Student Reflections During the Pandemic: An Opportunity for Educators to Create a “New” Normal

As this challenging academic term begins, and some students are learning remotely, while others are heading back in person, we urge educators to pause and reflect on what worked — and didn’t — during remote learning last spring. While we eagerly await the moment when all schools can safely resume in person, we strongly caution against reverting back to the “normal” way of doing things. “Normal” was not working for so many students prior to COVID-19.

Since this remote learning experiment of 2020 upended typical school schedules and traditional approaches to teaching and learning, educators now have an opportunity to leverage key lessons and insights gained during this time to build a new normal that better supports student well-being, equity, and engagement with learning for all students during the next semester and beyond.

At Challenge Success, a school reform nonprofit affiliated with Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, we know that any school change process should begin by listening to the stakeholders who matter most — the students. So we reached out to some of the high school students who have participated in the Challenge Success School Program and asked what worked (or not) during remote learning and what they would like school leaders to know about their experiences last spring.

Their reflections, summarized below, are consistent with our SPACE framework and with the student-centered approaches and practices that research shows most effectively support student well-being and engagement with learning. We offer these as guiding principles for educators to use as they consider what schools might look like this fall, regardless of where school is happening.

1. Prioritize human connections and relationships.

During remote learning, daily check-ins from teachers via video, phone, or even hand-delivered letters were a lifeboat for many students. We heard from several teens that they were grateful for teachers who opened up Zoom rooms before or after class to hang out with students and ask about how they were handling life during the pandemic. The students also loved getting to peek into the lives of their teachers and coaches in their home environments with their own pets or children jumping into the video screen.

For students who were not able to join remote classes due to a lack of internet access or devices, or because they had to take on additional jobs and home responsibilities during this time, teachers found other creative ways to connect. Many reached out via text and arranged phone calls and even some home visits with proper social distancing to chat one-on-one. Matt, a 10th grader from Texas, reflected, “Our teachers did a great job of checking in with us to see how we were doing. I like how they really cared about our well-being and our stress levels, but I don’t think a crisis should be necessary to do this.”

Cultivating a climate of care that prioritizes strong relationships between students and teachers as well as peer-to-peer connections is critical now and in the future. Research shows that students who feel a sense of belonging and connection to both adults and peers in the school community are more engaged with learning. Students yearn to be seen, heard, and valued as whole people with lives beyond the classroom. We know that when students believe they have at least one adult at the school who cares about them and knows them well, they are more likely to thrive in school and out.

Unfortunately, creating and sustaining strong student-teacher relationships can be difficult. Even before remote learning began last spring, the large class sizes, hectic pace of the school day, and impossibly busy student and teacher schedules often impeded the type of personal connections we know are critical to student success. Schools should strive to make relationships a top priority and build in time and resources to ensure that teachers and students can connect in meaningful ways on a regular basis.

2. Redesign the school schedule to allow more hours for sleep, playtime, downtime, and family time (PDF).

The scramble to create a remote learning schedule provided an unexpected opportunity to rethink the structure of the school day. Many schools, out of necessity, offered fewer synchronous class meetings and more time for independent, asynchronous learning. Others that were able to offer more synchronous learning to students, decided to shift from a traditional 7 or 8 period day to a modified block schedule where students took half of their classes twice a week over four days leaving one day for dedicated office hours with teachers or online tutoring time.

One of the biggest and most consistent silver linings we heard from students was that the new schedules allowed teens to get more sleep. We know from the Challenge Success survey of over 200,000 students that high school students average about 6.5 hours of sleep per night – significantly less than the 8-10 hours they need to thrive. As Nate, 11th grader from Massachusetts, shared, “Since getting more sleep, I found I was much more efficient with my school work. I could do an English essay in two hours that would have taken me six hours when I was tired.”

