Guideposts for the COVID-19 Learning Transition

By Louis Soares

March 30, 2020

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By Louis Soares

In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, higher education scholars Richard Arum and Mitchell L. Stevens raised fundamental and intriguing questions about how the COVID-19 crisis could drive a move to online instruction and perhaps signal deep changes coming to higher education’s business and academic models. Their focus on residential and selective institutions provides both ways forward and cautions about what these changes mean for the nation’s colleges and universities.

One particular paragraph jumped out at me as an indicator of things to come:

Might young people be encouraged to live at home and take courses online for an initial period after high school, or perhaps to finish their studies digitally while embedded as interns and apprentices with potential employers? There are many good reasons to consider this: cost; the variability of adolescent developmental trajectories; rising concern over student mental health, food insecurity and substance abuse on campus; equity of college opportunity for those with responsibility to care for children and other loved ones; and the often tenuous relationship between academic coursework and the real world.

This passage describes a different kind of college-going—one that includes but goes well beyond online learning into the reality of blending work, life, and education in fundamentally different ways. This mix is already the norm for millions of students enrolled today, typically non-residential and older students. Technology can support this type of college-going across many institutional services, from advising to health services, and it does indeed have the potential to transform higher education and the way learning happens.

Of course, before COVID-19, students, faculty, and campus leaders were already engaged in digital teaching and learning. Still, as millions of us embark on a technology-enabled, new blended-learning journey with built-in stumbling blocks and moments of genius, there are a few grounding observations that can serve as guideposts for our best instincts, deepest questions, and fraught opportunities:

  • Learning is still learning
  • Learning principles can integrate research and practice
  • Learning environments can be proactively structured
  • Learning continuity matters

Learning is still learning

As millions of students and faculty move online, it is important to do a simple check-in on what learning is so that we can be grounded in pedagogy, not technology. For this purpose, I adapted a definition that Carnegie Mellon University researchers used in How Learning Works. They define learning as “a process leading to a change that occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning.” It has the following three critical components:

  1. Learning is a process, not a product. However, because this process takes place in the mind, we can only infer that it has occurred from learners’ products or performance.
  1. Learning is transformation. It involves change in the knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes of learners. This change unfolds over time; it is not fleeting but rather has a lasting impact on how learners think and act.
  1. Learning is agentic. It is not something done to learners, but rather something learners themselves do. It is the direct result of how students interpret and respond to their experiences—conscious and unconscious, past and present.[1]

It is noteworthy that learning is a developmental process that crosscuts student (and faculty) life and considers the knowledge, skills, and abilities that students (and faculty) bring to a learning experience. Students and faculty accustomed to face-to-face classroom instruction will need to consider what they know about learning and take stock of where they need to change and add new skills. For example, in this emerging blended-learning situation, what does good assessment look like (more on this later), and what kinds of student products and performance are appropriate indicators of learning? Most likely, students and faculty will figure this out via experimentation, as well as how these indicators affect grades (in the near term) and teaching practice (in the long term).

Learning principles can integrate research and practice

The Carnegie Mellon team, building on the earlier work of the National Academies of Science research in How People Learn, provides a complementary resource—seven principles of how people actually learn designed to support effective teaching practice across disciplines, institution types, cultures, and learning environments.

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. Is pre-existing student knowledge accurate and robust? If so, how can it be leveraged for new learning?
  1. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know. Is learning happening in ways that help students connect pieces of knowledge into coherent structures? This makes knowledge retrieval and application more effective.
  1. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn. As students gain greater autonomy over what, when, and how they study and learn, intrinsic motivation can drive learning. Is the learning experiences engendered to empower student agency?
  1. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply they have learned. Is the learning experience providing opportunities for students to combine and integrate component skills and knowledge to develop more fluency in the discipline?
  1. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning. Practice skills and using knowledge paired with feedback are keys to good learning.
  1. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning. How can we create a community of learners in the most holistic sense to engage students where they are developmentally?
  1. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning. Does the learning experience get students to be aware of how they learn and how they can improve?

Faculty and students should share these principles as they create new learning experiences together. Test them, prove them, and adapt them to their learning environments. Learning how to learn together is one of the greatest opportunities in this moment. Principle #6, for example, directly engages Arum and Stevens’s challenge of student mental health as consideration of pedagogy both during the current crisis and moving forward in the future of learning they posit. More deeply, the learning together approach will also pay dividends as we move beyond the immediate crisis. As faculty and students create the foundation of a new academic model, it will have a firm foundation in their lived experience.

Learning environments can be proactively structured

Speaking of learning environments, the most effective are intentionally learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered.[2]

  1. Learner-centered: Learner-centered environments pay careful attention to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that learners bring to the educational setting. Faculty need to uncover the incomplete understandings, false beliefs, and naïve renditions of concepts that students have when they begin a course in order to enhance learning.
  2. Knowledge-centered: Knowledge-centered environments take seriously the need to help students learn the well-organized bodies of knowledge that support understanding and adaptive expertise. A strong foundational structure of basic concepts will give students a solid base on which to build further learning.
  3. Assessment-centered: Assessment-centered environments provide frequent formal and informal opportunities for feedback focused on understanding, not memorization, to encourage and reward meaningful learning. Formative assessment and the development of meta-cognitive abilities to self-assess, reflect, and rethink for better understanding are keys to learning.
  4. Community-centered: Community-centered environments foster norms for people learning from one another and continually attempting to improve. In such a community, students are encouraged to be active, constructive participants. Intellectual camaraderie fosters support, challenge, and collaboration. Community sensibility also extends to how the learning environment connects with broader contexts in a student’s life.


Faculty can use this high-level guidepost to frame the use of learning management systems (LMS) (e.g., CANVAS, BRIGHTSPACE, D2L). Students can also make connections between its anchor features and their learning experience. For example, regarding disciplinary knowledge, are they learning the conceptual frameworks that allow them to organize individual facts and deploy them in new situations? At a program or institution level, it can be used as a North Star for effective teaching and learning supported by data from the LMS. In the coming months, faculty and students will build the foundation of Arum and Stevens’s work/life/education blended learning future. The four centers guidepost can help us continue to evaluate what is working and, in time, scale what works best.

Learning continuity matters

Finally, COVID-19 is causing so much dislocation in student, faculty, and institutional lives that how we keep track of student learning matters, now more than ever. First and foremost, we must try for a seamless transition between what was happening in face-to-face classes to the online setting. This includes everything from grades, attendance, and homework to a nuanced sense of how students were engaged in brick-and-mortar classrooms and what that might look like online. Faculty and students, working together with a focus on teaching and learning, can help guide the effective use of learning management systems toward this end.

Second, if students’ enrollment is impacted by economic dislocation and/or they transfer institutions, upon re-enrollment we must ensure that legacy student information and learning management systems are able to document and transmit learning information efficiently.

Finally, looking beyond the immediacy of this crisis and as more students blend online learning with life and work, ensuring that learning outside the classroom is connected to institution-based learning becomes crucial. Existing services, such as ACE’s College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT®)/military workplace learning evaluations, and new tools, including interoperable learner records and blockchains working in concert with student information and learning management systems, may provide a necessary bridge for the transfer of learning across learning environments.

COVID-19 is pressing millions of students and faculty into an experiment in teaching and learning that has implications for a new form of college-going that may transform our understanding of higher education. Yet our knowledge of how we learn—from the research across the cognitive, developmental, and social psychologies, to anthropology, education, and diversity studies—provides effective guideposts as we journey together.

[1] How Learning Works

[2] How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School

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About the Author

Louis Soares

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