The present study was designed to understand university students’ perspectives, attitudes, and readiness regarding online classes and investigate the impact of DE during the COVID-19 pandemic on their psychological health, social cognition, and memory function. Second, the study aimed to identify potential predictors of academic performance during the first Italian lockdown period.
As expected, we found a significant impact of distance education (DE), which was related to social, technological, and organizational adaptation difficulties, on students' psychological conditions, specifically, their depressive symptoms, and academic performance. DE was better appreciated by older students, displaying good social interaction abilities.
Recently, some studies have focused on the assessment of online class experience and overall online learning advantages and disadvantages [26, 27, 40, 41] and students’ psychological conditions [13, 22, 25, 42]. To the best of our knowledge, our study is the first to investigate the context and individual predictors of the impact of DE on academic outcomes in a sample of Italian students.
Regarding technical difficulties during delivery of DE, consistent with a recent study , our student sample mainly attributed having many difficulties to sharing a Wi-Fi network with other family members or friends and to network connection problems. It has been established that online learning cannot achieve the required intended learning outcomes if students do not have internet access due to technical or economic issues .
Regarding academic learning. Our data are only partially consistent with a recent study reporting that approximately 70% of students showed increased difficulties with virtual learning, primarily due to challenges with the available technology, unreliable internet connectivity, and perceived fatigue when listening to online lectures . Interestingly, in our sample, a relevant factor related to learning ability was the study context. Before the COVID-19 home confinement, only approximately 20% of students were used to studying alone at their parents' homes, while 80% were used to “socially studying” in different places, such as flats rented with other students, in university open spaces, or the university library, and they had to change their habits during the pandemic.
Concerning academic performance and exams taken during DE, similar findings were observed in a recent study investigating academic achievements measured by students' grade point average (GPA) and curriculum objectives with remote E-exams. The study found that only 30% of students had higher GPAs, while approximately 40% reported no GPA change and approximately 30% had lower GPAs. Approximately 60% of all students reported that they did not achieve their curriculum objectives .
Regarding the advantages of DE, our findings are in line with a recent investigation conducted with a small student and teacher sample  that focused on positive and negative opinions about DE. The students seemed to have appreciated the possibility to take advantage of new academic resources (video lessons, etc.) and better and more autonomously manage their study activities. Similar findings were also observed in a larger sample that was more similar to ours in size . The authors found a high appreciation for DE by just over 70% of the students, who liked studying through online classes since the study time became flexible and they could study anytime. Our sample of off-site students confirmed their appreciation of the reduction in travel time, and saving money and energy from using transportation was among the advantages of DE perceived by the students .
Among the disadvantages of DE, our findings confirmed that the absence of face-to-face interaction between students and teachers and the lack of traditional classroom socialization are among the issues of greatest interest in higher education [45, 46]. Our results are consistent with recent studies reporting the lack of the classroom environment , limited social contact , and lack of co-curricular activity .
Concerning the overall evaluation of DE on a scale from 1 to 10, the students in our sample expressed a mediocre level of appreciation, confirming the findings on the low appreciation of DE already reported in the literature; Sindiani et al. reported that 75% of the students in their study were not pleased with their experience of DE . Conversely, while conventional learning was found to be more motivating than online learning by 70% of the students in one study , Shatakshi and Nardev  found that approximately 60% of students preferred the online continuity mode of teaching. The inconsistent appreciation of DE appears to be due to several factors that influence the overall DE experience, such as suboptimal or poor Internet connection or audio-visual media quality, unfamiliarity with completing online learning when it is suddenly implemented, and the lack of non-academic and social activities that make in-person education attractive to students .
Regarding depressive symptoms, as measured by the short version of the BDI, our sample showed a moderate level of depression. The young University students could feel severely distressed about the social isolation imposed due to COVID-19, in a phase of their life in which their peer group and interpersonal relationships have a significant impact on their emotional development and in establishing intimate relationships. The prevalence of medical students in our sample (more than 50%) students may have impacted the findings of our study. This student population is characterized by a competitive environment, a required continuous commitment, and a long academic journey. Many Authors showed among medical students an increased risk of depression compared to their peers currently enrolled in non-medical university courses [47, 48]. Italian surveys have found that medical students highlighted issues associated with anxiety and depression, emotional distress [49, 50], low perceived quality of life .
Specifically, for the severe level of depressive symptoms, a statistically significant difference was found by gender; a high proportion of women showed a severe depression level, which is consistent with recent studies [3, 21, 22]. The hypothesized reasons could be searched in differences in socialization processes and greater interpersonal sensitivity or sensitivity to the judgment of others of women [52, 53], differences in coping styles, emotion-oriented strategies for women and problem-oriented strategies for men .
Concerning social cognition abilities, no statistically significant differences were observed among students with different levels of depression. Our data are not in line with previous results showing that patients with major depressive disorder appear to decode emotions with a mood-congruent bias and have difficulty with cognitive theory of mind tasks requiring the interpretation of complex mental states , such as the Eyes Task used in our study. Our findings do not confirm that social cognitive performance is inversely associated with the severity of depression as reported by Weightman et al. .
Statistically significant differences in visual memory ability, measured by the five vignette stimuli taken from Module 5 of the MCT [38, 39], were observed, with higher scores for female students, who were more skilled than men in temporarily retaining non-verbal information. Our results do not seem to be in line with studies reporting no gender differences in visual memory abilities [56,57,58]. Our data agree with Feng et al., suggesting that women have a stronger cueing effect in the visual attention task, leading them to use more attention resources .
To achieve the second objective of the study, we investigated the variables that could predict poor academic performance during the provision of DE. The impact of DE on academic performance has been little explored, and the research has shown contradictory results. An Egyptian study did not find any statistically significant difference in students’ academic learning and performance in the shift from face-to-face to online DE due to the COVID-19 lockdown . A significant positive effect of COVID-19 confinement on students’ performance was reported by Gonzalez et al. , who showed that students’ learning strategies became more continuous habits, improving their efficiency and autonomous learning performance. The authors attributed this improvement to students facing a new scenario; they were afraid of missing the academic year because of the COVID-19 confinement, and they worked harder to overcome any difficulty, motivated by their intrinsic responsibility in a perplexing situation . In the USA, the impact of COVID-19 on student experiences and expectations seemed to include delayed graduation; loss of jobs, internships, and job offers; and expectations of earning less at age 35 than originally anticipated. These impacts were mainly attributed to existing socioeconomic divides, with lower-income students 55% being more likely than their higher-income peers to have delayed graduation due to COVID-19 .
In our first 2 logistic regression analysis steps, gender, age, working student status, and lack of sharing learning experience with other students did not show any predictive value for low academic performance. The only significant predictor was changes in the study environment, which increased the likelihood of students' poor academic performance by almost 4 times. The students were used to living in a flat with their colleagues, studying with other students, and/or studying “in social settings” but then had to come back to their parents' homes and stay home all day. Inconsistent with our findings, a third of the sample of the study by Shatakshi and Nardev seemed to greatly appreciate experiencing “the study location as flexible” and, probably, for them, more functional . We hypothesize that several factors could be the basis of such academic impairment, such as the drastic reduction in outings and social interactions, as described in Elmer et al. , the reduction in personal autonomy, and minor family conflicts in the restricted home area. In our sample, living with parents did not seem to be a protective factor .
The addition of individual psychological and psychopathological variables to the context variables related to the stressful condition of home confinement enriched our “risk model”: change in the study context and study habits was no longer statistically significant in our third analysis step, and the strongest predictor was concentration impairment, which increased the likelihood of poor academic performance by more than 8 times. Reduction in concentration during the pandemic lockdown in university students has been observed in several studies [22, 25, 62]. Our study was the first to identify its specific role as a strong predictor of poor academic performance.
The likelihood of poor academic performance seemed to increase by more than 3 times in students presenting COVID-19 contagion anxiety for themselves or others. This study result is partially consistent with a study conducted in the United Arab Emirates, showing that anxiety about COVID-19 contagion significantly increased the likelihood of university students' psychological distress by almost 3 times . We did not find a statistically significant gender difference in COVID-19 contagion anxiety; this results is inconsistent with that of Rodriguez et al., who reported that women showed higher fear of COVID-19 in their sample of Ecuadorian university students . However, in our regression model, being a woman was a statistically significant predictor of poor academic performance, as was depressive symptomatology, albeit with less predictive power. Our data indirectly support the finding that women perceive remote E-exams to be more stressful than male respondents , and our female sample showed a more severe depression level and more than 3 times the likelihood of poor academic performance than their male colleagues.
Finally, it was not surprising that good appreciation could represent a protective factor against academic failure, suggesting that the acceptance of this new learning modality could underline relevant cognitive flexibility and global well-being, as shown in a previous study .
Strengths and limitations
Learning concentration impairment, COVID-19 contagion anxiety, female gender, and depressive symptomatology were identified as predictors of poor academic performance in a sample of university students during home confinement and online learning. This is the main strength of this first Italian study on this topic, which investigates a comprehensive risk model, as well as technological and context aspects related to DE and psychopathological, social cognitive, and cognitive variables.
Some limitations of the present study should be acknowledged. First, the study was based on a cross-sectional online anonymous survey using a convenience sample. Second, the study was conducted among a sample from a single academic department, and the sample size (of both participants and setting) represents a further limitation for generalizability. The small sample size could be attributed mainly to the selected period (July 15–September 30), including exams preparation, graduations, and summer holidays time. Indeed, we were interested to investigate the students' condition before the start of the new academic year and relatively close to the more strict lockdown period, identifying a fatigue scenario due to Covid-19 social restrictions. Third, no validated measures were used in our study in the absence of international validated instruments assessing DE. The “Studying with COVID” survey was developed by a focus group of experienced professionals working in a counselling and consultation university service, teachers and senior students based on their suggested main themes. Four, a more comprehensive battery for psychopathological, social cognition and memory function assessments would have been useful for better characterizing our student sample. Our short version of the BDI reflects the authors’ choice to be “less invasive” (items on suicidal ideation, sexuality, etc., were omitted) and to “normalize” the sort of post-traumatic reaction expected to follow COVID-19 social restriction measures. Based on some of the authors’ experience working on the topic of post-traumatic distress [65, 66], within certain limits, distress is perfectly natural and normal in a context such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the use of a short-digitized version of the Eyes Task and the five vignette stimuli taken from Module 5, “Overconfidence in memory errors,” have not been validated for the mode of administration used in this study, which was the only possible mode in the contingent emergency context.