Study finds promoting adaptability key to student success with online learning

As more and more students move to online learning, experts say those who have a greater ability to adapt to novel situations and uncertainty are better able to learn online. 

In a study published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, researchers at York University, Hadassah Academic College in Israel and Oakland University examined the extent to which an abrupt transition to online learning is impacting post-secondary students who are trying to learn as the pandemic continues to unfold. They studied a sample of 1,217 college students from Israel who completed an online questionnaire after transitioning to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The data revealed that postsecondary students who feel like they belong, and have a sense of mattering, are better able to adapt to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Adaptability as defined by the study is the capability of being able to adjust effectively to novel, uncertain and potentially threatening circumstances.

Gordon Flett
Gordon Flett

Co-author Gordon Flett, professor of Psychology at York University and Canada Research Chair in Personality & Health, says loneliness is one of the significant differences in those who were learning online. Previous research has shown that high levels of loneliness can be destructive in the long term.

The researchers investigated the associations among adaptability to the pandemic, personality, and levels of learning experiences. They found certain types of students are more adaptable and better able to cope than others.

“People who are more extroverted to begin with, higher in psychological openness, which means that you’re more willing to try new things and look at things from a different perspective − more agreeable people − would be more likely to adapt to this new normal, because the social network would be there for them,” says Flett. “The people who are going to have a more difficult time with such a major transition are those who tend to have difficulty controlling their negative emotions.”

Overall, compared to their experience in previous traditional face-to face learning, students in the study experienced online learning as substantially less positive in all aspects of the two learning experiences with significantly higher levels of stress and isolation as well as negative mood and significantly lower levels of positive mood, relatedness, concentration and focus, motivation and performance.

“It’s very easy when you’re online to feel like no one is paying attention to you,” says Flett. “How people feel about themselves in uncertain times, makes a difference. That includes finding out for some people who thought they were adaptable and resilient, that they’re not.

“It is not simply about resilience; it is about adaptability and finding ways to encourage it. It’s the sort of thing that is relevant to what life is going to be like − regardless of what age they are right now − as they go forward,” says Flett. “We know today’s young person may have to change his or her job several times and re-orient as new opportunities emerge and old opportunities no longer are available to them. Arguably, this might be the most relevant individual difference factor right now for the current time because people are in this giant mass experience with needing to adapt.”

Flett says some of the things educators can do are:

  • express a belief in students and encourage them with “you know you can do this” statements;
  • acknowledge students are going through a challenging time;
  • find ways to help students feel connected; and
  • listen to students and provide opportunities for them to have a say in what’s going on in the class with the learning experience.