By Emily Moore

Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has provoked widespread change across society. University students are among those who have experienced a significant shift in their normal routines, with classes in Scotland and elsewhere having moved online. While this change constitutes a new mode of working for teaching staff, not used to speaking into a webcam rather than a lecture hall, I am interested in how online teaching impacts on us – the students.

Arguably, if education in the early part of the 21st century is characterised by anything, it is the growth in distance learning via online courses (Allen & Seaman, 2010). Naturally, this has resulted in ample research from which we can inform ourselves of the effects on the student caused by this ‘new normal’ in teaching. 

In a study looking at performance in almost 500,000 online and face-to-face courses taken by students in the United States, Xu and Jaggars (2013) found retention rates in online courses were lower than those delivered in traditional settings, and students generally performed worse in comparison to their counterparts taught in the classroom. Potentially, this points to difficulties on the part of the student in self-regulation or motivation in online learning; self-directed study skills are thought to be pivotal to successful attainment in online courses (Bambara et al., 2009Rasheed, Kamsin & Abdullah, 2020).

Indeed, this reflects points of view I have heard voiced by peers since our learning moved online this year. For example, a third-year student of English at the University of Glasgow said the following to me:

“initially it was nice working from home but now I find it increasingly difficult to find motivation each day to get up and start working at a decent time”. 

Similarly, a second-year Psychology student commented that she is getting more benefit out of online lectures as she can pause the video whenever she needs to, but the downside is finding motivation when there are no physical classes to attend. This highlights a potential benefit with online studying; students perform better when they have control over the pace and sequence of learning (KebritchiLipschuetz Santiague, 2017), which online learning offers. But distraction and lack of motivation currently appear to be common experiences among my peersMy own experience these last few months is not altogether different – I am finding it hard to focusIt seems clear to me that having the internet and social media so easily accessible while following lectures on Zoom is a challenge to effective self-regulation. While in a lecture hall, you may be more likely to pay attention – since you have chosen to be physically present at that time and place for the class. When you are following lectures from the same space you have ‘downtime’ in, it is perhaps less easy to prevent yourself from distraction while in the lecture. As a result, you finish the lecture having absorbed little information. This may impact overall performance on the course. That said, while online learning demands greater self-regulation skills than when learning face-to-face, given that success in Higher Education generally requires the student to develop these skills, where there is lower performance in online teaching, it is likely influenced also by other factors.  

For example, “Zoom fatigue” – tiredness and burnout due to overuse of virtual communication platforms (Lee, 2020) – is being widely reported among the student community, as in other circles where the working day is being spent in Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. Lee notes that in online communication, something crucial is lost; namely, perception of non-verbal cues that actively help us form a response in the conversation. This contributes to cognitive strain as interactions require more effort. In addition, it has been reported that students learning online show increased feelings of isolation and alienation, which has an adverse impact on interest in the course being studied and ability to concentrate (RasheedKamsin & Abdullah, 2020)Increased engagement with an online course leads to lower rates of isolation and better educational outcomes (Bolliger & Halupa2018)indicating the importance for students to actively engage with the course. Alas, a combination of the increased cognitive load inflicted by virtual communicationincreased isolation and the general stress caused by the pandemic seems to be affecting many of us. Considered this, poorer performance may perhaps be an unsurprising consequence. 

It is also worth noting that students are impacted differently in online teaching; the students with the lowest grades are those who see the biggest decline in their performance when their teaching moves online (Figlio, Rush & Yin2010; Cavanaugh Jacquemin, 2015)which is perhaps linked to different abilities in self-regulated learning. More broadly, female and white students seem to have greater success in courses taught online (Xu & Jaggars, 2013), reflecting trends in post-secondary education attainment generally.  

It seems, then, that if higher education is going to be taught either fully online or in a blended learning format for the foreseeable future, a priority for students may be to develop their abilities in self-regulated learning and reducing distractions – a process educators can have a role in to maximise their students’ success in somewhat challenging conditions for learning. In addition, making efforts to dedicate a portion of the day to ‘screen-free’ time may help with reducing the stress caused by online learning. Perhaps one of few benefits to the situation COVID-19 has thrust on us may be that students and teachers alike exit this tunnel with a greater ability to perform in less-than-ideal circumstances. 

About the Blog Post Author:

Emily Moore is a Psychology undergraduate at the University of Glasgow interested primarily in cognitive and neuropsychology, especially that related to brain development, injury and disease. However, also, she is keen to learn about – and contribute knowledge of – the impact on our collective mental health and wellbeing caused by the unique circumstances we’re currently living in. Having become interested in psychology in part due to an engaging and knowledgeable teacher earlier on in her education, Emily is pleased to be part of the Student Voice within the TILE Network and thus adding to efforts to use research with the aim of improving teaching for the better.

TILE Student Voice

This is a new section of the TILE Network that features the student voice in learning and teaching. We want to shine a light on the student perspective when it comes to teaching and learning practice and what better way to do this than letting the students express this themselves. This series also aims to give students to opportunity to engage in science communication and writing. Broadcasting scientific findings to a wider audience is a valuable skill and TILE provides students with the platform to practice that skill.

If you are a student and interested in contributing to the TILE Student Voice section, get in touch:


  • Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2010). Class differences: Online education in the United States.Sloan Consortium (NJ1). 
  • Bambara, C. S., Harbour, C. P., Davies, T. G., & Athey, S. (2009). Delicate engagement: The lived experience of community college students enrolled in high-risk online courses. Community College Review, 36(3), 219-238.  
  • Bolliger, D. U., & Halupa, C. (2018). Online student perceptions of engagement, transactional distance, and outcomes. Distance Education, 39(3), 299-316.   
  • Cavanaugh, J. K., & Jacquemin, S. J. (2015). A large sample comparison of grade based student learning outcomes in online vs. face-to-face courses. Online Learning, 19(2).  
  • Figlio, D. N., Rush, M., & Yin, L. (2010). Is it live or is it internet?Experimental Estimates of the Effects of Online Instruction on Student Learning. Journal of Labour Economics, 31(16089).   
  • Kebritchi, M., Lipschuetz, A., & Santiague, L. (2017). Issues and Challenges for Teaching Successful Online Courses in Higher Education: A Literature Review. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 46(1), 4–29.  
  • Lee, J. (2020). A Psychological Exploration of Zoom FatiguePsychiatric Times. Online publication retrieved from 
  • Rasheed, R. A., Kamsin, A., & Abdullah, N. A. (2020). Challenges in the online component of blended learning: A systematic review. Computers & Education, 144, 103701. 
  • Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. (2013). Adaptability to online learning: Differences across types of students and academic subject areas. Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved from