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Investing in student success

Kentucky colleges and universities use creative learning supports

Pandemic-related disruptions were difficult for everyone, including Kentucky students. Many experienced a year and a half or more of online lessons—along with feelings of isolation and anxiety or depression due to limited access to school friends and in-person educational supports. 

As a result, in some ways, learners at every level are still playing post-COVID catch-up, even college and university students. This lingering effect of the pandemic, dubbed “COVID learning loss” by some, is a challenge Kentucky’s higher education institutions are working hard to address. 

“Since COVID, we’re seeing students that are coming in that are not as prepared, meaning that they don’t have the academic skill set that they might otherwise have had. Their knowledge base is less, for a variety of reasons,” says Chris Schroeder, associate provost for undergraduate education and student success at Morehead State University. 

Some students may have routinely zoned out during online lessons, while others had classmates submit work on their behalf, since in-person accountability was absent. Still others fell behind due to limited opportunities for hands-on learning, including math and science labs, Schroeder explains. 

Taylor Fultz, a Morehead State sophomore, experienced some of these learning land mines firsthand in high school. 

“During COVID, I was at home all the time, and I would just wake up, do my two assignments that day and then go back to bed,” says Fultz, a Morehead native. “Now, as a pre-law student, I’m seeing the pitfalls of not taking the time to adequately learn the subjects I was studying.” 

Since arriving on campus, Fultz has used trial and error to find the study strategies that work best for him, finally settling on a mix of rigorous note taking supplemented by free tutoring at Morehead State’s Tutoring & Learning Center when needed. 

“It most definitely has been an eye-opening experience here at college, because now I’m trying to figure out how to learn everything as deeply as I can, so that I can make sure I retain that information as well,” Fultz says. 

Increasing learning supports 

Since returning post-COVID, many college students report struggling with even basic study skills. Some find it hard to concentrate for long periods or tackle large projects. Their social skills, too, are shaky after months isolated at home. As a result, many feel anxious about talking to others in class or approaching a professor for help. 

These trends were beginning before the pandemic but have worsened since, college administrators say. 

“Some of the significant challenges that we’re seeing right now are in areas such as time management … (especially for) intellectually rich or demanding assignments, such as writing or major projects,” says Russell Carpenter, an assistant provost and professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University. 

Schroeder agrees: “It’s lack of attention, a lack of focus, a lack of memorization skills, all these things, which I think were trending in the wrong way anyway as a result of technology and social media. But the pandemic exacerbated that. Because at least before COVID, students were having to focus at school for several hours a day. Then, when COVID came, all of a sudden, they went a year, sometimes two, without even being asked to do that.” 

To address these challenges, schools are taking a comprehensive approach. Many, like MSU and EKU, have expanded their slate of courses with embedded learning supports—including, for example, in-class peer tutors and built-in, outside-of-class study sessions—for students who may need additional help with content. 

Several colleges and universities have expanded the availability of on-campus tutoring centers and encouraged faculty members to hold office hours in the campus library, in an attempt to make it easier for students to seek support when they need it. 

To keep students on track to graduate, universities focus on providing more personalized academic advising and career guidance—including at Western Kentucky University, where all business students begin coursework with assessments to help them select a path of studies in line with their talents and career goals. 

Campbellsville University pairs every freshman and sophomore with a dedicated success coach who can help connect students with faculty members, campus services and extracurricular opportunities. 

Additionally, many campuses are now incorporating practical tips for positive study skills strategies into their required first-year classes. 

“Since COVID, we’ve integrated lessons on time management strategies and coping mechanisms to manage stress into our first-year student success seminars, so that students can learn how to be proactive rather than reactive (about their school success),” says Starr Wentzel, EKU’s director of first-year courses and learning communities. 

Supporting mental health and building community 

COVID’s lingering effects can also be seen in students’ mental health, with many still struggling with anxiety or depression as a result of issues directly or indirectly linked to pandemic disruptions. 

To respond to the growing demand for student mental health supports, EKU and others have invested in additional on-campus counseling staff and expanded opportunities for students to access counseling both online and in person. 

This issue is “not so much so-called ‘learning loss’ as it is simply a limit on what our brains have the capacity to handle at any given moment,” explains Lara Vance, EKU’s dean of students. “If I’m dealing with social anxiety and increased mental health issues, and then I’m sitting in my biology class and having to navigate higher-level college level learning … there simply may not be enough free space (mentally to handle it all).” 

Several schools have turned to intentional community building as another means to boost students’ feeling of belonging and mental well-being. Many, like WKU, hold club involvement fairs and invite students to participate in targeted living learning communities, or LLCs, where they can live in residence halls with students sharing the same major or similar extracurricular interests. 

“Our LLCs have been super successful,” says Monica Duvall, director of student success at WKU’s Gordon Ford College of Business. “They put students in a setting where it’s easy to build friendships, since students are placed in residence hall pods with other students in their major, who are in their same classes. And they allow for lots of interaction between students and faculty and staff. So, it creates opportunities for positive relationship building.” 

Having such in-person, on-campus connections has been one of the richest parts of Gwen Akers’ college experience at MSU, particularly following the isolation of her COVID-era high school years in Ashland. 

“I was just so excited and grateful to be able to be on campus and, you know, at social events meeting people in person and not just over Zoom,” says Akers, a sophomore majoring in English education. “Because of the community that we have at Morehead, I’ve been able to instantly make connections here with my teachers, my advisors and my peers. And that’s something that I’d never experienced before.” 

Rethinking labels 

When it comes to teaching this generation of students, Marko Dumančić, WKU assistant provost for faculty development and student success, feels it’s crucial not to label their experience with negative terms like “learning loss” or “learning deficiencies.” He thinks such bleak phrases are bound to do more harm than good—both to students’ mental health and their future academic motivation. 

Rather than focusing on gaps students must race to make up, Dumančić and his colleagues at WKU prefer instead to speak in terms that highlight this college cohort’s learning resiliency. 

“These students overcame unprecedented challenges to come to our university and continue their education,” Dumančić explains. “We want to celebrate that and focus on building on their strengths as we further their education.” 

Creative supports for college students 

Enjoy the excitement of a fair where students see what’s on offer for extracurriculars; hear how a conveniently location is key to a campus support center; and learn about the connections made when students with similar interests share housing.

Check out these videos: 

Flexibility is key to the variety of help students can get at Eastern Kentucky University’s Student Success Center.  

Western Kentucky University encourages student involvement in campus groups and volunteerism at its DiscoverFest

Living learning communities help students with build friendships and campus connections at Western Kentucky University. 

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