Children of the pandemic

(I was going to title this post “Children of the Coronavirus,”
but that seemed a little too…well, corny.)

Most people I know have “moved on” from the Covid-19 pandemic, and who can blame them? Quarantine was one of the yuckiest times in recent memory, to say nothing of the many who lost their lives to the virus.

In Higher Ed, though, the pandemic’s effects are still raging, and in fact are painfully obvious every day. I say this not because students are actively sick, but because many are noticeably underdeveloped for their age, in a myriad of ways.

This stunted growth shouldn’t be surprising when you consider the math. When the pandemic hit, I was 50 years old. So even though two years of social distancing madness was a world-rocker for me, my foundation was already set. My habits were well-established. And by the time it was done, quarantine had lasted only 4% of my life.

But if you were a sophomore in high school in 2020 — the age of student we’re seeing in college classes now — quarantine lasted about 11% of your life. Worse, it took away what were supposed to be some of your most formative years: not only cognitively and academically, but socially. These were the years when people build their identity, assume serious responsibility for the first time, make high-stakes life decisions, and learn how to talk to each other.

For students in this age range, there’s a moon crater in that whole chunk of their timeline. Many did nothing but watch Netflix or play videogames for those two years. For the most part they didn’t have meaningful sleepovers, or summer jobs, or after-school clubs, or prom, or bonfire parties. And their school system effectively said, “we know you students are struggling — we are, too — so we’re going to be extremely lax with deadlines and even with our expectations. We won’t push you any harder than these unprecedented times allow,” which meant basically not at all.

I’m not saying the school systems made the wrong choice there. Desperate times called for it. I’m just observing what sort of student emerged from the aftermath. And from where I sit, the net effects of this high school “experience” were positively disastrous, and will probably remain so for the next decade.

Let me list just a few of the areas in which the typical 2023 UMW student differs radically from the typical 2019 UMW student. (Caveat: I say “typical,” because of course these generalizations don’t apply to every student. The star students I’m teaching now are as terrific as any stars I’ve had in the past, and the upper-third of the student body is, to my mind, pretty much unchanged. It’s the middle-third and bottom-third that have manifested the behaviors I list here.)

  • A lower ceiling for academic challenges. In every single class I teach, I have had to (for lack of a better term) “dumb down” the assignments since the pandemic. Programming projects that used to be gimmes and warmups are now meaningful challenges; those that were tougher are now out of reach entirely. The students aren’t dumber than they used to be, but they’re “out of shape” intellectually. They haven’t been forced often enough to concentrate on difficult subject matter or persevere through the obstacles that any large project involves. A moderate amount of thinking exhausts them.
  • Reading stamina. As a special case of the previous point, today’s student seems unable to tackle longer readings the way last decade’s could. I used to get groans if I assigned a 15-page reading; now the groans start at five pages. This one puzzles me. Students were locked down for two years with many enjoyable activities denied them; but reading wasn’t one of them. Shouldn’t they be better readers, even if weaker in some of these other areas?
  • Working together. This one is really pronounced. To a large extent, students seem more uncomfortable working together, and even talking to each other. I regularly have in-class activities where I tell everyone to grab a partner and discuss this or that problem in pairs. Whenever I’ve done this, there has always been a recluse or two in a class of 25, and I don’t force the issue. Communication apprehension is a real thing, and if a couple people just want to work alone, I let them. What’s different now is that it’s half the class who has trouble being convinced to pair up. Earlier this semester I gave my usual instructions about this and then moved my attention to something else, only to be startled by the unexpected silence. When I looked up, most students had downcast expressions and were trying to avoid eye contact. I honestly think they just haven’t had enough practice talking to other people.

    Related: this is my fourth semester teaching the Artificial Intelligence course, and as before, I’ve scheduled regular “movie nights” where we watch AI-related shows and films like Westworld, BSG, Blade Runner, Terminator. These are all optional, but they have always gotten great turn-out: in 2017, 2019, and 2021, I’d regularly get at least 20-25 students out of 30 showing up on a given night, some with a friend or two besides. This year, the average is around ten, giving a totally different vibe. I can’t attribute that to anything different other than the pandemic.
  • Reliance on “ghosting.” We’ve probably all had the experience of a friend “going dark” on us — quietly stopping communication and dropping out of sight. The Internet has made this much more common, since so many relationships are online: you don’t have to worry about accidentally bumping in to the people you’re stonewalling on the playground or in the neighborhood. I’ve noticed a sharp increase in this behavior since the pandemic, especially involving team projects. My impression is that students feel that the commitments they’ve made are smaller and more conditional, and they expect others to feel the same. They may reach out to each other at the start of a project and even do some fine work, but they also seem to believe that ceasing participation without any explanation is an acceptable option. What do they think their (ex-)partners will think when they’re left hanging? In many cases, I suspect it never really occurred to the “ghoster” how the other affected parties may feel. The whole “relationship” feels more contingent on mood: as long as I’m enjoying working with the group, I’ll participate, but the moment I’m not having fun, it’s understood that I might choose to decline, just as if I were shutting off a TV show.
  • Lack of confidence. For all of the above reasons and more, the students I teach today seem far less confident in themselves. They do everything possible not to “stick out” from the crowd in any way. They seem embarrassed when singled out, even if it’s for praise. Their strategy for an academic course is to avoid “getting points taken off” for something, not to take risks and be creative. My impression of their inner narrative: “now if I can just last through this thing and not draw any attention, I’ll survive.”
  • Honor Code violations. (Background: UMW has an Honor System in which incoming students pledge to not lie, cheat, or steal; and thus are given permission to take unproctored take-home tests, etc.) I wish I had stats on this, but they’re spotty because so many factors (including the professor being just too darned busy at the time) go into whether or not to file a suspected violation. But I think I can say with confidence that students tend to view themselves as more anonymous than they used to. The temptation to cheat isn’t colored by a reluctance to let down “the community,” their peers, or their professor. It’s seen as a calculated risk whose benefit might be worth considering. I really think this is partly due to people being separated from each other for two years, which has weakened social ties and shared trust.

