Stanford makes strides to improve online learning in pandemic environment

To address issues identified in a student survey, the university adjusted academic calendars and policies, increased financial assistance for students and took steps to address mental health and well-being, among other things.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to surge in March, Stanford undergraduates quickly vacated the campus, with their courses abruptly moving from in-person to online. Understandably, the transition was bumpy.

Sarah Church, the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, discusses the results of the student survey that highlighted the main obstacles students encountered during the spring quarter. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

With the benefit of results from a student survey that highlighted the main obstacles students encountered during the spring quarter, Stanford leaders have been working over the summer to improve the remote educational experience for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as for instructors. These improvements will be key given the recent announcement that undergraduates will not be on campus in the fall.

In the survey, Stanford students – undergraduate, graduate and professional degree students – reported a variety of challenges, including difficulty adjusting to online-only instruction, reduced access to resources, financial concerns and increased stress.

“The results of the spring survey were not surprising given the high level of uncertainty about COVID-19, the immediate need for our undergraduates to travel home and the speed with which we had to move to an online-only educational model,” said Sarah Church, the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. “This survey has helped us prioritize the needs of our students and make improvements to online instruction. As a result, we are much better prepared for the 2020-21 academic year.”

Key survey findings

Nearly 6,000 students responded to the survey, which included questions relating to online instruction, accessibility of resources, finances, stress and mental health.

Most Stanford students struggled with the transition to remote learning, with nearly 80 percent of all students indicating difficulty with focusing on online instruction. Nearly two-thirds of all students reported that the way courses transformed from in-person to online presented educational challenges.

For many students, their residence during spring quarter presented a difficult environment for online learning. Nearly half of all undergraduates and 60 percent of first-generation and low-income (FLI) undergraduates indicated they did not have access to a quiet, productive and private place to study. Sixteen percent of all students had significant trouble with internet access half the time or more.

The survey results showed that the pandemic is particularly affecting first-generation and low-income students. These students are experiencing greater struggle with balancing academics with other responsibilities, greater difficulty finding productive space to study and greater financial impact. Twenty-one percent of undergraduate FLI students reported a loss of income to support their families, and more than half reported an overall loss of family income due to COVID-19.

Among all student populations, the most common concerns about remote learning were losing connections to other students and the negative impact it would have on their academic experience.

Access and adjustments

In March, the Academic Continuity Team was formed to help ensure that students were able to access needed courses, resources and instructors in order to stay on track in their academic journey. The team also has focused on providing faculty and teaching staff with training and tools to improve the online educational experience.

Rafe Mazzeo, chair of mathematics, serves on the online experience subcommittee of the Academic Continuity Team. He is also faculty director of Stanford Online High School and director of the summer bridge program SOAR (Stanford Online Academic Resources). He said this experience, along with resources and advice from colleagues across the campus, has been beneficial to him in developing strategies to enhance online teaching and learning at Stanford.

“The subcommittee drew together a dozen people from many parts of the university, all of whom are passionately committed to improving how students and faculty alike engage with online learning and teaching,” Mazzeo said. “We’ve learned a lot in the past few months and expect that the fall quarter online experience will be much improved for students and faculty alike.”

In response to what was learned during spring quarter, the university has adjusted the academic calendar and the daily course pattern. The 2020-21 academic year will be spread across four quarters, and undergraduates will take classes during three of those quarters. Fall quarter will begin Sept. 14 – a week earlier than usual – and end before Thanksgiving. Classes will begin at 8:30 a.m. and extend into evening to maximize flexibility. Students in the Graduate School of Business, Graduate School of Education and Schools of Law and Medicine may follow a different calendar and course schedule.

Faculty leadership has also adjusted academic policies in response to the pandemic. The Faculty Senate recently approved a new grading policy that offers students the option of taking the course for a credit or no credit grade, with the exception of courses offered by the Graduate School of Business, the School of Law and the School of Medicine MD Program. There will be no final exam periods; assessments will be spread throughout the quarter.

The university also launched a new website, Reapproaching Stanford, to help undergraduates navigate the 2020-21 academic year. The site includes information on academics, housing, social life, and health and safety. Grad Updates is another new site, where graduate students and those enrolled in professional programs can get current information on academics, on- and off-campus housing, financial issues, research and teaching.

Addressing financial needs

Recognizing rising family financial challenges, Stanford increased the financial aid budget for the 2020-21 academic year.

Support for FLI students has been a top priority for the university, said Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs.

“We recently welcomed a new leader, Symone Morales, to the First-Generation & Low-Income Office. She and the team in the FLI office have been working to ensure that students have the support they need. One way in which they have been doing this is through the Opportunity Fund,” Brubaker-Cole said.

