How pandemic-related pressure affected online learning

Universities are one of the sectors which was most affected by the pandemic, resulting in a significant transition to digital learning. The pandemic’s large-scale effects have changed how educational practices are carried out across the globe. Switching to online learning was an inevitable choice.

This profoundly affected the way students perceived their learning environment.

In addition to this, the social life of students was also heavily influenced because university campuses are places where students socialise, engage in leisure activities, get to know new people and build a life.

Considering all the regulations that were implemented by governments during the pandemic, the psychological well-being of students has also been heavily affected. They were concerned about their health and the health of their loved ones, the economic crisis, services and supplies, and so on. They felt pressured about their academic work, assignments and online classes.

Moreover, the majority of students also complained about their workload during the pandemic. They indicated that they had more than their usual workload, which made the online transition more difficult. Furthermore, adapting to new circumstances, such as living with family members after some time, can be demanding in itself. Recent studies have shown that students transmitted their fear of the pandemic to their education, which resulted in increased pressure and tension.

Although it is only natural for them to feel distressed and transmit this distress to their learning environments, there are certain ways for instructors to relieve the pressure on students, according to Self-Determination Theory, a theory of human motivation and well-being. The theory has applications in a variety of fields, including education, in which the surrounding environment is important in terms of facilitating student engagement.

Since education is an area where external regulations are commonly used to help students learn, it is not surprising that the pandemic has made learning harder.

Student autonomy

During online learning, it was fairly crucial to hold students’ attention and engagement to support their well-being and decrease pressure and tension. One thing that can be done by the instructors during these types of crisis periods is to support student autonomy.

Supporting autonomy in classrooms is always recommended by Self-Determination Theory to increase positive outcomes in terms of motivation and engagement. However, online learning makes both the implementation and the perception of support for autonomy harder. One possible solution to this problem can be using multiple strategies simultaneously. For example, creating optimally challenging learning environments along with autonomy support can give better results.

Past research demonstrates that when students feel competent with regard to their assignments and activities, their pressure decreases. Preparing optimally challenging tasks or activities can be demanding for the instructors as every student has their own level and learning pace.

Thus, gradually increasing the challenge can work better for every student. In addition to this, providing choices and options, listening to the perspectives of students, acknowledging their visions, showing confidence in the ability of students to do course-related activities and encouraging students to ask questions are among the characteristics of an autonomy-supportive instructor.

Therefore, instructors should be more sensitive in terms of applying autonomy-supportive actions during crisis times.

Moreover, it can take time to find a reliable internet connection and learn how to use the tools of online learning systems, which was indicated as one of the most serious problems that students have faced.

Thus, giving them enough time to adapt to these new tools can be another effective way of decreasing students’ tension. If it is possible, offering them choices about their assignments can be another effective strategy when students don’t have fast and reliable internet. Being flexible and having good communication with students during this period had proven beneficial effects.

In this way, they can feel that the instructor values them as a person and takes their individual situation into account. There are certain responsibilities that both the instructor and students are bound to adopt. However, it should be remembered that rushing to fulfil these responsibilities without adequate support and an adaptation period is futile.

Finally, although our research doesn’t say anything about the pressure on instructors, it is highly likely that they also transmitted a fear of COVID to online learning environments.

Moreover, they were also adapting to new tools and new instructions coming from their administrators.

Preparing materials and assignments and supporting students’ participation in online courses are demanding because it is novel. University administrators should acknowledge this and give instructors enough time to prepare.

To decrease the pressure on instructors, administrative staff can apply similar steps to those instructors as adopted for students, but, more importantly, administrators need to have a back-up plan for this type of sudden transition. If the administration is ready, then it is easier for instructors to adapt without being overwhelmed, which then has a knock-on effect on students.

Last but not least, universities’ mental health services should be ready with increased personnel to provide professional help to those who need it. The availability of that help should be publicised so that every member of the university is aware of it. In addition, these services could provide material, such as flyers, with basic information about the pandemic which says that feeling pressured is normal and recommending some basic steps to cope with the situation.

Elif Manuoglu is based at the department of psychology at Palacky University Olomouc, Olomouc, Czech Republic. E-mail: This commentary is based on her recent article in the Oxford Review of Education.