Though many students missed their extracurricular activities in the spring, some found that the reduction in structured activities, along with the shorter school day, and lack of commute, resulted not just in more sleep, but in more playtime, downtime, and family time (or PDF as we call it). Research shows that time spent on PDF serves as a protective factor in keeping kids mentally and physically healthy.

Several teens told us that they finally had time to read for pleasure, play guitar, exercise, paint, or simply “do nothing” while they were sheltering in place. Being able to break up the day with exercise or other activities between classes helped to clear their minds and prepare for more learning. And for some students, this shift of pace was eye-opening. As Zack, an 11th grader from Massachusetts, reflected, “One of my big takeaways from this time is that I need time to relax. Before this, I was always going and going. I’m so used to being ‘on’ all the time, doing something. After this, I’ve realized I need some time to relax. I picked up fishing and now I love going fishing. I think that a lot of students will find that they actually need time to relax.”

When a typical student’s day pre-pandemic might have started before 7am and ended after 11pm due to school, sports, other extracurriculars, paid work, commuting, family obligations, and homework, many teens quite literally had no time for any of these essential “PDF” activities. Schools and families ought to question if the old “normal” is what we all want our students to return to this year. Though students and their parents ultimately decide how they spend their time outside of school — and many students do not have the option to scale back time spent doing paid work or supporting family obligations — schools can play a critical role in creating a schedule that honors the need for sleep and more free time for students. Later start times, longer passing periods and lunch breaks, more time for tutorial or advisory, and block classes where teachers and students can engage in deeper learning, are all elements that Challenge Success recommends that schools consider as they plan the schedule for the new school year.

3. Build in more flexibility to curriculum and assignments.

Annalise, a 10th grader from Massachusetts, reflected that “One great thing about distance learning was the flexibility.” Having more autonomy over when she got her work done and when she turned it in led to less stress. Soren, an 11th grader from California, agreed: “With distance learning, whatever you need to do for yourself, you have that freedom to do – go for a run or take a break outside. The slower pace of life allowed me to learn on my own terms which definitely had benefits in terms of mental health and general well-being.”

Many students told us how much they appreciated the increased flexibility during remote learning to get assignments done on their own schedule. They liked that more teachers posted assignments a week or two in advance, which allowed students some control over their schedules and helped them to balance homework, jobs, and other responsibilities. In a pre-COVID world, some students didn’t find out their homework for the night until class that day. During remote learning, the students appreciated being recognized as whole people with varying home lives and multiple commitments and needs.

Flexible approaches to whole class instruction can also benefit students. We heard from one student that during a class held on Zoom, the teacher shared a lesson and then dismissed students as soon as they could demonstrate that they understood the concept. The teacher was able to work with a smaller group of students and use alternative approaches to teach those who were still working towards mastery. We know that differentiating instruction in this way was happening in many classrooms prior to remote learning, but as schools consider new ways of structuring classes in the future, they may want to build in even more time for small group work and review opportunities.

Schools can further support students by explicitly teaching time management and executive functioning skills. Flexible or self-determined due dates allow students a real-world opportunity to practice these skills. Educators can encourage students to self-advocate and reach out to their teachers when they are juggling multiple deliverables or when their health or well-being (or that of a family member) might necessitate even more flexibility. Creating conflict calendars where faculty members coordinate dates for major tests, projects, and school-wide events can also help to reduce student overload and increase student engagement and achievement on assignments.

4. Consider that “less is really more” and focus on transferable skills.

As the minutes spent per week in each class were reduced for many schools during remote learning, teachers were forced to strip their lesson plans down to the essential elements students should learn. While reducing content can feel uncomfortable to teachers and can cause worry about how to get through the required material, it can also provide an unexpected opportunity to focus on the enduring understandings we want students to master. Students are more likely to learn and retain skills and concepts when they are not overwhelmed by the load and pace of work being assigned.

