After his classes went mostly in-person, he said, he had to pull back on his extracurriculars, and his grades suffered. The best approach, in his view, would be to “let people choose” how to take their classes, “because we now have the infrastructure in place that we can record lectures and have in-person ones for people who learn best each way,” he said.
Remote and recorded classes can also enable students who work or care for children to fit school into their schedules. Ahlam Atallah, a senior at U.T.A., said that online courses allowed her to take classes while her two children were at home. She also didn’t have to commute to or find parking on the vast suburban campus.
But she found that taking classes at home divided her attention. “You can’t talk about this novel you’re reading when you have a 2-year-old running around, asking, ‘Mom, Mom, can I have a snack?’” Ms. Atallah said. This past academic year, with both children at school in person, she went to nearly all her in-person classes, even those with recorded lectures. In the classroom, she said, “I can give my full attention to the class, to my professor and my fellow students.”
For most students, including those with children, being in person helps them focus and excel. Mr. Vancil told me he had already developed good learning habits by the time he got to college. In my experience, most students haven’t. And so it’s worrying to hear students call for more remote classes and more flexibility. They are asking for conditions in which they are, on average, more likely to fail.
Some instructors are taking on extra work to offer students chances to close the learning gap. Dr. Walsh described her workload as “astronomical, exhausting.” Dr. Austin allowed students to rewrite papers in the past, but she extended the policy to exams. She found that many more students needed to rewrite their assignments. She estimated that grading the rewrites “doubled” her workload. But, she added, “If I didn’t do the rewrites, I’d have more people failing my classes.”
Because it is students whose educations are at stake, they bear much of the responsibility for remaking their ability to learn. But faculty members and administrators need to give students an environment that encourages intellectual habits like curiosity, honesty and participation in a community of inquiry. These habits aren’t only the means to a good education; to a large extent, they are the education.
To build a culture that will foster such habits, colleges might draw lessons from what may seem an unusual source: the University of Dallas, a small Catholic university with a great-books curriculum and a reputation for conservatism. Several of its faculty members told me the nationwide learning breakdown simply wasn’t happening there.