The Opportunity Fund was deployed throughout the spring and summer to support the purchase of laptops, food, supplemental housing grants, emergency travel needs, and mental health and medical services. The FLI office also distributed funding to students through the Summer Equity Grant to help with the loss of internships and jobs.

There were also a number of initiatives to help create jobs for students. Many offices and departments across the university came together to dedicate $400,000 in funding to support jobs for students who were on and off campus. More than 100 FLI students received Basser Summer fellowships, which included remote research experience, a $1,000 grant and support from a faculty member.

Even before the spring survey was conducted, Stanford’s Financial Aid Office stepped in to address the immediate financial needs of the students, including travel costs, food and housing, and employment compensation.

Undergraduate aid packages for spring were adjusted to reflect students’ new off-campus living situations, including support for the costs of internet access and computer equipment, if needed.

Undergraduates whose aid packages included job expectations received scholarship funds for spring quarter, and the university waived the summer earnings expectation for all new incoming students and continuing undergraduates for summer 2020.

Affordability concerns have also become more pronounced for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars during the pandemic. Reduced employment opportunities, uncertainty about grants and fellowships and delays in research because of COVID-19 have added to their concerns.

To address some of these issues, the university sustained graduate assistantships through spring quarter, and created more than 50 Provost’s Teaching Fellowships to help support graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who are facing financial hardship resulting from the pandemic.

The Emergency Grant-in-Aid fund, administered by the Financial Aid Office, was also expanded with additional funds from the provost to support graduate students facing unexpected COVID-19–related expenses. A comparable program was expanded to meet the unanticipated financial needs of postdoctoral scholars.

To address needs that were previously identified by the university-wide affordability task force and that have been heightened by the pandemic, the university recently announced 12-month funding for PhD students. Beginning with the new academic year, every Stanford PhD student will be eligible to receive 12 months of funding each year, for as long as five years.

“We are pleased that we have been able to address one of the high priority items for graduate students that emerged from the affordability task force. We know that this funding commitment is particularly impactful given the current context,” said Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs Stacey F. Bent.

Support for student health and well-being

“Our student support services for mental health and well-being have been working actively to find ways to support the emerging needs of our students both on and off campus during the pandemic,” Brubaker-Cole said.

A virtual well-being website was launched to provide a place for students to find available resources and for advice on how to sustain mental health during the COVID-19 crisis. It also provides guidance for faculty and staff on how to support student well-being.

In addition, the team at Vaden Health Center has partnered with the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and the academic departments to provide training and resources for faculty, instructors, teaching assistants and academic support staff to help prepare them to support student mental health needs as they emerge in the virtual classroom environment.

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) staff has continued to provide telehealth and in-person services for students in California. For students living out of the state, CAPS offers care management services, including helping students connect to resources in their area and continued emergency support services. In addition, the Well-Being at Stanford office launched a virtual coaching program that is available to students anywhere in the world.

Support for remote teaching

To improve the online teaching and learning experience, the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) and CTL are providing faculty, postdoctoral scholars and teaching assistants with additional training and resources.

“The faculty continue to learn new techniques and discover new strategies for engaging students in an online environment, so we are confident that students will continue to find their course experiences enriching,” said Church in a recent town hall meeting with students and families.

VPUE and CTL are offering a series of workshops, including the TEACH Stanford Pop-Up Symposium August 17-28. The symposium features free online workshops delivered by campus experts from across the university. Topics cover teaching and pedagogy, technology and university policies. Registration for the event is now open.

VPUE and CTL also recently relaunched the Stanford Teaching Commons, a website designed for all members of the Stanford community who are interested in learning, education and pedagogy. The site includes Online Teaching Guides for course planning, quick how-to, activity ideas, feedback and assessment tips and instructor interviews. The site also features discipline-specific resources and a list of links and services from across the university.

CTL offers one-on-one consultations on any teaching and course design topic, workshops on inclusive teaching and online teaching, the Course Design Institute and the iPad program for faculty and lecturers.

CTL resources for graduate students include Virtual Study Hall, individual academic coaching sessions and autumn TA orientation for all TAs and practice teaching sessions. One-on-one academic coaching is available for all undergraduates to help them stay on course. CTL also offers workshops to community centers and the Leland Scholar Program students.

About the survey

The survey was conducted by Stanford’s Institutional Research & Decision Support (IR&DS) office. Every student enrolled in at least one quarter of the 2019-20 academic year was invited to take the survey; nearly 40 percent responded.