Gabe, a 10th grader from Texas, reflected, “In chemistry, we didn’t cover as many topics each week during remote learning as we did during the normal school year, but I feel like I got a fuller understanding of the concepts that were being taught. My teacher used a ‘flipped classroom’ approach where we independently watched 20-minute videos he created on a specific topic and answered homework questions. We then used class time to ask the teacher questions. The whole process felt much more efficient.”

Shifting the focus from coverage to competency can provide both teachers and students space in the day to engage more deeply in the learning process and build more meaningful connections between concepts. When teachers prioritize transferable skills, students practice applying what they have learned to novel situations and ultimately build mastery.

Educators have an exciting opportunity now to redesign lessons and pare learning goals down to those that are essential in each subject area. Even when students face comprehensive end-of-year exams, for example, in advanced placement courses, a deeper focus on key concepts and critical thinking skills, such as use of evidence to back a claim, logical reasoning, and clear communication, may prove more beneficial to students than covering in a more cursory way all of the possible content that might show up on the test.

Before COVID-19, we regularly surveyed students about what, if anything, caused them the most stress. The number one answer was usually “workload.” Many students also reported that they perceived much of their homework to be busywork and that it did not help them to learn the material. When teachers focus on what matters most, they can reduce unhealthy workloads and can help students see the meaning behind what they are learning each day.

5. Offer more student-selected, authentic learning experiences.

As Lauren, a 10th grader from Virginia, described a website she developed for a nonprofit during remote learning, her whole face lit up with joy. Her teacher was looking for volunteers and knew Lauren had an interest in coding. With this project, she got to learn by doing. She shared, “I learned so much in [those] last two months that I never would have been able to learn in the classroom. Being able to deep dive into web development has been amazing for me. I’ve loved connecting with real-world groups and actually doing an assignment that is contributing to something.”

Allowing students to have voice and choice with their assignments and incorporating opportunities to address real-world problems or create products for authentic audiences can motivate students to do higher quality work. As Soren noted, “I have been able to use a wider variety of resources to learn concepts, while still gaining the same information. I’ve been more interested in learning because it is more personal.”

Eliot, a 10th grader from Texas, described an assignment where students were asked to investigate how the CDC uses mathematical models to chart the spread of COVID-19. Showing the practical relevance of a particular math unit made it much more interesting to the students than teaching it as an isolated concept. Eliot summed it up well, “When work feels meaningful and relevant, I am more engaged.”

Amber, an 11th grader from Virginia, was given some assignments that were optional and ungraded. For some students, this policy, along with alternate forms of assessment such as open note tests, peer review, and increased opportunities for revision and redemption, helped teens to engage in learning for the sake of learning, not just for the grades. Other students found the lack of extrinsic motivation very challenging and were not completing their work. Educators can use this as an opportunity to talk to students about why learning matters for the long-term and collaborate with students to design lessons that they are motivated to complete. Amber suggests that her teachers look at which assignments students did during this time period – and which they left undone; “If [teachers] can learn from the projects that students choose to do, this will help our learning experience be more about the learning rather than a boring assignment we do just for the sake of doing it. If there’s one thing I hope educators take away from this time, it’s to bring the love for learning itself back into the curriculum.”

All five of these guiding principles are validated by research and are likely not new ideas to most educators. But hearing them directly from students during this potentially transformational moment for our educational system serves as an important opportunity for reflection. We encourage schools to invest time in these first few weeks of school to listen deeply to the students. Conduct a survey to find out what worked and did not work for them during remote learning. Gather a small group of students for a fishbowl and dive deeper into their reflections about this unique time. Shadow students by following their synchronous and asynchronous learning schedules. Conduct an “I Wish” campaign asking students to share what they wish teachers knew about this unique school experience. Then, embrace those learnings as you redesign and reimagine what you can offer students that best supports their journey to become balanced, healthy, and engaged learners — wherever that learning is happening.

Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a Co-Founder of Challenge Success and a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, where she specializes in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning. She is the author of, “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. Dr. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity.