Distance learning practices improved during the year of COVID-19, teachers' stress levels remain high

A collaborative project between the University of Helsinki and Tampere University has investigated the effects of the exceptional circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on schooling, teaching and wellbeing.

Three nationwide surveys were distributed to students in grades 4 to 10, guardians, teachers, principals and other school staff in the spring and autumn of 2020 and the spring of 2021. The interim report, which is now being published, addresses the effects of the exceptional circumstances by also drawing on the previously reported themes and results.

Distance learning practices became more participatory

“From the perspective of students’ responses, teachers' online teaching practices have evolved in a much more participatory direction compared to the situation in Spring 2020 when schools were unexpectedly forced into distance learning,” say Professor Risto Hotulainen and Postdoctoral Researcher Sanna Oinas.

Guardians also felt that the distance education their children received had become much more systematic and of higher quality than in the first spring.

“Thus, the concerns raised at the beginning of the pandemic about educational equality being compromised seem to have largely subsided,” summarizes Professor Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen from Tampere University.

In addition, students’ confidence in in the progress of their studies increased during the past academic year despite the COVID-19 situation. While in Spring 2020 almost a quarter of all lower secondary school students felt that they had fallen behind in their studies to some extent, a year later only around 5% of students felt the same way.

Teachers experience high levels of stress

In the spring of 2021, teachers evaluated the distance teaching they provided much more critically than guardians or students did.

In addition, up to 59% of teachers reported experiencing a fair amount or a lot of stress during the spring. Just under 40% felt they were recovering from work rather well or verywell.

“However, the stress level had slightly decreased compared to the situation in November 2020,” says Professor Arja Rimpelä from Tampere University.

 “According to the principals' responses, teachers reported significantly fewer challenges related to distance education in Spring 2021 than in Spring 2020. Principals’ answers also indicated that teachers, who implemented distance education, were less likely offered opportunities to lower their teaching goals than in Spring 2020. This is crucial for achieving consistent practices between classes and schools,” explain Raisa Ahtiainen and Lauri Heikonen from the University of Helsinki.

More than half of grade 7 to 9 students experienced symptoms of tiredness and burnout at least once a week

Students' stress symptoms were common among lower secondary school students throughout the COVID-19 period. Girls reported more symptoms than boys.

The most common symptoms were tiredness and burnout, experienced by more than half of lower secondary school students at least once a week. Difficulty in concentrating was also relatively common. During the COVID-19 pandemic time, a slight increase was observed in the proportion of those who reported depression and low mood on a daily or weekly basis, with almost a third of students reporting these symptoms in Spring 2021.

About every tenth lower secondary school student felt lonely often, and the proportion of students who felt lonely during distance learning was significantly higher than during face-to-face teaching.

In general, most students managed to maintain their daily routines during the school days(eating, going out, exercising, getting to classes on time, not staying awake too late) and only a very small number of students had significant problems or difficulties with their daily lives.

Respondents were generally satisfied with educational support during the pandemic, reduced working hours for school health nurses

School health care is a low-threshold service for school-age children. They can turn to the school health nurse for both physical and psychosocial health problems.

 “This spring in particular, 62% of school health nurses had used less time on their normal school work, compared to the normal time” says Professor Rimpelä. “The main reason was that school health nurses were assigned to  tracing COVID-19 contacts or vaccination. For students, this meant the absence of or at least a reduction in one of the school support services.”  For the same reason, students’ regular health examinations had been postponed or had not been done at all.

The study also looked at the support for learning and schooling as well as school health care during the pandemic.

“In general, all groups of respondents were satisfied with support at different time points during the pandemic. In the first distance learning period in 2020, it was perceived to have been worse than normal, but since then the situation has levelled off,” say Postdoctoral Researchers Ninja Hienonen and Meri Lintuvuori.



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 until the spring of 2022.

You can find the report here (Finnish only).

Contact persons:

Professor Risto Hotulainen, Centre for Educational Assessment CEA (University of Helsinki), risto.hotulainen@helsinki.fi, +35850 520 1664
Professor Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen, Research Group for Education, Assessment, and Learning REAL (Tampere University), mari-pauliina.vainikainen@tuni.fi, +358 50 4377 303
Professor Arja Rimpelä, Research Group on Children’s and Adolescents’ Health Promotion NEDIS (Tampere University) arja.rimpela@tuni.fi, +358 50 5698 285