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).
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 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.
Really enjoyed your analysis of this data, Eva! The infographic is very helpful and I appreciate that you focused on overlapping challenges for students.
Thanks for the kind words, Tiffany! Personally, I’ve been very familiar with how obstacles can “stack” on top of each other, so it’s something I wanted to explore when it comes to our students.
Thank you for compiling all of this data and showing everyone how it affects our students. I’m not even a teacher but as an employee at BSU I think it is so important to teach empathy for our students as they are going through struggles as well as recognize how we as a University could help our students more.
Terrific post, Eva. Is there a place to access the complete data? I’m particularly interested in learning more about what students are satisfied/dissatisfied with. I’m also a little confused about their preferences (49% on campus, 67% online asynchronous? can both of those things be true?); and I’m curious about the relationship between motivation problems and taking asynchronous courses online (which, I think, conventional wisdom tells us requires greater self-motivation and self-discipline, and which (perhaps) tend to have higher DFW rates).
Also, is there any way to distinguish between a basic “motivation” problem and mental/emotional well-being? (Am I just not motivated, or am I actually suffering from depression?)
This is a great article!
Thanks, Mike. The only “comprehensive” data we have publicly available currently is out of date. I’m hoping to make this data more public moving forward, though.
To your questions: each modality is set up as a likert scale, so students can choose from “Strongly prefer” to “Avoid if possible.” That’s why 49% prefer on campus and 67% online async.
In the most recent iteration of the survey (literally JUST closed), motivation is the #1 issue for ALL Ball State students, but when we look at online students, it drops to #3. It’s still a significant issue, but work responsibilities and financial hardship are more prevalent for our online students than motivation.
There is a question on the survey specifically about mental and emotional health challenges – this is separate from motivation. The numbers on that have tended to stay fairly high, in line with motivation. In many ways, those go hand in hand.
If you’re interested in learning more about all the challenges, shoot me an email and I will send you some broad results from the challenges section of the survey.
This is amazing! Thanks for this.
Wonderful work, Eva. This is some great data! Like others, I’m interested in looking at the complete data set and better understanding more about the respondents. Is is possible to disaggregate the data to better understand the factors impacting particular populations of students? I’m also interested in looking more specifically at the motivation of students in the first, second, third, and fourth year to see if there are nuances associated with where students are in their academic journey.
Thank you for doing this! I think it will lead to some very important conversations and hopefully some good innovations that can benefit our students.
Thanks, Jason! We used to include a variety of demographic questions, but we found that they took up too much time to complete and often didn’t yield meaningful insights. So currently, our ways of filtering student populations are: online vs. main campus students, program/area of study, degree/certificate type, age, # of credits taking, and # of hours employed. We do not collect any data about progress toward degree / year in program, though I know we have had conversations about doing so.
I’m hoping to find ways to make this data more visible across the university. As we develop reports and other presentations of the data, I’ll keep you in the loop.