Loneliness and learning: The impact of COVID-19 on adult learners

Black and white photo of girl with head in hands

Attending university is viewed by many as the first step out of adolescence and towards entrance into the world as a working member of society. It is a time for individuals to widen their horizons and develop an advanced level of knowledge to form the foundations of their future career. From a social standpoint, it is considered by many to be ‘the best years of their lives’. Many people regard their time at university to be when they met lifelong friends, life partners and forged strong academic connections. 

So what happens when a global pandemic hits, and students are no longer able to have all of those crucial experiences? When, all of sudden, they no longer get to have the ‘typical’ university experience and they are having to work from their childhood bedrooms or remain on campus but restricted to their student halls? How does this impact not only their studies, but also their mental health? 

According to a survey, one in four UK adults recorded that they had felt lonely within the last two weeks during the Coronavirus pandemic (Mental Health UK, 2020). Loneliness is a well researched area of human behaviour, with Heinrich and Gullone (2006) noting that we are inherently social beings who constantly work towards achieving a sense of belonging amongst others. 

So when one cannot form said social connection, it leads to a feeling of loneliness. University is a time for people to create new social connections and develop new friendships and relationships. If students are unable to make these connections due to national lockdown and social distancing measures, it is important to consider how this would impact one’s ability to succeed in higher educational studies. Brenner (2011) found that a feeling of loneliness can negatively impact one’s learning ability and achievement. With loneliness already a prevalent issue for students prior to COVID-19, we must start to consider how this will further influence student achievement. How students coped and continue to navigate a full university course load whilst feeling isolated and lonely could contribute significantly, with potential effects on their ability to learn and retain course content. 

This concept of student loneliness connects very easily to the concept of learning burnout, which is characterised as emotional exhaustion and negative attitudes due to pressure to succeed and homework overload (Lin & Huang, 2012). This idea of burnout is crucial to consider throughout this pandemic, as universities try to maintain the same rigorous schedule and academic deadlines as they would have during regular face to face teaching. When COVID-19 hit, universities scrambled to make online learning identical to that of their face-to-face experience, and may not have taken into consideration the impact of these changes on the students’ wellbeing. 

If academic expectations remain unchanged, students may have additional pressure to perform at a high level during one of the most turbulent times of their life. When asked about how universities were going to improve their services going forward, 59% of universities polled focused on “high quality online teaching” as their main focus, and placed social interactions and wellbeing support significantly lower on their priorities list (Wonkhe, 2020).

If we expect students to perform to the best of their abilities throughout this pandemic, it is important for universities to see equality in their teaching methods and students' mental health.

It will be interesting to see the academic studies that arise from the Covid-19 pandemic. Will universities start to realise the importance of student support and well being, or will they keep their focus solely on teaching quality? Will we see an increase in more accessible, practical support, such as increased designated mental health staff? Time will tell. 


Lucy Nehring

About the author

Lucy Nehring is a Learning Experience Designer at insendi, and has worked on over 15 courses across multiple different programmes. She completed her BSc in Psychology at Newcastle University and holds an MSc in Educational Psychology from UCL’s Institute of Education. She has a strong passion for integrating mental health discussions into educational practice, as well as looking at education from a global perspective. She has lived in five different countries, which provides her with insight into how different cultures can impact and enhance educational success.