As the pandemic altered her high school education, Abigail Mendoza became less focused on learning — she just wanted to get the grade and move past the difficult time. She realized that mindset wouldn’t help her when she came to the University of Pittsburgh last fall.

At Pitt, she failed her first microbiology exam. Feeling defeated, she approached her professor after class and asked for help. The pandemic likely prevented her from improving her study habits, she said, but that made her more willing to go to office hours and meet her instructors.

“I’m not embarrassed about that because it shows that I’m trying to put in the work, even if my grade doesn’t show that,” Mendoza said. 

Like Mendoza, current college freshmen spent nearly five semesters of high school in a pandemic. As they completed their first semester in college, several students across Pittsburgh universities told PublicSource that they have acclimated to the college learning environment or have begun to, despite the disruptions in high school. 

Pitt’s “student success rate” — or the rate at which students earn a C grade or higher in their classes — decreased slightly in fall 2021 but recovered in spring 2022, the university stated. However, some professors in Pittsburgh have seen shifts in academic performance or engagement in the classroom. 

The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning rises beyond Forbes Ave., Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning rises beyond Forbes Ave., Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Many freshmen and sophomores, as well as some juniors, have needed to adjust to the expectations of the college classroom due to the pandemic, according to Michael Bridges, interim executive director of Pitt’s University Center for Teaching and Learning.

“These students spent the last two years of their high school tenure in remote environments. Therefore, the college preparedness that is often a focus of the junior and senior years of high school was radically altered,” Bridges wrote in a statement. He described the challenges seen at the university as “natural and predictable.” 

Challenges in the classroom 

Many incoming students may need to adjust to the active engagement required in college as remote learning made it easier to “passively engage” or not participate, Bridges said. He added that a lot of high school teachers actively helped students stay on top of coursework during the pandemic, and Pitt has seen many students initially struggle with taking on that responsibility.

Some students across Pittsburgh campuses have also had difficulty meeting deadlines or have sought greater flexibility, according to administrators and professors. 

“If assignments aren’t right on time, that might be OK in high school,” said Keith Paylo, vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Point Park University. “They had to get used to more of a structure, per se, as they entered higher education.”

Administrators and professors shared mixed observations on students’ academic performance with PublicSource. Some did not report drastic changes in performance, while others said they’ve observed shifts.  

Professor Matthew Pascal saw a decline last fall among students of all years enrolled in his two sections of Elementary Statistics. He’s taught the course at Point Park since 2011, and this year, he found himself repeatedly helping students “brush up anywhere from algebra down to simple arithmetic.”

What concerns him the most, though, is what he views as a lack of confidence among students. He’s seen a greater number pass on participating in class. 

“At that moment in my class, all they have to do is engage with me. All they have to do is say, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a shot,’ and then I’m there to help them along,” Pascal said. “Taking that initial step seems harder than it was before.”

He recruited two tutors to his classes last fall, who hosted drop-in sessions to help students catch up. “This is all new,” he said. While not all students are inclined to seek tutoring, he said he believes that providing incentive helps. He allowed students to bring their graded quizzes to the sessions to review the content, make up the test and receive a portion of their credit back. 

Chatham University photographed on Sept. 26, 2022, in Shadyside. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

In the math department at Pitt, professor Jeffrey Wheeler has seen an “unsettling” lack of engagement among students since the pandemic. Wheeler, who has taught math classes since the fall of 1990, said professors have shortened exams in the university’s freshman calculus classes as a result. 

He’s noticed gaps in academic performance among his students. 

Last fall, students in a calculus class primarily taken by freshmen scored roughly the same on their first midterm as those in fall 2019, according to the median. However, the students generally performed worse on their second midterm, while those in fall 2019 were generally able to score higher. 

And it’s not just freshmen: In fall 2020, all of the students enrolled in an upper-level course he taught titled “An Introduction to Optimization” scored above a 60. Last fall, more than half of his students failed. The math department introduced a teaching seminar last fall for faculty to discuss what they’re seeing among students and what approaches are working, department chair Jonathan Rubin said. 

“It’s always true that there are students who don’t come to class. And it’s always true that there are students who, when in class, don’t pay attention,” Wheeler said. “But those numbers have elevated after COVID.”

Point Park University on Sept. 19, 2022. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource)
Point Park University on Sept. 19, 2022. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource)

Many faculty at Pitt have implemented more frequent, lower-stakes assessments during the pandemic, enabling students to receive feedback more often and allowing them to demonstrate their knowledge in a less stressful way, said Joseph McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, in a statement. The fall 2022 student success rate is not yet available.

The School of Nursing also created optional primer modules to help first-year students prepare for more challenging courses. The university intends to provide this option for “many” other courses typically taken during freshman or sophomore year, McCarthy said.

At Chatham University, faculty have questioned when to reinstate policies around deadlines and attendance that have softened during the pandemic, said Carrie Tippen, associate dean of Chatham’s School of Arts, Science and Business. For now, Tippen has tried to help students understand the consequences of their academic choices without demanding full participation at all times. 

They’ve seen students struggle more with mental health, resilience and performance anxiety. Recently, a student in their first-year writing class came to Tippen hours before a presentation and told them: “I don’t think I can do this.” Tippen walked the student through her options and what would happen to her grade in each scenario. 

“None of those consequences are that I will be mad at you or I will hate you or I will not respect you anymore, but there will be a hit to your grade. That’s unavoidable,” Tippen said. In the end, the student decided to submit the assignment without presenting.

A light at the end of the tunnel?

When Mendoza sought help from her professor, he taught her new study habits. On the next exam, she scored a 90. On the one after that, she scored even higher. She’s enjoyed her first semester at Pitt, and looking back, she said that every hour she spent studying was worth it.

University of Pittsburgh freshman Abigail Mendoza sitting in a classroom, looking out the window.
Like other freshmen, Abigail Mendoza spent nearly five semesters of high school in a pandemic. (Photo by Amaya Lobato/PublicSource).

Attending office hours also helped Carnegie Mellon University freshman Ryan Song adapt to the college learning environment. He thinks he missed out on opportunities to prepare for college because of the pandemic, which made the transition a bit more difficult. 

Not all students share that experience. Chatham freshman Morgan Rapsky said she felt very prepared for college, as she believes her high school experience had an “uncharacteristically high level of rigor” that included taking classes at a community college. 

While Chatham freshman Madison Butina said she believes that she lost learning opportunities in high school, she said the experience forced her to be a better learner.

“We had to learn to adapt to so many different circumstances,” Butina said. “Even if college is a totally different experience and different way of learning, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve done that before. I can do it again.’”

Tippen said they believe the challenges can be overcome, and that it’s common for first-year students to struggle to manage their emotions and navigate deadlines. Over the course of the semester, they saw students improve by finding a community on campus and, at last, having a more traditional college experience.

“The job is still the job, and students are still students. And I know how to handle both of those things,” Tippen said. “I think we’ll figure this out together.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Dakota Castro-Jarrett.

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Emma is a higher education reporter for PublicSource. In her role, she collaborates with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on strengthening higher education coverage in local communities. Emma...