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A recent study published in the journal Economic Letters, co-authored by Professor of Business Economics and Public policy Alex Rees-Jones, found that online teaching negatively impacted student learning. (Photo from the Wharton School)

Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy Alex Rees-Jones co-authored a study that found that online teaching negatively impacted student learning. 

The study, led by Cornell University professors Douglas McKee and George Orlov, was published in the journal Economic Letters and aimed to find the impact of transitioning to online teaching at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers found that no particular demographic was more impacted by the effects of online learning and that certain learning techniques were more effective, Penn Today reported.

The study looked at how end-of-semester knowledge was influenced by the measures taken in spring 2020, whether certain demographics were more affected by online learning, and whether specific teaching methods were more impactful on student learning. The researchers compared student performance on standard assessments in spring 2020 to the same courses in fall 2020 or spring 2019 to find the impact of online teaching, Penn Today reported.

“I was one of a group of professors who were part of a multi-year program meant to assess and improve active learning techniques in the classroom,” Rees-Jones told Penn Today. “We were running standardized tests at the end of each semester so we could see the effect of changes. By chance, [COVID-19] happened during all of this, so the cross-semester system we built to measure changes in student learning could be used to assess what happened [because of COVID-19].”

To measure end-of-semester knowledge, the professors made lists of topics that students should have learned in their classes and designed a standardized assessment on those topics that was given at the end of each semester. 

“Comparing performance on this test across semesters then allows you to infer differences in how well the students came to master the key topic areas laid out for the course,” Rees-Jones told Penn Today. “Using this measure, we found that end-of-the-semester test scores declined by 0.2 standard deviations during spring 2019, which quantitatively is a pretty substantial decline.”

The researchers then used the information they gathered about end-of-semester knowledge to determine if certain demographics were more impacted by online learning than others.

“We predicted student’s end-of-semester performance using information on whether they identified as an underrepresented minority, a female, a first-generation college attendee, or someone speaking English as a second language,” Orlov told Penn Today. “While we did find evidence of some differences in performance across these groups, we did not find evidence that these differences changed during spring 2020.”

According to Penn Today, the researchers found that actively working on practice problems — either individually or in groups — was better for student learning than listening to a lecture and taking notes. 

“We thought going into this project that these teaching methods could work especially well in this online-during-a-pandemic setting where students are more easily distracted and are hungry for social interaction,” McKee told Penn Today. “So we were not surprised to find that students in classes with planned peer interaction scored significantly higher on our assessments.”

Rees-Jones told Penn Today that the researchers concluded that the pandemic had a significant impact on student learning. He added that the study made the authors optimistic about the future of student learning because of their findings about the effectiveness of various learning techniques.

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