Remote Education and the Benefits of Peer Learning to Mental Health

Covid-19 and the effects of the pandemic on students' learning and mental health
“as many as 1 in 5 students met the diagnostic criteria for a mental health disorder, and 30% to 50% of students reported experiencing overwhelming stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms during the postsecondary years” (Hamza et al, 2020)

COVID-19 and Remote Education

When the COVID-19 crisis surfaced last year, our society was heavily disrupted as we watched the world go to lockdowns, mandate social distancing and enforce self-isolations. Communities and various populations all around the world had to migrate their social interactions and obligations online in the best interests of reducing COVID-19 cases and preventing the spread of the virus. Of which, a particular population that thrives off of social engagement have experienced drastic and unprecedented changes in their lives - they are none other than students.

Throughout the history of the education system, attending schools have always served the purpose of facilitating and accelerating students’ academic growth (Lukarrinen et al, 2016). It is no doubt that COVID-19 has disrupted the method in which students learn and consume knowledge. However, an aspect of schooling that has not been getting much attention in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak is the impact of the pandemic on students’ mental well being in relation to their lack of social engagement due to extensive stay-at-home orders. As we witness the transition to a more digital society and experience the advantages of remote education, students' specific needs when it comes to their academic and personal growth and well-being should not go unnoticed. Their mental health should still be addressed in current online environments and what better way to handle it in the context of education, than to empower students to virtually interact with one another and build online classroom communities in lieu of social gatherings.

A 2020 pandemic study on the impacts of social isolation on the mental health of students have shown concerning psychological distress levels among those without pre-existing mental health challenges (Hamza et al, 2020). Although high psychological distress levels can be attributed to numerous factors, the study’s multivariate analysis highlights the significance of social isolation on poor mental well being. Prior to the pandemic, students are already “identified as an at-risk population for chronic stress”, anxiety and depression (Linden et Stuart, 2020). According to a journal published by the Canadian Psychological Association “as many as 1 in 5 students met the diagnostic criteria for a mental health disorder, and 30% to 50% of students reported experiencing overwhelming stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms during the postsecondary years” (Hamza et al, 2020). Pre-pandemic numbers are already concerning and will only increase as the pandemic persists and uncertainties linger.

As a helping mechanism to cope with the challenges of emerging adulthood, students build support systems within their communities by sharing experiences and in the context of academia, through peer learning. This has been studied and the research shows that students who attend an educational institution with peer learning as a pedagogical practice are most likely to show positive results on the Ryfff well-being scale which is comprised of autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance which are all aspects of a healthy mental state (Hanson et al, 2016). However, as much as it is ideal for students to interact with and learn from one another, effectively facilitating such pedagogy is almost unfeasible in these unprecedented times and current remote environments.

Not to worry as there are numerous online solutions - but only a few educational platforms like Kritik can create dynamic, informative and enjoyable peer-to-peer interactions.

Peer Learning and Mental Health

A detailed research conducted by Johnson and Johnson (2009) on working with peers have indicated that student collaborations in the educational space were correlated with positive psychological status. In the current remote environment, the integral collaborations can manifest through the use of effective peer assessment and discussion boards. When students provide evaluations to their peers, not only do their academics improve given the use of their critical thinking skills and the comparative assessments they are empowered to do, but they also feel a great sense of responsibility and belonging which is indicative of a healthy mental well being. This online peer-to-peer interaction promotes healthy academic relationships in the absence of connections built in physical classrooms (NCB, 2015).

Furthermore, through peer learning, students are able to provide guidance to one another in an educational context and build the necessary support groups that are lacking as a result of enforced isolations and students staying at home. Moreover, other psychological health benefits such as ‘emotional maturity, well-adjusted social relations, strong personal identity, ability to cope with adversity, social competencies, basic trust and optimism about people, self-confidence, independence and autonomy, higher self-esteem ,and increased perspective taking skills’ (Johnson et Johnson, 2009) can all be brought out through peer learning which decreases the risk of students experiencing higher stress levels, anxiety and depression.

Peer learning is more than just an effective pedagogical approach to enhance online learning. It also serves a higher purpose of creating communities that allow students to integrate into society albeit virtually but effectively. Despite students staying at home and conducting their academics in isolation, online interactions with their peers provide the social aspect of education required to facilitate both academic and personal growth.

Conclusion

Now that hybrid and full remote education are being widely adopted throughout the world and across educational institutions, students should not have to face the consequences of migrating their learning online. Given the accelerated transition into an unfamiliar education system, only a few platforms exist that facilitate a seamless shift to online learning while still keeping the aspect of peer learning and its benefits to students’ mental health. Although there is still much research to be done on the effects of the pandemic on students’ long-term well being and online learning, the current signs of increased levels of psychological distress brought by COVID-19 provide warnings that vulnerable populations such as students should immediately receive the proper pedagogies and online platforms and technologies to support their learning in a manner that is conducive to their mental health.

It is apparent that students have adapted to remote education since the first lockdowns - but not fully. Although they might be progressing well in their academic careers, we only know so much of their personal growth and mental well-being in respect of the current 'stay-at-home education' system. As such, peer learning should be the focus for all types of education but specifically so for online learning in order to provide students a well-rounded experience, promote academic social interactions and combat the negative effects of isolation.

Hamza, C. A., Ewing, L., Heath, N. L., & Goldstein, A. L. (2020). When social isolation is nothing new: A longitudinal study psychological distress During COVID-19 among university students with and without preexisting mental health concerns. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne. doi:10.1037/cap0000255

Hanson, J. M., Trolian, T. L., Paulsen, M. B., & Pascarella, E. T. (2016). Evaluating the influence of peer learning on psychological well-being. Teaching in Higher Education, 21(2), 191-206. doi:10.1080/13562517.2015.1136274

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). An educational psychology success story: Social interdependence theory and cooperative learning. Educational Researcher, 38(5), 365-379. doi:10.3102/0013189x09339057

Linden, B., & Stuart, H. (2020). Post-Secondary stress and mental Well-Being: A SCOPING review of the academic literature. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 39(1), 1-32. doi:10.7870/cjcmh-2020-002

Lukkarinen, A., Koivukangas, P., & Seppälä, T. (2016). Relationship between class attendance and student performance. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 228, 341-347. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2016.07.051

National Children's Bureau. (2015). What works in promoting social and emotional well-being ... Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/assets/ResourceFinder/What-works-in-promoting-social-and-emotional-wellbeing-in-schools-2015.pdf

Jay Arias
Education Researcher

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