Universities are lowering expectations for pandemic-era students

As students recover from a ‘hangover from virtual high school,’ some Pittsburgh-area universities are responding with shorter tests and looser policies around attendance and deadlines.

Some instructors lower expectations for students’ mental health and as a response to generational differences, but others say that continuing remote learning habits does a disservice to students.

Recent interviews with students and instructors in the Pittsburgh area reveal that some colleges and universities responded to the pandemic by lowering expectations. 

A PublicSource article described a “hangover from virtual high school” at Point Park University, the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), and other Pittsburgh universities. 

Students experienced learning losses from virtual classes and, as Campus Reform has reported, declining mental health. To meet their needs, instructors are continuing the practices that students became accustomed to during high school–the same practices that make college classes such a struggle. 

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The interviewed professors reported that their students request flexibility in their assignments and have difficulty meeting deadlines and “stay[ing] on top of coursework” because teachers “actively helped” them in high school. One statistics professor said that he has to teach basic math skills to his students, according to PublicSource

While some Pittsburgh professors have responded with extra tutoring sessions and supplemental modules, others are redesigning their courses. 

“In the math department at Pitt, professor Jeffrey Wheeler has seen an ‘unsettling’ lack of engagement among students since the pandemic,” PublicSource reported. “Wheeler, who has taught math classes since the fall of 1990, said professors have shortened exams in the university’s freshman calculus classes as a result.” 

Chatham University has yet to reinstate attendance and deadline policies that it dropped during the pandemic, with an associate dean citing mental health concerns such as “performance anxiety” to PublicSource

Pittsburgh schools are not the only ones resolving the conflict between students’ expectations and those of their professors. 

“More than 100” professors responded to a question from The Chronicle of Higher Education about student disengagement. Amidst “[s]tunning” disengagement, respondents reported “common challenges: Far fewer students show up to class. Those who do avoid speaking when possible. Many skip the readings or the homework. They have trouble remembering what they learned and struggle on tests.”

The solution to these problems is for professors to “reduce the demands,” according to an article by journalist and professor Becky Diamond in Psychology Today. School psychologist and consultant Rebecca Comizio told Diamond that, even before the pandemic, technological changes produced an “immediate-gratification, entertainment environment.” 

For this reason, Comizio suggested, professors cannot expect the same motivation out of younger generations. “When we adjust our expectations, that’s not coddling,” she told Psychology Today. “That’s reality.”

Though Comizio and Diamond acknowledge generational differences, Jonathan Malesic, a professor at Southern Methodist University, pointed out other reasons as to why universities are catering to students’ preferences.  

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Malesic argued that non-tenure track professors depend on student satisfaction in their evaluations. An article in EdSurge similarly observed an unspoken agreement between students and instructors, the “‘disengagement compact,’” in which students provide positive reviews in exchange for less work. 

“It’s hard to insist on in-person attendance when colleagues are demanding flexibility,” Malesic wrote. “If students expect recorded lectures–even ones they won’t watch–then instructors will feel pressure to provide them.”

However, he argued that replicating remote learning to satisfy students is not doing them any favors. “The problem isn’t only that students learn poorly online,” Malesic continued. “It’s also that when they go through a year or more of remote classes, they develop habits that harm their ability to learn offline, too.”

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Malesic contrasted universities that have lowered their expectations with the University of Dallas, which returned to in-person learning earlier than others. This Catholic university, as Campus Reform reported, is one of the faith-based institutions that experienced an increase in enrollment from students seeking the rigor of a classical education. 

As students across the country struggle with pandemic-era math and reading losses, Malesic depicted students at the University of Dallas as thriving. He described attending a class where he watched students debate John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost

Parsing out poetic meter is not everyone’s idea of a good time, but the students looked anything but bored,” Malesic wrote. “I didn’t want class to end.” 

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.