Ontario Learning Since the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Updated Look at Student Experiences and Outcomes in 2021–2022

Ontario Learning Since the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Updated Look at Student Experiences and Outcomes in 2021–2022 was written by Sarah Brumwell and Jackie Pichette, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Several challenges to student persistence and integration that emerged during the pandemic diminished as in-person courses and campus access resumed.

The sudden shift to online-only education during the pandemic created challenges for students to successfully transition into higher education and integrate into their campus communities. A new Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) brief indicates that as public health measures relaxed, so too did some uncertainties and stressors facing students navigating postsecondary education (PSE). However, concerns remain about learning loss, students’ sense of academic preparedness, self-efficacy, satisfaction and well-being, which are factors known to impact persistence.

This report expands and builds upon HEQCO’s previous work to monitor pandemic impacts, including the 2022 report Ontario Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which examined the experiences of domestic first-year postsecondary students in the wake of intermittent campus closures and other pandemic-related disruptions. The latest brief, Ontario Learning Since the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Updated Look at Student Experiences and Outcomes in 2021–2022, draws on a survey (done in partnership with Academica Group) of approximately 1,000 first- and second-year domestic and international students to understand their experiences during the 2021–22 academic year. The students surveyed had the opportunity to experience a mix of online and in-person learning as pandemic measures were relaxed.

Students’ overall opinions of their postsecondary experiences were positive, with nearly 80% rating the entire educational experience at their institution either excellent or good. Students with disabilities were slightly less satisfied (74%) than those without (80%) and 10% less likely to rate their experience as excellent. Students with disabilities also felt less like a part of the community at their institution than students without and felt less comfortable ‘being themselves’ at their institution.

The pandemic’s impacts on postsecondary persistence were not equitable, and its effects are likely to continue as students who encountered learning losses during school closures (both during K-12 and PSE) transition through higher education. Students from lower income backgrounds reported feeling less academically prepared, as did younger students. Only 15% of those aged 20 and under rated themselves as fully prepared compared to 20% of students aged 21 to 24 and 43% of students over 25. Students also identified mental health as an ongoing challenge, with 57% of all students surveyed indicating that maintaining their mental health was difficult during the 2021–22 year. This response was especially common among students with disabilities (72%), women and gender-diverse students (75%) and students aged 20 years or younger (64%).

Previous research has shown many of the international students arriving on Ontario campuses face a range of academic and personal challenges that negatively affect their postsecondary experiences, yet their survey responses suggested otherwise. It is essential that postsecondary institutions enrolling international students test and identify effective ways of understanding this group of learners’ experiences. This will help institutions develop strategies to support international student persistence and well-being.

The return to in-person learning did not improve satisfaction for all learners, but providing students with the ability to select the learning format that best suited their needs did lead to generally positive experiences with all formats, including online and hybrid. Nearly 70% of students surveyed rated course format as an important factor in their course selections. Incorporating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and ensuring appropriate learning supports and accommodations are in place is another exemplary strategy for improving satisfaction and well-being. Developing strategies to equitably address potential learning losses and finding opportunities to develop transferable skills, like time management and organization, will help students be well-positioned to stay on top of their workloads. Institutions should also ensure accessible, reliable information about mental health supports is widely distributed to incoming students, with targeted outreach to students with disabilities as well as women and gender-diverse students, who expressed challenges in higher numbers.