying attention to like the news or things happening around me. Since I was just kind of [at] home, it forced me to look outward," she said.

Crisostomo said that as milestone events associated with ending high school and starting college were canceled, she began to consider the bigger picture, including the social inequities Jaramillo described

"I was trying to gain something in college that I had lost during my senior year [in high school]. Even though it was really hard, the nice thing about staying home is that I was learning about a lot of stuff. I was kind of focusing more towards the collective, especially during Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate," she said.

"I kind of turned the focus away from me and towards issues that were important to me, so that kind of just motivated me to keep going. But in terms of the day to day, it was really hard."

The next story in this series will explore Crisostomo’s return to campus and the adjustment to in-person coursework after over a year studying on a screen.

Christina is a freelance audio editor and producer. She began interning at KCBX in June of 2022 after spending the spring volunteering for KCSB, UC Santa Barbara’s student news station. Christina completed bachelors’ degrees in English and linguistics at UC Berkeley, and a masters’ degree in Phonetics at the University of York. She’s passionate about producing evocative, sound-rich stories, and is excited to learn more about the world of radio. In her free time, Christina coaches swimming.
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