I’ve seen lots of statistics about Covid case numbers, but far fewer studies on these lasting (permanent?) impacts of the pandemic. I can’t help but be troubled. Sometimes I think it will take five years for the next generation of students to get through the pipeline and we’ll begin to rebuild what’s been lost. But other times I think it will be self-propagating and we won’t ever really be “back to normal.” After all, once our expectations of our students drop, and the academic system has settled into a new norm, it’s really hard to avoid a race-to-the-bottom. Will the students graduating college circa 2020 be the last cohort to reach high and achieve great things? I really hope not.

One other thing I’ll mention is that I polled my students a couple semesters ago about their opinions to how UMW handled the pandemic. I was surprised by the large number of long, heartfelt responses. Many of them said something like this: “thanks to the UMW faculty for being understanding during that crazy time, and giving us flexible deadlines, a more forgiving grading system, and so forth. But my God: please don’t coddle us anymore! Throw us back in the deep end. It’s the only way we’re going to learn.” I confess I was encouraged by that attitude. Maybe it’ll be the saving grace of this whole era.

— S


  1. Sarah Davies Avatar

    Interesting to hear this from the perspective of a college professor who sees the differences in his students. Pondering the local and national news every day – makes one wonder even further about the impact of the pandemic.

  2. Al Avatar

    Stephen, excellent write up from the lens of impacts of the pandemic. As usual I look at it a little differently through another lens of questions:

    1. What did the stars and upper 3rd who are still performing at the top levels do during the pandemic that enabled them to stay at that level? While I agree that most of them are self-initiators, still the environment they worked in at home probably had a lot to assist them like good internet connections, structured schedule, so they didn’t play video games, most likely imposed by the parents, and in some cases, instructors who knew how to manage an online class and deliver content virtually. “Dumbing Down” classes – well I have been teaching at a Community College level since the early 80s and here since 1999 and I have watch the this trend since then. While yes the pandemic did exasperate and accelerate the dumbing down trend, it is also is affected by many other factors such as government and school policies.

    2. Yes, stamina for reading for the students not in the the upper 1/3 has been declining long before the pandemic, especially articles and books that were scientific and mathematical in nature. Studies have blamed lots of things like the brevity expressed in the media the students are exposed too. To keep someone’s attention in a science or math area, you needed to be brief and too the point. Think about the structure of PowerPoints and prior to that slide shows and viewgraphs … usually bullets and pictures not paragraphs. This brevity was increasing reinforced by apps like Twitter etc. as they appeared. Of course Harry Potter, Twilight, Narnia and other fantasy series defy this argument. 🙂

    3. Working together – yup agree, students groan and hate it when I tell them there is a group project in the class. When I have asked why, they say I don’t want my grade to be dependent of someone else usually due in part to being ghosted in the past. Yet when I use to have students “rate” their partner, it almost always came back as a 5 out of 5 even though they complained about them early on. I now have an anti-freeloading policy that basically says I reserve the right to separate the grades to address what contribution the partners make to the project. I then ask for graded periodic update of what each partner did specifically.

    4. Lack of Confidence – in my 24 years at UMW, I have taught at all levels. Junior and seniors may exhibit some lack of confidence, especially when you tell them as a Computer Scientist you have to be knowledgeable about Ethics but for the most part they are confident in their ability but not necessarily the ability of their peers. The freshman and sophomores usually lack confidence in their math abilities even though humans are natural born problem solvers. They look at me perplexed when I say this and then express as evidenced them solving a navigation problem by finding the classroom in the basement of Farmer and a time management problem by being on time. (Yes I know some students do not solve these problems quickly.) The other factor is for most being on their own for the first time and have not built up their time management skills.

    5. Honor code violations continue to be a challenge especially in today’s interconnected world but accountability is always cumbersome and sometimes very difficult to detect. When I detected my first one many moons ago, it was suggested I just give the students 0 and not go through the adjudication process. I went through the process.

    Look foward to you next post.

  3. Rae Avatar

    I wonder why we didn’t just hold back the students who were in school when the virus hit. Repeat a grade? Probably because in the fall of 2020 we didn’t know how long it would last – the vaccine was released in 2021, right? Are there answers to the problems we are observing now?

    1. stephen Avatar

      Yeah, great point. In retrospect I do think that high schoolers just having a “do-over” of their junior and/or senior years would probably have had the best result. Part of the problem with society choosing to implement a policy like that is the solidity of expectations; another part is that then parents would be “stuck” with their teenagers for two additional years…

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