Concerns arose when the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges to close their campuses and transition to remote learning in spring 2020, fearing that many underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields of study would become disheartened and drop out in even larger numbers.

A study of 182 undergraduate students in a biology course at one university, on the other hand, found little evidence to support that notion. Instead, the impact varied across all demographic groups: some students were more motivated, others were less so, and some showed no change in their interest in the subject matter, according to researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

According to the researchers, the findings, published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, are a warning against making presumptions about individuals' dedication and perseverance based on demographic characteristics such as socioeconomic status or being a first-generation student.

Online Education

The students were enrolled in an introductory biology course that had previously been taught in person but was switched to online instruction during the last eight weeks of the Spring 2020 semester. When face-to-face instruction was suspended on campus to combat the spread of COVID-19, most students returned home.

Students who consented to take part in the study were surveyed monthly from January to April, filling out the same two of ten possible questionnaires that examined various factors related to motivation according to various theories.

What the study shows?

Some surveys asked students if they planned to continue in a STEM major and if they thought the effort would be worthwhile in the end. While 42 percent said they were committed to staying in STEM when polled in January, the researchers discovered that this decreased as the semester progressed. Changes in each of the motivational variables by April indicated that more students were at risk of dropping out.

While the researchers expected students' interest in the material to deteriorate over the course of the semester, they discovered that some students' interest increased. According to the study, this effect was especially noticeable among some first-generation students, who made up 24 percent of those queried.


Women experienced greater declines in self-oriented factors, and the researchers speculated that their separation from supportive friends on campus might have affected their confidence and feelings of competence in the course.

Living at home, on the other hand, may have been advantageous for some first-generation students, whose academic goal orientation shifted from failure evasion to a focus on a successful future and economic mobility during the semester. Separation from the highly competitive academic environment on campus, according to the researchers, may have helped these students focus on more positive goals.