Monday, October 31, 2022

College, Interrupted: Pandemic took toll on first-year students, study suggests

The study results "support previous research that articulating a 'silver lining' within a stressful event is related to your subsequent well-being," says Robyn Fivush, Emory professor of psychology and co-author of the study.

By Carol Clark

Students who began their college careers in fall 2019, only to have them disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, report significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression and academic distress compared with prepandemic samples of first-year students. 

The journal Psychological Science published the analyses of students’ narratives about COVID-19 and self-reported measures of their well-being, in a study conducted by psychologists at Emory University, the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, the University of Utah and Western Washington University. 

“When the pandemic lockdowns began in 2020 it pulled the rug out from under many people,” says Robyn Fivush, Emory professor of psychology and a co-author of the study. “It was a particularly difficult time for first-year college students, many of whom were away from home for the first time and beginning to explore their adult identities in terms of their relationships, their academic interests and the world of ideas.” 

Fivush’s research focuses on early memory with an emphasis on the social construction of autobiographical memory and the relations among memory, narrative, identity, trauma and coping. 

Jordan Booker, a former postdoctoral student at Emory who is now at the University of Missouri, is first author of the study. 

As universities moved to online courses during the pandemic, the researchers recruited 633 first-year U.S. students, including 84 from Emory, to provide narratives about the impacts of the pandemic on their lives. Narrative prompts included asking the students to describe an event that best captures the challenges they have faced as a result of COVID-19. They were also asked to explain why they chose that particular event to write about and what it says about who they are, who they were and who they might become. 

Their responses spanned a range of challenges, from difficulties with virtual coursework, feelings of isolation, worries about their own health as well as that of family members and financial pressures. 

The study participants also completed self-measurement scales for COVID-19-related stressors and psychological adjustment. The participants repeated these self-measurement scales 12 months later. 

The study found that the pandemic was associated with increased depression, general anxiety, social anxiety, eating concerns, academic distress and hostility relative to prepandemic samples of first-year students. 

Students who reported stressors directly related to the pandemic, such as a job loss or the death or debilitating illness of a loved one, were worse off as a group than those who did not. 

The study’s longitudinal analyses also revealed that on most measures, the participants as a group were not getting better a year later. And the measures for general anxiety and academic distress actually increased during the course of the study. 

Students who were able to narrate their experiences with a sense of personal growth, such as learning about their strengths or deepening their relationships during the pandemic, reported lower levels of distress one year later. 

“These results support previous research showing that articulating a ‘silver lining’ within a stressful event is related to your subsequent well-being,” Fivush says. 

The researchers conclude that recovery from the pandemic-related developmental disruptions is likely to be a long-term process. They recommend that academic institutions increase awareness of the issue among faculty, staff and leaders; emphasize learning experiences that support identity development; and create opportunities for students and the university community to make meaning of the pandemic experience through storytelling opportunities that help develop a growth mindset. 

“Not all of the students who participated in the study are struggling,” Fivush says. “We know that there is a substantial minority who have been able to overcome the stressors of COVID by creating meaning and resilience through narrative. Our next step is to go back into our data and see if we can determine a combination of other factors that predict who is doing okay as opposed to those who may still be struggling.” 

The researchers plan to conduct a follow-up study this year of the participating students, who are now seniors, and into the next year as the students graduate and enter the workforce. 


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