Skip to main content

Differences in distance learning practices; interaction with teachers reduced students’ stress

Published on 8.3.2021
Tampere University
Todo list and a coffee cup on a table. Open laptop at backround.
A collaborative project between Tampere University and the University of Helsinki investigated the effects of the exceptional circumstances caused by COVID-19 on teaching and well-being in grades 4–10 of Finnish comprehensive schools. The study showed that 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. The students’ stress symptoms increased when the timetable was not followed, or the teacher was not available as agreed.

The project conducted two nationwide surveys with students, parents and other guardians, teachers, headmasters and other school staff in the spring and autumn of 2020. The interim report of the project (in Finnish) addresses the effects of the exceptional circumstances in light of the surveys and issues recommendations on, for example, good distance learning practices.

Exceptional circumstances caused stress symptoms in the spring

The operating practices of secondary schools varied significantly. However, in comparison to secondary schools, primary schools typically implemented distance learning practices in a less structured manner, and the students received homework packages instead of interactive distance learning instructions.

“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 the parents. Last spring, distance learning was excellent in some schools, but there was room for improvement in the practices of some schools,” says Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen, associate professor at Tampere University.

“Schools’ practices were important for the well-being of students and families especially in distance learning situations. Parents felt a lot of stress about children’s education during the exceptional circumstances. Although the situation was not yet back to normal last autumn when the schools were generally open, the stress experienced by parents was clearly smaller than last spring,” says Arja Rimpelä, professor of public health at Tampere University.

The COVID-19 epidemic affected schools’ daily practices in the autumn

In the autumn, schools followed a wide range of safety guidelines. There were large school-specific variations in safety practices reported by the teachers, which were not explained by the regional differences of the epidemic. However, the parents’ perceptions of the schools’ daily operations differed greatly from the situation as described by the teachers and parents had great confidence in the operations of the schools.

Schools’ safety practices played a role in how they were exposed to COVID-19 as a community even though the epidemiological situation in the area correlated with exposure more strongly. According to the results of the study, schools should continue to pay close attention to implementing safety precautions.

The study also investigated the number of and reasons for students’ absences and the effect of absences on learning.

According to the parents, the distance education received by students in the autumn differed depending on the reason for which they had been absent from school. Distance learning was most positively described by the parents whose children had had many absences due to a quarantine imposed by health care staff. However, the opposite seemed to be true for students who had been in a voluntary quarantine.

“It appears that schools have successfully paid attention to the implementation of distance learning for students exposed to the coronavirus while distance learning has been less well-implemented for students in a voluntary quarantine. In the future, it would be a good idea for schools to consider whether it would be possible to implement distance learning more uniformly and equally for students who are absent for different reasons,” summarises project researcher Satu Koivuhovi, who works at both the Helsinki and Tampere universities.

Overall, students who had been absent from school more frequently felt that they had received slightly less support for mitigating the effects of the exceptional situation in the spring of 2020 and for keeping up with their studies. Personal contact initiated by the teacher even remotely was related to how the students experienced receiving support.

“In the continuing exceptional circumstances, schools should thus continue to pay attention to personally reaching out to students who are absent for different reasons. Even a short personal interaction with a student during the school day can act as a factor that engages the students in the studies,” says postdoctoral researcher Sanna Oinas from the universities in Helsinki and Tampere.

“It is positive that a big share of primary and secondary school students thought that teachers had helped them in their studies when they needed support,” Oinas continues.

Extra resource allocations affected the daily life of schools

“The majority of schools reported that they had received additional resources for mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic. According to teachers and other school staff, the additional resources 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.

The right to contact teaching of vulnerable students (i.e., pre-schoolers, pupils in grades 1–3 and special needs students) guaranteed by the temporary emergency legislation was generally found to be a good thing.

“From the point of view of an individual student, this is a more multifaceted issue. The group of vulnerable students includes a wide range of pupils whose parents felt that the categorical decision on contact teaching does not necessarily serve all of them sufficiently,” emphasises Meri Lintuvuori a postdoctoral researcher working at both universities.

Team spirit can help the teaching community to cope

The work-related stress experienced by teachers and headmasters was generally at the same level in the spring and the autumn of 2020. However, recovery from work-related stress was easier in the autumn than in the spring.

Most teachers and headmasters thought that their school was well or very well prepared for implementing distance learning should the schools close in the future. There were no regional differences in the responses based on hospital districts or the epidemiological situation of the region. However, school-specific variation was found, part of which was explained by teachers’ experiences of coping collectively.

“Collective beliefs of efficacy are built on shared experiences of success and control. Thus, in teacher communities where teachers are used to collaborating and sharing effective practices, the school may be perceived as more prepared for new school closures in the future,” says postdoctoral researcher Lauri Heikonen from theUniversity of Helsinki.

“Schools should therefore strive to maintain and strengthen co-operation between teachers and the team spirit of the school because it can help schools and staff to cope with this difficult time,” Heikonen continues.

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.


Associate Professor Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen
Research Group for Education, Assessment, and Learning (Tampere Universitymari-pauliina.vainikainen [at], +358 50 437 7303

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

Professor Risto Hotulainen
Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki)
risto.hotulainen [at], +358 50 520 1664

Postdoctoral Researcher Raisa Ahtiainen
Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki);
raisa.ahtiainen [at], +358 50 318 2186

Postdoctoral Researcher Lauri Heikonen
Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki)
lauri.heikonen [at], +358 50 448 0500

Researcher Ninja Heinonen
Centre for Educational Assessment (University of Helsinki)
Research Group for Education, Assessment, and Learning (Tampere University)
ninja.hienonen [at], +358 29 412 0410

Project Researcher Jaana Kinnunen
Research Group on Children’s and Adolescents’ Health Promotion (Tampere University)
jaana.kinnunen [at], +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 [at], +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 [at], +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 [at], +358 29 412 0395


Photo: Essi Kannelkoski