Pandemic Learning Loss: How COVID-19 Academically Impacted College Students

Missed assignments, technology dependence, and a craving for social interaction are just a few traits professors are noticing in their post-pandemic students.
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Jessica Bryant is a higher education analyst and senior data reporter for BestColleges. She covers higher education trends and data, focusing on issues impacting underserved students. She has a BA in journalism and previously worked with the South Fl...
Published on April 8, 2024
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    As early as 2021, researchers and educators began to notice changes in the learning behaviors of students at all levels as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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    Most research, however, was tailored toward analyzing the test scores and knowledge gaps in elementary and secondary school students.
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    Despite a current lack of data about college students, professors note a stark difference in their post-pandemic students.
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    Among these changes include increasingly missed assignments, more dependence on technology, and discomfort with classroom discussions.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused undeniable shifts in education. While it increased remote learning offerings and helped improve the perception of online degreesNote Reference [1], it also led to notable learning losses at every academic level.

Among elementary and secondary school students; test scores droppedNote Reference [2], academic worries increased, and students faced additional barriers to completing work. But among college students, the impacts of COVID have yet to be fully uncovered through data.

In this report, we explore how learning loss due to COVID appears in college students, according to their professors, and the surprising ways college educators have seen students excel.

Three Ways COVID Learning Loss Appears in College Students

While there is not a lot of data about the pandemic's impact on college student learning, researchers and professors have noted patterns in current students that differ from the behaviors of pre-pandemic students.

Much of this might be the result of pandemic brain — a real phenomenon evidenced in undergraduate students whose decision-making suddenly lacked consistency and became more impulsive during the pandemic whether they had contracted COVID-19 or not.Note Reference [3]

Students reported increased forgetfulness and challenges concentrating, which they attributed to lockdowns, stress, and working from home.Note Reference [3]

Four years later, here's what professors are still seeing from students in their classrooms.

Missing Assignments at Higher Rates

According to Christina Scott, an associate professor of social psychology at Whittier College, one of the most evident changes in student behavior post-COVID is their approach toward missing assignments.

Where maybe I saw 10% of students [skipping assignments pre-pandemic], now it can be upward of 30% of my students, she said.

[They] just didn't turn something in, just didn't do it, Scott said. I've had more students that have failed a class; not because they aren't bright or they can't pass the exams, but because there are all these homework assignments that they just didn't submit.

When approached about their missing assignments, Scott says they often lack the urgency to remedy their mistake.

[Students] just either won't respond, or the student might come in and say, Oh yeah, I missed some stuff. I'll get to that. And then it just doesn't happen.

Russ Crawford, a history professor at Ohio Northern University, echoes Scott's sentiments, revealing that there are similar reports of this trend among students abroad.

A colleague recently went to a conference in the UK, and he reported that faculty over there have noticed students attend less frequently, miss assignment deadlines more frequently, and lack classroom etiquette skills, he said.

According to Anne Gutshall, professor at the College of Charleston School of Education, the problem isn't an inability to do the work academically; instead, it's a struggle to plan and juggle tasks efficiently.

Many students seem to lack knowledge in how to get started, stay on plan, and finish [assignments] on time, she said.

Increased Dependence on Technology

Another area where college students' behaviors have shifted is how they approach technology.

Scott says that some tech habits students formed when classes were virtual have yet to break years later.

I see a lot more phone usage in class, she said. I would say it's triple what I saw pre-pandemic.

In Crawford's classroom, attendance and participation cratered when he continued to allow students to attend virtually for a few semesters despite a return to in-person instruction.

Now, he records his lectures using Google Meet and allows students to make up attendance by watching the recordings as long as they additionally write a lengthy summary of their notes.

Discomfort With Classroom Discussions

Post-pandemic, it seems that whole classes of students are “slower to warm,” said Gutshall. More specifically, students appear to be less sure of themselves and less likely to engage in the in-person verbal give-and-take of classroom spaces.

Passionate conversations are harder to get started and keep going. It is less common to have students talk passionately, animatedly debating about topics until the bell rings, she said.

Students' hesitation around discussion, however, doesn't necessarily mean a lack of desire to participate.

For the students who are really motivated, they want to feel connected and part of a team, said Scott. I notice when I put them in groups of three to four, they talk. They want to talk. They just don't want to be called out [in front of the whole class].

How College Students Are Excelling Post-Pandemic

Despite their struggles, current college students still manage to excel in surprising ways.

One of the biggest ways, Gutshall notes, is how they advocate for themselves.

Students are adept in articulating their need for classroom accommodation or mental health support, she said. Today’s students appear ready and able to access the helping professionals across campus.

Scott notes that pandemic-impacted students also excel when it comes to their desire to connect with faculty members, as it pushes them to pursue new tasks and challenges.

At least one of her undergraduate students will work on several research projects at any given time — something she wants to do because of the previous disconnect she felt during the peak of the pandemic.

Lastly, though today's students are more dependent on technology, they are also more advanced at technology.

They are able to find information quickly, navigate forms and applications, make use of consumer feedback and reviews, find and follow directions, and conceptualize places and people they have never seen with ease, said Gutshall.

Students are enlightened and suspicious connoisseurs of information and quick to seek out validation from more than one source before they accept the information.


  1. Data Reveals New Insights on Online Higher Education Post-Pandemic. Champlain College Online. November 2023.
  2. Education’s long COVID: 2022-23 achievement data reveal stalled progress toward pandemic recovery (PDF). The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA): Center for School and Student Progress. July 2023.
  3. Buelow MT, Wirth J, Kowalsky J. Poorer decision making among college students during the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence for pandemic-brain. March 2023.