Differences in schools' distance learning practices, interaction with the teacher reduced student stress

A collaborative project between the University of Helsinki and Tampere University has investigated the effects of the exceptional circumstances caused by the coronavirus on schooling, teaching and well-being.

As part of the project, two nationwide surveys were distributed to students, guardians, teachers, principals and other school staff in the spring and autumn of 2020. The interim report, which is now being published, addresses the effects of the exceptional circumstances in light of the spring and autumn studies and makes recommendations for the quality implementation of distance learning, for example.

Exceptional circumstances were reflected in stress symptoms in the spring, distance learning implementation methods matter

According to the study, there were large differences in the distance learning practices of schools last spring, which were reflected in the workload experienced by families and the stress experienced by students. When the school timetable was not followed or the teacher was not available as agreed, the students' stress symptoms increased. The differences in operating practices between lower secondary schools were remarkably large. However, in comparison to lower secondary schools, primary schools typically implemented  distance learning practices that were less structured and students received homework packages instead of interactive distance learning instruction.

“Well-implemented distance learning has a clear structure, it is interactive and students are required to be self-directed in a way that suits their level of development. Study guidance cannot primarily be left to parents. Last spring, distance learning was excellent in some schools, but there was room for improvement in the practices of other schools,” say Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen, Associate Professor at Tampere University and Risto Hotulainen, Professor at the University of Helsinki.

“School practices were important for the well-being of students and families, especially in distance learning situations. The stress associated with a child’s schooling was high among guardians during the exceptional circumstances. Although the situation was not yet normal in the autumn, when the schools were generally open, the stress experienced by the parents was clearly less than in the spring,” say Arja Rimpelä, Professor of Public Health at Tampere University and Jaana Kinnunen, a project researcher.

Corona situation visible in daily school operations during the autumn

Schools followed a wide range of safety guidelines during the autumn. There were large school-specific variations in safety practices reported by teachers that were not explained by regional differences in the coronavirus situation. Guardians’ perceptions of the daily operations of the schools greatly differed from the situation described by the teachers and confidence in the operation of the schools was strong.

School safety practices were related to whether the school had experienced corona exposures during the autumn, although the epidemiological situation in the area explained the exposures more strongly. According to the study results, schools should continue to pay attention to the adherence to safety practices.

The study also examined the number of and reasons for student absences and their effects on learning. According to the guardians, there were differences in the distance education received by students in the autumn depending on the reason for the absence from school. Distance learning was most positively described by guardians whose children had had many absences due to quarantine imposed by health care staff. In contrast, for students in voluntary quarantine, the situation appeared to be the opposite.

“Indeed, it would appear that schools have successfully paid attention to the implementation of distance learning for students exposed to corona, while distance learning has been less well-implemented for students in voluntary quarantine. In order to achieve equality for students, it would be good for schools to consider whether in the future it would be possible to implement distance learning more uniformly for students absent for various reasons,” summarizes Project Researcher Satu Koivuhovi, who works at both the Helsinki and Tampere universities.

Overall, students with more school absences felt that they received slightly less support to mitigate the effects of the spring exceptional situation and to keep up with their studies. Personal contact from the teacher, even remotely, was related to the student's experience of receiving support.

“Schools should therefore continue to pay attention to reaching students personally who are absent for various reasons in continuing exceptional circumstances. Even a short personal interaction with a student during the school day can act as an engaging factor for studies,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Sanna Oinas from the universities in Helsinki and Tampere. “On the positive side, overall a large proportion of both primary and lower secondary school students felt that they had received study help from their teacher when they needed it.”

Additional resources received were reflected in daily school life

The majority of schools report that they have received additional resources to mitigate the effects of the corona situation.

"According to teachers and other school staff, the additional resources received were reflected in the daily operations of the schools. Most of the support had been used to provide remedial education and part-time special education,” says Raisa Ahtiainen, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Helsinki.

For vulnerable pupils (i.e., pre-school, grades 1 to 3, special support, extended compulsory education and pre-primary education), the right to contact teaching guaranteed by the temporary legislation was generally considered to be a good thing.

“From the point of view of an individual student, it is a multifaceted issue. This group includes a very wide range of students, and guardians felt that the categorical decision on contact teaching does not necessarily serve all vulnerable students,” emphasize Meri Lintuvuori and Ninja Hienonen, postdoctoral researchers working at both universities.

Team spirit can help the teaching community cope

Stress experienced by teachers and principals due to their work was generally at the same level in the spring and in the autumn. In contrast, recovery from work-related stress was easier in the autumn than in the spring.

The majority of teachers and principals felt that the school was well or very well prepared to implement distance learning if the school closed in the future. There were no regional differences in the responses based on hospital districts or the epidemiological situation in the region. However, school-specific variation was found, and part of it was explained by teachers’ experiences of collective efficacy.

“Collective efficacy experiences are built on shared experiences of success and management. Thus, it may be that in teacher communities where teachers are used to collaborating and sharing effective practices, the school is perceived as more ready to face school closures in the future,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Lauri Heikonen from the University of Helsinki.

“Schools should therefore strive to maintain and strengthen cooperation between teachers and the team spirit of the school, as it can help the school and its staff to cope with this difficult time,” he summarizes.

The study is carried out in collaboration with the Centre for Educational Assessment (CEA, University of Helsinki), the Research Group for Education, Assessment and Learning (REAL, Tampere University) and the Research Group on Children’s and Adolescents’ Health Promotion (NEDIS, Tampere University). The research is funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The research will continue at least until the spring of 2021.

The report is available here (in Finnish only).


Contact persons

Professor Risto Hotulainen, Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki), risto.hotulainen@helsinki.fi +358 50 520 1664

Associate Professor Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen, Research Group for Education, Assessment, and Learning (Tampere University), mari-pauliina.vainikainen@tuni.fi +358 50 437 7303

Professor Arja Rimpelä, Research Group on Children’s and Adolescents’ Health Promotion (Tampere University), arja.rimpela@tuni.fi +358 50 569 8285

Postdoctoral Researcher Raisa Ahtiainen, Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki) raisa.ahtiainen@helsinki.fi +358 50 3182 186

Postdoctoral Researcher Lauri Heikonen, Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki), lauri.heikonen@helsinki.fi +358 50 448 0500

Postdoctoral Researcher Ninja Heinonen Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki), Research Group for Education, Assessment, and Learning (Tampere University), ninja.hienonen@helsinki.fi +358 29 412 0410

Project Researcher Jaana Kinnunen, Research Group on Children’s and Adolescents’ Health Promotion (Tampere University) jaana.kinnunen@tuni.fi +358 40 190 1667

Project Researcher Satu Koivuhovi Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki), Research Group for Education, Assessment, and Learning (Tampere University), satu.koivuhovi@helsinki.fi +358 40 736 5375

Postdoctoral Researcher Meri Lintuvuori, Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki), Research Group for Education, Assessment, and Learning (Tampere University) meri.lintuvuori@helsinki.fi +358 29 412 0404

Postdoctoral Researcher Sanna Oinas Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki), Research Group for Education, Assessment, and Learning (Tampere University) sanna.oinas@helsinki.fi +358 29 412 0395