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How Can We Make Online Undergraduate Science Courses More Inclusive for Students with Depression?

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders among college students, and it is especially common among groups that are underrepresented or underserved in science, such as women, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities. Previous studies have found that the unwelcoming and competitive nature of science courses may worsen students’ depression.
However, little is known about how online science learning environments impact students’ depression. Because online learning environments are becoming increasingly common, a recent study set out to understand which aspects of online science environments exacerbate and alleviate students’ depression, both generally and among students with specific demographics.
Here are some of the primary findings:

Specific groups of students were more likely to report experiencing depression than other groups of students.

Researchers found that approximately 54% of students reported experiencing depression.However, white students, women, LGBTQ+ students, students who were financially unstable, and students with lower GPAs were more likely to report having depression than students in other demographic groups.
Researchers also found that most students described their depression as mild. However, women, LGBTQ+ students, continuing-generation students, financially unstable students, STEM majors, and lower division students were more likely to describe their depression as severe than students in other demographic groups. The researchers proposed that because depression can negatively affect students’ learning, the disproportionately high rates and severity of depression among various underserved groups of students may contribute to their underperformance and lower persistence in the sciences.

Student depression was exacerbated by challenges building relationships and aspects related to performing well in their online science courses.

Students selected different aspects of online college science courses that they felt exacerbated their depression. Most commonly, students in online courses reported that their depression was exacerbated by proctored tests, at-home distractions, and the difficulty of getting to know their peers and instructors in online courses.

Student depression was alleviated by flexible course structure and having an instructor who appears to care about mental health in their online college science courses.

Although many aspects of online college science courses exacerbated student depression, students also selected aspects of their courses that lessened their depression. Most commonly, students reported that their depression was alleviated by having the flexibility to do their coursework both when and where they want, having an instructor who seems to care about mental health, and being able to engage in an online course without being seen by other students.

How can we better support undergraduate students with depression in online science courses?

Informed by their findings, the researchers proposed three recommendations for instructors of online college science courses looking to make their learning environments more inclusive for students with depression:
  1. Integrate opportunities for students to interact with each other and the instructor through outlets such as breakout rooms, small group projects, discussion board posts, and office hours so that students can get to know others in the course.
  2. Consider alternative forms of evaluation to proctored exams, such as replacing infrequent high-stakes tests with more frequent low-stakes evaluations.
  3. Show that the instructor cares about students’ mental health by acknowledging the importance of mental health in the course syllabus and/or course announcement as well as by providing students with information about mental health resources.

For more information, see:

Busch, C. A., Mohammed, T. F., Nadile, E. M., &; Cooper, K. M. (2022). Aspects of online college science courses that alleviate and exacerbate undergraduate depression. PLOS ONE, 17(6), e0269201.

Post Author 

Baylee Edwards is a Ph.D. student in the Research for Inclusive STEM Education (RISE) Center at ASU. Her research explores how students and instructors perceive the relationship between religion and science and the impact that those perceptions have on religious students’ experiences in biology courses.


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