Justin B Richland
University of California-Irvine
Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE)
In the midst of COVID-19 pandemic, students are not only facing health concerns, but also other stressors tied to mandated changes in their environments. These include a near-complete reliance on technology for college participation and learning, changes in access to peers and social support networks, changes in works-spaces and possible financial uncertainties. At this juncture of many upheavals, this project will collect data to understand how U.S. undergraduates’ experiences of stress may be impacting their ability to learn as universities switch to on-line instruction. High quality learning through online instruction is known to be challenging in the best of times; these difficulties are likely to be exacerbated by the myriad stresses that undergraduates are experiencing now. Focusing on the experiences of undergraduates at a diverse, minority-serving public four-year college, the data collected will assess the relationships between types of stressors, and student learning using e-learning techniques. Gathering this information immediately will be crucial to supporting students as the pandemic continues. Results will have broad impact on improving instructional infrastructure and practices to better support student learning in these stressful times. Moreover, this knowledge will be useful to colleges and universities in the development of effective strategies to meet their students’ needs. Executive Functions (EFs) are crucial to successful learning; these are cognitive resources that control attention, allow students to grapple with complex ideas and hold information in mind. EFs are taxed when students are under stress, leading to increased load on verbal working memory from external concerns or environmental vigilance. The implication is that students experiencing high levels of stress will have fewer EF resources to extend to their learning, potentially made more challenging by lack of familiarity with e-learning. Two time-sensitive field studies will be conducted to gather information about the types of stressors that U.S. undergraduates in a minority-serving public four-year college are facing during the pandemic. The goal is to assess the relative impacts of different stressors (or their combinations) on learning, in order to best design interventions to mitigate damaging effects. Two theory-driven approaches will be assessed as means to counter potential adverse stress impacts: 1) management of attention as a key aspect of executive function, and 2) management and regulation of emotions during learning. In addition to advances in our understanding of how stress affects student learning, findings of this project will help inform institutional responses and instructional design for e-learning courses offered during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. More generally, the work will inform the field’s ability to improve e-learning in future applications.This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.