A needed reflection on in-person education

By Kaitlyn McCormick

Returning to campus for the spring semester has allowed students to reflect on the jump back into in-person learning and its unexpected challenges. Before this academic year, March of 2020 was the last time most students experienced learning in the classroom as opposed to a collection of digital faces on a Zoom or Google Meets call. But the return to the collaborative classroom setting has been accompanied by a culture shock that may have had an unexpected impact on students lives and solidified a call for more empathy and understanding in education on all fronts.

The four years spent in college are often lauded as some of the most monumental and growth-inducing in a person’s life, but the current higher- education experience – COVID scares, mask mandates and consistent underlying anxieties – have made it harder to live up to these traditional expectations.

Sophomores sharing in the freshman experience

One major facet of this pandemic-influenced learning environment is the initial year that was essentially lost to the current sophomore class, a shift inexperience that caused a lot of anxiety for sophomores who were returning to Rider academically but experiencing campus for the first time.

Reflecting on this initial transition into the fall 2021 semester, sophomore psychology major Jess Toledo said, “I was never on campus before, so it was the combination of being nervous to go back to in-person classes and see people again in these classes being close to each other.”

Sophomore psychology major Skylar Okun said, “The transition was kind of hard because I was so used to, you know, being on a computer screen and being in the comfort of my own home, so it was kind of like more anxiety and meeting new people [and] seeing new things.”

Comparing the pre-pandemic experience to now

Upperclassmen provide the strongest recounts of the true issues going from experiencing college before the pandemic to during it, and, unsurprisingly, those experiences could not be more different, regardless of a shared location.

Senior music major Abigail Flanagan said, “I think my expectations going into this year were that it was going to feel a lot more normal than it does. … And I think there are just ways that people are trying to push a normal where people are still living in a pandemic.”

The phrase Flanagan used was “pandemic exhaustion.”

On an obvious level, precautions like masks, testing and contact tracing will hinder an experience that replicates that of students prior to spring 2020, but the sheer exhaustion and lack of social energy needs to be equally considered.

Struggles after learning “screen-to-screen”

The experience of taking college classes online via video conferencing and now being thrown back into the classroom is seen as a return to normalcy. But it has not been normal at all, and students are realizing there is a tremendous lack of stamina compared to learning pre-pandemic.

Okun said, “I used to easily concentrate at school, but I definitely slacked off when it was online. So, definitely going back, it was hard for me to concentrate and stay focused.”

Okun also highlighted the role that time management and communication have played in switching from Zoom classes to a physical classroom, having to “learn to communicate face-to-face rather than screen-to-screen.”

It is no shock that after spending over a year of quarantining, being so suddenly immersed in social interaction would cause exhaustion.

Lessons learned

These conversations about shifts in student expectations and experiences do not exist in a vacuum and are instead indicative of a broader, shared experience of going from isolation to functioning again more actively in shared spaces with others.

Toledo suggested committing to helpful habits like drafting to-do lists and reaching out to professors and peers for help to alleviate the newfound anxiety of coming back to campus.

Okun said, “There’s more to the college experience living on campus than just going to class and coming back to your dorm. You[‘ve] got to take care of your mental health, your body, your friends, everything like that.”

Students and faculty alike have been thrust into a situation that calls them to essentially restructure their day-to-day expectations and actions, whether they want to or not. While the impacts of this pandemic have been felt differently in the past semester than its initial 2020 outbreak, it must be understood and accepted that being put back into a classroom is not going to immediately restore the stamina and outlook present pre-pandemic.

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