Google Research

College from home during COVID-19: A mixed-methods study of heterogeneous experiences

  • Margaret E. Morris
  • Kevin S. Kuehn
  • Jennifer Brown
  • Paula S. Nurius
  • Han Zhang
  • Yasaman S. Sefidgar
  • Xuhai Xu
  • Eve A. Riskin
  • Anind K. Dey
  • Sunny Consolvo
  • Jennifer C. Mankoff
Proceedings of the ACM on Human Computer Interaction (PACM HCI), ACM (2021)


This mixed-method study examined the experiences of college students during the COVID-19 pandemic through surveys, experience sampling data collected over two academic quarters (Spring 2019 n1 = 253; Spring 2020 n2 = 147), and semi-structured interviews with 27 undergraduate students. There were no marked changes in mean levels of depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, or loneliness between 2019 and 2020, or over the course of the Spring 2020 term. Students in both the 2019 and 2020 cohort who indicated psychosocial vulnerability at the initial assessment showed worse psychosocial functioning throughout the entire Spring term relative to other students. However, rates of distress increased faster in 2020 than in 2019 for these individuals. Across individuals, homogeneity of variance tests and multi-level models revealed significant heterogeneity, suggesting the need to examine not just means but the variations in individuals’ experiences. Thematic analysis of interviews characterizes these varied experiences, describing the contexts for students' challenges and strategies. This analysis highlights the interweaving of psychosocial and academic distress: Challenges such as isolation from peers, lack of interactivity with instructors, and difficulty adjusting to family needs had both an emotional and academic toll. Strategies for adjusting to this new context included initiating remote study and hangout sessions with peers, as well as self-learning. In these and other strategies, students used technologies in different ways and for different purposes than they had previously. Supporting qualitative insight about adaptive responses were quantitative findings that students who used more problem-focused forms of coping reported fewer mental health symptoms over the course of the pandemic, even though they perceived their stress as more severe. These findings underline the need for interventions oriented towards problem-focused coping and suggest opportunities for peer role modeling.

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