Using prior academic years as a control group, Sacha Gómez Moñivas and a group of fellow teachers and researchers found that despite the confinement caused by COVID-19, the learning habits of students became more continuous and ultimately led to better scores during assessments. Their study “Influence of COVID-19 confinement on students’ performance in higher education” was one of the highest viewed PLOS publications of 2020 with over 150,000 views. Read our interview with Sacha about his team’s initial response to the surprising results, the importance of providing details to replicate a study and the difficulties in collecting data on student learning.
Would you say this study is outside the scope of your normal research? How did you get involved in this study and why do you believe this research is important?
Our main research line since 2015 is related to new learning methodologies. Within this topic, we study in detail distant learning, among others. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of the students stay at home and change their learning strategies, we were completely prepared for this scenario because, by that time, we had already developed different tools and methods of distance learning already applied in our subjects.
We were involved in this study by analyzing and comparing the huge amounts of data obtained in previous years in our pilot experiences applying distant learning with the new data obtained during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were following the same research line as before, but in a new scenario.
This research is important because it is related to the Sustainable Development Goal 4 of UNESCO. More specifically, this research helps us understand the impact of COVID-19 in education and students’ capability to change their learning strategies. It is also important because COVID-19 pandemic has many specific factors that can interact with the previously detected relevant characteristics of distant learning. For example, does student motivation behave in the same way in the pandemic as in a traditional distance learning setting?
I want to send an optimistic message in this case. We have demonstrated that, even in this very difficult situation, students and teachers were able to adapt their strategies in the learning process successfully
Did you find the results to be generally surprising, or were they relatively in line with your expectations?
Some results were in line with our expectations since, ultimately, distant learning is distant learning. For example, the limited access to technology by the students is a problem that was well-known before. Of course, it also appeared in the COVID-19 confinement. The problems that appear when preparing assessment tools are indeed also present in the pandemic.
There are, however, other elements that appeared and were a huge surprise. For example, the improvement in students’ performance was unbelievable. We spent a lot of time trying to justify it with arguments related to fraudulent behaviors, such as cheating or copying in different forms. For that reason, we discarded many subjects where we considered that we could not fully exclude the possibility of cheating. After that, we still had three subjects where we could be sure that only confinement was related to the increase in students’ performance.
Your Results state that “the new learning methodology is the main reason for the change in students’ performance during the confinement.” How important is it for leadership bodies at institutions and schools to provide teachers with resources to properly implement new teaching practices adapted for less face-to-face interactions?
It is crucial. The first step for a good teaching practice is having a good communication between teachers and students. If that fails, everything fails. In distant learning, teachers should have good multimedia resources and connectivity, at least. If not, it does not matter the amount of material developed by the teacher or how good the teacher is when explaining a lesson. I have seen a lot of very good attempts of developing new and very well-organized online courses that failed at the very beginning due to not having the adequate resources.
I note that you opted to publish a preprint when you initially submitted this paper for review, and that you published your peer review history alongside your PLOS ONE publication. What led you to these decisions and how important is scientific transparency to you?
We believe that scientific advances must follow FATE principles: fairness, accountability, transparency and ethics. Transparency is, actually, a key factor in the scientific method itself. If a scientific result must be replicable, it should include all details about experimental procedures, materials, etc. Obviously, transparency is a must. In the case of scientific publications, the whole peer review history is very important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that the article followed a rigorous peer review process. Second, it gives valuable information about the questions raised by the reviewers and how they were answered by the authors, which could lead in additional criticism by the readers, which can be also valuable.
Do you think your study could be easily reproduced in other parts of the world by other researchers interested in using your methodologies, or were there specific pre-existing conditions that allowed for this study to take place? How helpful would it be to have data from classrooms in other parts of the world?
The bigger problem is getting data. There are many factors that must be considered. Because of potential cheating by the students when working at home, we had to discard 80% of our data to be sure that this did not influencing in the study. This is the first and maybe more important problem, but there are others. For example, researchers must also take into account the differences between countries in the sense that different countries faced the pandemic with varying levels of confinement. This is important because conclusions should be related to those conditions.
At the very beginning, when we did our study, not many groups had the opportunity to collect and analyze reliable data. Now, there are more and more very interesting studies from many different countries. Soon we will have enough data to get conclusions about the success of different strategies, which will be very helpful for planning distant learning at all levels in the future.
If the general public were to take one lesson from your study, what should that be?
I want to send an optimistic message in this case. We have demonstrated that, even in this very difficult situation, students and teachers were able to adapt their strategies in the learning process successfully. We are going through some very difficult times, but we have been able to adapt and we must have the courage and energy to continue fighting until we overcome this pandemic.
Thank you to Sacha and his research team for their important work and taking the time to answer these questions. Their work was founded by CRUE, CSIC and Banco Santander.
Gonzalez T, de la Rubia MA, Hincz KP, Comas-Lopez M, Subirats L, Fort S, et al. (2020) Influence of COVID-19 confinement on students’ performance in higher education. PLoS ONE 15(10): e0239490. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239490
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