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Loneliness and stress when upper secondary schools closed

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Loneliness, lack of motivation and stress – just some of the effects on final year students when upper secondary schools moved to distance learning in spring. These are the findings of a new study carried out by researchers at the University of Gothenburg.

On 11 March, the Swedish government decided to close all upper secondary schools. What was initially intended to be a temporary measure ended up staying in place for the rest of the term. Students in their final year were particularly badly affected, with higher levels of stress and the cancellation of their graduation celebrations.

“It was an exceptional situation”, says Ingrid Henning Loeb, Associate Professor in Education at the University of Gothenburg. “We wanted to shed light on how the students’ education was changing from their perspective and to gain a more in-depth understanding of their situation, and so we sought the views of students in their final term at upper secondary school”.

Eighty-seven written responses were received, in the form of either free text answers to a number of open questions or narratives that the students wrote for themselves. The students were in either higher education preparatory programmes or vocational programmes at upper secondary schools across the country.

“The information we received from the students highlighted how course content was turned into lots of separate assignments that often had to be completed under stressful circumstances. It also revealed the loneliness that many people felt because they were sitting at home in their own rooms doing these assignments by themselves”, says Henning Loeb.

Less social interaction and more working by oneself

The upper secondary schools essentially moved to distance learning overnight. Students reported how they struggled to make the technology work and to develop a routine for their school work. A huge number of them had to work in their own rooms, many sitting on their beds, communicating only digitally with teachers and fellow students.

The study shows how the teaching process was changed so that there were more individual tasks and assignments to be handed in, instead of learning in ways requiring greater social interaction such as group discussions and collaborative activities.

“Many students stated that their teachers supported them in various ways, but there were also students who sat waiting for answers to their questions and felt frustrated,” says Sally Windsor, Senior Lecturer in Pedagogic Work. “We could also see how the conditions for the provision of education varied. Many people live in cramped conditions or have poor internet connections, while others are better placed as they have parents who can support them. That obviously affects learning”.

Depression and worry

The researchers also asked questions about the students’ social circumstances. The responses show that many students missed social interaction at school and with their friends, were worried about relatives who were vulnerable or were battling depression and stress.

“Some students didn’t think being at home was problematic, they enjoyed it or found it convenient,” says Windsor. “But this didn’t apply to many people. However, it’s difficult to know how much was down to distance learning. It was the accumulation of a number of factors – the loneliness, the difficulties relating to Covid transmission, missing out on graduation celebrations, the volume of assignments to be submitted and students feeling that their future was at stake”.

Schools must maintain social interaction

In the last weeks of the autumn term, the upper secondary schools were closed down again. The results of this study point to the importance of maintaining social interaction.

“Some students said that they felt they didn’t feel they knew their fellow students well enough to contact them outside of school,” says Henning Loeb. “However, they missed being able to socialise with them in various ways, and felt these interactions were important for their own learning and motivation.”

As a result, Henning Loeb and Windsor believe it essential for school heads and teachers to be constantly mindful of the social function that schools have and the social aspects of learning i.e., how relationships affect motivation and learning.

“Every teacher knows that in principle, but it’s something that schools must not lose sight of,” says Henning Loeb. “From discussions on social media we can see how issues about formalities can easily become the focus of attention instead; for example, whether you can be marked as present if you don’t have your camera on or are not sitting up.”

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  • The study is published in the academic journal Paideia, no 20.
  • The study comprises 87 written statements from students in their third year of upper secondary school gathered during May 2020. The students were on either higher education preparatory programmes or vocational programmes at upper secondary schools across the country.
  • The study was undertaken by Ingrid Henning Loeb, Associate Professor in Education, and Sally Windsor, Senior Lecturer in Pedagogical Work.