The Impact of Virtual Learning on Mental Health in College Students and How to Research it

Via Tucson Weekly

Dr. Elise Anguizola Assaf is a communications professor within the Department of Communications here at California State University, Fullerton. As an assistant professor in the undergraduate program, she has taught hundreds of students public relations courses. She has a Ph.D. in Education from Chapman University, along with a M.A. and a B.A. in Communications with an emphasis in public relations from Cal State Fullerton.

We chose Dr. Assaf to interview because her studies overlap with our research topic about college students, mental health and the stereotypes that surround it. We want to study and discover which elements have contributed to the rise of mental health issues within college students since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020. Assaf offers amazing advice and insight about how to study the mental health space. For word count purposes we have shortened her answers below. 

We first asked Professor Assaf how she became interested and passionate about her work.

“I’m in entertainment. I love TV and so kind of recognizing the depictions that I watch as a viewer has also been something that has spurred my interest and really looking at it from a researcher perspective as opposed to just a casual observer. A lot of the research that I did was kind of like I will see something out. I’ll see a TV show, I’ll read a newspaper article, whatever the case is that starts my interest in making it like a study…” says Dr. Assaf.

Professor Assaf’s personal connection to her research gives her a multiple-perspective view that allows her to effectively assess and analyze data. Our group chose to research college students and the effect that virtual learning has had on their mental health; as college students ourselves, we can relate to Professor Assaf’s approach and utilize some of the same methods.

We then asked her to elaborate on her past experiences with mental health research.

She explains,“I am interested in mental health representation media and in general. It started with seeing how mental illness was described in news reports after shootings and things that are deemed as dangerous behavior even the research shows that a very small percentage of individuals who commit these crimes have a mental illness yet that’s all you see in newspapers and headlines, which started the research component…”

Dr. Assaf’s work is very personal to her and thus fuels her passion for research. We can relate to this because as students going to school within the COVID-19 pandemic, we understand the negative effects it can have on a students wellness and quality of life. 

Next, we asked her how she went about conducting her research and if there is a specific research method researchers should use to get the most accurate results.

“They all have their benefits…” says Dr. Assaf.  “I prefer qualitative research more in my wheelhouse and I feel more comfortable with it. I took a couple qualitative classes at various points of my grad program but it’s not a method I love to do. Qualitative research works well for what I do because I’m looking at the language that’s being used so in that representation. What are people saying? What’s the tone? What words are being strung together to describe individuals?”

After interviewing Professor Assaf, our group has decided to use one or two focus groups with an exit survey to gather additional data. Our particular research is specific to the quality of students’ mental health, so this approach will allow us to best gather data in a qualitative sense. The mixing of this qualitative data and the quantitative survey method will allow us to yield cohesive, supported results.

Via Statista

Displaying your data visually is very important when conducting research, so we asked her what is the best way to graphically display data once it has been gathered.

Dr. Assaf explains that it depends on the data. “A lot of my research is sorted within an Excel spreadsheet. Still, having a simplified version of that within the paper can be beneficial. I do think even though I do qualitative research I do find it beneficial to do an even super simple basic bar graph or pie chart just because even though qualitative findings can be very descriptive and many get lost in all the words, it’s like having something really just graphic can be really easily understood by people.”

Research especially in the field of communications should be visually displayed so it sends the strongest message to its audience. In the future we will discuss which form of measurement and graphing we should use. 

Due to the online nature of today’s education system, we wanted to know the best way of gathering participants. This led to the question of how does Professor Assaf  find her target audience and ask them to participate.

“I follow some of my students on social media and several of them used instagram to post a survey in their bio for their followers to take. It’s different now because everything is online. Another method is to send the link to faculty members to send it to their classes. Lastly, you can make a class announcement in your various classes in a zoom chat for your classmates to take the survey.” says Dr. Assaf. 

Our group has found that the method of sending the link to faculty members to share and using our own zoom classes may be the easiest way to get our data. We will also try other methods such as posting the link to our survey in our social media like she mentioned.

Interview with Dr. Elise Anguizola Assaf:

Next, we asked Professor Assaf if there was any other general advice she can give us as we continue with our research? 

“I think that given the circumstances, and the fact that you can combine short answers and multiple choice formats I think a survey would be the best fit. In the survey option, I do think that you should include a section with short answer format. Another route you could take could be a focus group. You can set up an hour Zoom meeting with five to eight students and ask them your research questions. By doing this, you can have a smaller sample size, and this will allow you to get more in depth answers as opposed to the survey…” she explains. 

Overall, our group will decide which methods we can use based on our time constraint and number of participants, but she has given us amazing insight on the benefits of focus groups to get more specific and unique information. With a topic that is quite robust like mental health in college students, the amount of information we can receive is massive, so it is vital to narrow down the audience and the sampling frame to the right number and a good mix of students. Another major aspect is to have the right questions to ask these students. 

Our final question to Professor Assaf was how do we determine what information to contain and leave out. 

She answers this question by saying, “I think it is important to be transparent with the information you are containing in your study. In your limitations include a statement that includes certain questions that can impact how people responded. This is more important and relevant in focus group studies rather than in a survey. Survey questions can be more general. Just be transparent about any questions or information you choose not to include. One route you can take is to use a question to weed out people in the surveys.”

On behalf of our group, we would like to thank Dr. Assaf for taking the time to interview us and further assist us with our research. We have received great insight on how to conduct our research and the many routes we can take within this study. Moving forward, we are planning to lead a focus group followed by an exit survey in order to understand how their mental health has truly been affected throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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