Academia Must Adjust to Post-Pandemic Landscape

In April of this year, The New York Times published an article on the rise of the “chronically absent student” post-COVID-19, reporting on a crisis of education occurring in American public high schools. Likewise, Times Higher Education, a British magazine, conducted a survey in June which found that university lecture attendance and engagement had declined substantially with the return to in-person lectures.

At Oberlin, this has been our first semester since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in which there has been a conscious attempt to “return to normal,” including the lifting of the mask mandate and reduced pressure on students to test for COVID-19. The College has also discontinued hybrid classes, which would have allowed students who are sick to attend class and not worry about falling behind. 

In the weeks between Thanksgiving break and the end of the semester, the cumulative pressure of this semester’s academic demands is becoming increasingly visible among the Oberlin student body. Many students complain of being overworked and exhausted, facing high levels of burnout, and being unable to get all of their work done in a reasonable amount of time while still maintaining a balance between school and personal life. As students, our experience of higher education has been one of struggling to reconcile the conditions of the pandemic with the rigors of coursework. The ability to get all of our work done should not come at the expense of sleep, self-care, or socializing. This issue is particularly relevant now — classes are coming to an end and the closing of the fall semester will generate a quantitative account of student performance. 

Academia is not inherently tougher now than it was before, but the situation is fundamentally different from anything in the past. Consider some features of Oberlin: the classes of 2026 and 2025 are the largest and second-largest on record respectively, which has led to a noticeable shift in the constitution of the average Oberlin classroom — especially in 100- and 200-level courses largely populated by younger students. Last year, the Review published an article investigating the impact of remote learning on younger class years. Based on anecdotal evidence, one professor quoted in that piece felt the need to supplement regular coursework with material she would have expected students to have learned in high school. All reporting points to the same conclusion: the student landscape of higher education is different, and coursework will have to change to allow students to succeed.

With a complicated issue such as this one, it is necessary to recognize the possibility that there are no convenient solutions. However, taking into consideration both the pressure on faculty to create and maintain rigorous curricula and the pressure on students to adapt to the demands of said curricula, there are feasible changes that can be made to appeal to both sides of the equation. The College has already implemented some helpful courses called Learning Labs that are designed to help students refresh their quantitative and writing skills. However, while that sets up new students for further success, students already well into their college education could use more supportive academic resources. 

For instance, contract grading, a style of grading predicated on the work put into assignments and communication between a student and professor, is a phenomenal way for students to earn their professors’ trust and receive constructive feedback while exploring material that genuinely compels them. Currently, only a handful of classes, mostly in the Writing and Composition department, use contract grading. Humanities courses across a range of departments should consider implementing this format in their courses. While STEM classes could likely not adopt an identical system — sciences being more dependent on accuracy than perspective — there are other opportunities to reward consistent work. For instance, fewer exams and graded closed-book assignments would encourage practical application of knowledge while slightly lowering the stakes. Both humanities and the sciences could also benefit from smaller, student-led discussions at more regular intervals so that students aren’t always at the mercy of hourlong lectures requiring they absorb course material. Reserving some time in each class session for students to interact with one other, potentially with a student tutor in the mix, would make class sessions more engaging and conducive to improvement. 

All of this is to say that, right now, we cannot return to business as usual. While it may be tempting to try to achieve a pre-pandemic “normal,” COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the way that students, especially younger students, have experienced the last few years of schooling and preparation for college. Students are still adjusting to entirely in-person learning — Oberlin’s youngest students’ last entirely normal year of schooling was ninth grade. The need to rebuild our academic landscape post-pandemic also provides the opportunity to think critically about the way things were done pre-COVID-19, and which elements can be improved. The goal should not simply be to bring academia back to where it was before the pandemic, but rather to maintain the best pedagogical practices and forego the parts that were dysfunctional. In this way, our new modes of teaching can be better than what they were before.