Learn more about who Ball State students are, the challenges they face in their academic and personal lives, and how this can impact your teaching.

Every Fall and Spring, Ball State deploys a survey to students (online and in-person) through institution-wide Canvas announcements. This survey, which consists of about 40 questions, is designed to evaluate the student experience at Ball State. On average, about 2,000 students respond to the survey every semester.

In this post, I will share insights from one portion of the student experience survey: a series of questions asking students about the challenges they face in their academic and personal lives. These questions ask students to self-evaluate their own difficulties in various areas—such as work, healthcare, and family responsibilities—on the following scale: 

  • No Difficulties 
  • Minor Difficulties 
  • Moderate Difficulties 
  • Serious Difficulties 
  • Does Not Apply 

I will specifically focus on students who answered Moderate or Serious Difficulties, as these are the students who are significantly impacted by the challenges they face. All data discussed in this post is combined from the Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 surveys, with a total of 4,266 responses. 

My hope is that this analysis will help you gain a better picture of your students, as well as build empathy for them and develop strategies to help them with the challenges they face. 

Common Challenges Learners Face

The biggest challenge learners face is staying motivated: 74% of Ball State students report motivation problems while 45% report moderate to serious motivation problems. 

In a close second are mental health concerns, with 68% of students facing mental or emotional health problems and 42% facing moderate to serious issues with mental health. 

Issues balancing work responsibilities with school come in third, with 57% of students facing these issues and 30% to a moderate or serious degree. This is to be expected, as 51% of Ball State students work at least 20 hours a week, and 25% work 40 or more hours a week outside of school. 

Financial hardship is the next most common challenge, with 55% of students facing some financial hardship and 28% facing moderate to serious hardship. 

These challenges, as well as learner preferences, are presented in the infographic below.

Relationships Between Different Challenges

While the data about common challenges is important, it’s worth noting that a significant portion of students are facing any challenge. Even the least common challenge – childcare – impacted 225 respondents. 

That’s why I dug deeper into the data to examine how certain challenges are related to each other. Which challenges are more likely to occur together? What can that tell us about our students’ lives? 

Below are some insights regarding the relationships between challenges. The percentages below are the difference between the “baseline” rate of a challenge and the rate when a learner also faces another challenge. For example, if 20 out of 100 students face financial hardship, but 40 out of 100 students face financial hardship while facing healthcare challenges, that would be a 100% increase (2x as likely). 

  • Financial difficulties come with more challenges. For students facing financial hardship, all other challenges except mental health and motivation are more common than average. This includes food insecurity (94% more likely), affordability of materials (64%), technology access (57%), housing (47%), transportation (38%), and healthcare (36%). 
  • Access issues are closely related. Students who have difficulty accessing reliable internet are almost 6x as likely to also not have access to learning devices such as laptops. They are almost 3x as likely to not have access to a dedicated learning space. 
  • Motivation problems are less likely to be associated with other challenges. Students facing motivation problems are less likely to face other challenges than average. The only exceptions are mental health problems and social justice issues, both of which are more likely than average to co-occur with motivation problems. 
  • Affordable materials are a social justice issue. While students who face challenges with affordability of learning materials are more likely than average to be facing financial hardships (64%), they’re even more likely to be facing social justice issues (67%). 
  • All challenges are social justice issues. Only one challenge was more likely to co-occur with every single other challenge: social justice issues. Students who are facing social justice issues are more likely than average to be facing other issues, with the most likely challenges being housing (167% more likely) and healthcare (153% more likely).

Teaching Implications

How can this data about the challenges learners face inform our teaching practices at Ball State? Here are a few points I think are important to note: 

  • Empathy is critical. Your learners often face many challenges outside your classroom. When they aren’t on top of their game, it’s not about you as the teacher. Having empathy for them and their lives can go a long way towards cultivating a learning community based on kindness and care. Learn more about compassion and flexibility in course design. 
  • Addressing just one area can have an impact throughout a student’s life. For example, you could address the affordability of materials through Open Educational Resources (OER). Using OER will not necessarily solve all the problems students face, but it can alleviate some of the pressure of facing multiple simultaneous challenges. Learn more about OER at Ball State. 
  • Support and check in on learners who are facing challenges. If you know about the challenges a learner is facing, it’s quite possible that you only know the tip of the iceberg. Check in on your students and offer your support, because it’s likely they are facing multiple challenges, and your support can make a difference. Learn more about the Canvas course template, which includes student check-ins. 

What would you like to change about your teaching practices based on the challenges Ball State learners face? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

  • Eva Grouling Snider

    Eva joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in 2021. Previously, she taught professional writing courses in the English Department, including graphic design and web development. She launched Jacket Copy Creative (now known as Compass Creative), an immersive learning course in which students helped market the English Department (and now the entire College of Sciences and Humanities). She also served as a director of advertising at a social media advertising agency in Muncie. Her interests include UDL, digital accessibility, and design. She’s often busy “hacking” Canvas to do cool things.