While many students struggled to adjust to online learning, others found the turn to virtual classes to be a blessing in disguise.
Data collected by Academic Affairs at Cal Poly showed a 7.8% increase in the average student GPA from fall quarter 2019 to winter quarter 2021. The data was based on the 21,812 undergraduate and graduate students attending Cal Poly.
The university first went virtual at the end of winter quarter 2019, when many professors offered students the option to take final exams in-person. Since spring quarter 2019, students and staff have been working primarily online.
Statistics professor Beth Chance said there are many explanations for why the jump in GPA could have occurred, and the data itself does not explain why the change happened.
“Is it telling you that students perform better in courses with online learning, or does it tell you that students who enrolled in fall 2020 were stronger students than those that enrolled in fall 2019?” Chance said.
Chance said an increase in overall GPA could correlate with changed grading policies, the ability of students to change their classes to credit/no credit at the last minute or the difficulty in enforcing academic integrity.
“I find that maybe my course averages didn’t change, but the variability [did],” she said.
Further data collected by Academic Affairs showed a 6.2% decrease in drop, fail, withdraw rates while the average unit load stayed rather consistent.
According to the Office of the Registrar, a student is able to drop a class within the first eight days of instruction each quarter. If a student misses the drop deadline, they may withdraw from the class for “serious and compelling” or “emergency” reasons until the seventh week of the quarter. A student will receive a failing grade if they fail to complete coursework or are enrolled in the wrong class.
Drops and withdraws are not calculated into student GPA.
Chance said she saw higher drop, fail, or withdraw rates for her own students over the last year than in the past. She said she was “impressed” by the 6.2% decrease, considering students were not necessarily taking more courses than usual.
She said there was “suspicion” that students originally signed up for more classes than usual, but quickly dropped when they realized their workload was greater.
Chance said some of her classes used online material before Cal Poly moved to a mostly virtual curriculum, so she had some experience under her belt.
She found her synchronous classes to be favorable, considering she could work with students and answer their questions in real-time.
She mentioned, however, that the transition was harder for the professors who did not teach material online before the pandemic. She also believes Cal Poly is limited in its technical support.
Chance said she and a colleague of hers have observed that, as can often happen during spring quarter, students are completing fewer assignments, asking fewer questions and rarely attending office hours.
“This quarter, I am shocked by the number of students who are just not completing assignments,” she said. “So I am going to have a lot of students not completing the course.”
Some students do not do well with watching lectures or reading the textbook on their own, Chance said, and interactive options were not “ready to go” at the start of virtual learning.
“[Students] didn’t have their friends to work with or sometimes they felt they didn’t have as much access to their professor, and so it could be a lot harder for them to learn on their own,” Chance said, referring to both synchronous and asynchronous classes.
Statistics freshman Lily Cook spent fall quarter of the 2020-2021 academic year at home. She said she taught herself most of the material from her first asynchronous calculus course.
She also could not get academic help or have “shared experiences” with any classmates, which caused her stress and, in turn, affected her grades, she said.
“Not having in-person classes has affected me socially more than anything else, because I haven’t met a single person from any of my classes and I’ve been in college for almost a year,” Cook said.
Cook felt she has done better academically since moving into the dorms on campus. She said she was less motivated at home and also had a job that took up lots of her time.
“I do think studying can be a lot easier with recorded lectures and notes being posted, but it’s also harder in the way that I don’t know anyone in any of my classes,” Cook said. “That just feels very strange, it doesn’t feel like school.”
In fall quarter of 2019, a total of 835 students withdrew from some or all of their classes. That number decreased to roughly 790 students during winter and fall quarters of 2020. During winter quarter 2021, 796 students withdrew.
Vice Provost for Academic Advising Beth Merritt-Miller said the school has worked to keep students on track for graduation throughout the virtual year.
“We also worked to give students more flexibility in taking courses for credit or no credit, if that worked better for them than taking the course for a letter grade,” she wrote in an email to Mustang News. “We have assisted students with virtual library resources, financial aid, technology loans and virtual computer lab software, among other initiatives.”
Computer science sophomore Iris Ho felt she transitioned to online learning fairly well. Many of her assignments were turned in virtually before COVID-19.
Ho spent spring quarter 2020 and fall quarter 2020 at home. When her computer crashed, she was able to use her dad’s instead, so her technology issues were easily resolved, she said.
As for her friends who’s majors did not transition to an online format as smoothly as hers, Ho said some of them had a hard time with self-discipline.
“It’s a lot harder for them to motivate themselves or find a good schedule that works for them,” she said.
Ho said the GPA increase makes sense considering the greater availability of credit/no credit classes.
She used the credit/no credit option last quarter when she had an A-minus in one of her classes.
“To someone who’s failing or not doing academically that well it’s still great, but from the perspective of someone who’s purely trying to boost their GPA, that definitely helped,” she said.