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How Learning Environments Have Affected Academic Performance in UCI STEM Courses

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After the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, schools all over the country experienced an abrupt transition from in-person to distance learning. Both students and instructors have had to adapt to these changes in education since then, including UCI. 

While students have continued their coursework despite the challenges, their academic performance has varied throughout both learning environments. This pattern has especially been observed in STEM courses. 

An analysis of the pattern in academic performance was carried out in a paper titled “Student Performance in Ground Versus Online Sections of a Biological Science I College Course: A Comparison Based on a Common Final Exam” written by Florida Southwestern State College Biology professors Peggy Romeo, Frederick Posey, Marcela Trevino and Scott Romeo.  

Through the published work, the authors highlighted previous studies that compare and contrast in-person and online classes. In these studies, other researchers claimed that “the final course grade was significantly higher for students in ground (in-person) classes.”

To test this claim, the professors administered a common final exam (CFE) for an introduction to biological sciences course. To assess the students’ knowledge about the subject, those who had enrolled in either the in-person or online version of the course took the closed-book and proctored exam at the end of the semester. 

The final results revealed that students who attended classes in-person had higher averages on the exam, and 78% of these students had also earned a passing letter grade.

UCI biology professor David Camerini, who taught his first in-person class this quarter, has seen similar trends in academic success among students who have taken his BIO SCI 100 course here at UCI.

“I can see that this class [in-person] has a higher-grade average in part because of the in-person format. Students [can] get their questions answered better,” Camerini said, “We had about 13 or 14 learning assistants for each section, plus 4 teaching assistants and myself walking around during class when students worked on assignments.” 

According to Camerini, a course’s particular structure has also had an effect on student performance. Based on the feedback professors like Camerini have received from students about course content, having students understand the material of some subjects during online, in-person, or hybrid learning has been difficult. In some courses, content in exams has changed to alter the difficulty level of the subject. Through other courses, accommodations have been made in grading scales, where a particular number of assignments in a specific assignment category are not considered in the final calculation of course grades. 

For BIO SCI 100, classes Camerini has taught in both teaching environments have followed the same structure. Through both the online and now hybrid experience, he has addressed some areas that students may often feel wary about regarding course policies followed throughout the quarter. 

“There’s a tremendous amount of things that influence a student’s performance in the class. I think it’s a good class [BIO SCI 100] because students learn something that is valuable and it’s not too much pressure. We drop two assignments for each category of assignments after all,” Camerini said. 

A remote learning format, which didn’t affect student performance at UCI, did however cause substantial worry among the student population. Physics professor Steven Barwick described this occurrence, which he experienced on various occasions when he taught PHYSICS 3A during the pandemic.  

“One thing that was persistent were technological issues. Dealing with remote quizzes, midterms, and finals compiled the problems in the course. It was the big difference between both types of classes: in-person and online. However, it did help going through all of that. Now, I’m aware of those issues that still may worry students. There’s now a lot of ‘plan Bs’ for many of these issues,” Barwick said.

The transition back to in-person instruction at UCI took place in the fall 2021 quarter after a year of remote learning. Now, the winter 2022 quarter is resuming remote instruction for the first four weeks of the quarter. Throughout this time, many students have grown to prefer receiving their education either in-person or in an online format.  

Staff evaluations, which are made available at the end of every quarter, acknowledge students’ particular learning experiences in a class. Professors encourage students to complete these evaluations, even providing incentives like offering extra credit that can boost a student’s course grade to those who complete them.

Barwick mentioned taking such student feedback into account, assessing what he can work on to make sure students understand the concepts of basic physics to also improve the way in which they perform in the course.

“One of the things I have done more of is increasing the time I write out solutions for problems during lecture. Some students just don’t do well looking at slides to process the math. Another one of the things I did was provide video solutions to some of the homework problems, lecture problems, or those in sample exams. They are all kind of long and tedious, so they were really designed for students who were trying to learn the material for the first time,” Barwick said.

As the pandemic’s end remains uncertain for now, UCI will continue online instruction in Weeks 1 through 4 of the winter 2022 quarter. As they continue their efforts to transition to full in-person instruction, such transition should be taking place by Week 5. 

However, such progression will also allow for professors to continue offering differing formats for their courses as done so now. Since individual circumstances among students vary their ability to participate in in-person instruction, this flexibility demonstrated by many professors is especially beneficial. 

Those students out of the country or those who can’t attend classes in-person are still able to receive their education, with the only exception being the format in which they obtain it.
Korintia Espinoza is a STEM staff writer for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at