The pandemic has revived the longstanding debate about the effect of online versus face-to-face instruction on student achievement. The goal of this paper is to provide new evidence on the impact of online versus face-to-face instruction on student learning outcomes, using rich, transcript-level longitudinal data from a public university. We pay particular attention to eliminating selection bias by incorporating student and instructor fixed effects into the empirical analysis as well as to separate out the impact of online versus in-person education from COVID-19-related confounding factors. Our results indicate that students in face-to-face courses perform better than their online counterparts with respect to their grades, the propensity to withdraw from the course, and the likelihood of receiving a passing grade. However, our investigation also reveals that instructor-specific factors, such as leniency in grading or actions towards preventing violations of academic integrity, play a significant role in determining the studied relationship. Without accounting for these instructor-specific factors, the relationship is severely biased, causing one to mistakenly conclude that online instruction is better for student learning than face-to-face instruction. Our analysis further documents a rise in grades associated with COVID-19-triggered changes to student assessment policies embraced by universities as well as instructors adopting a more flexible approach to grading. While these developments led to an increase in grades for all students overall, those who began Spring 2020 in face-to-face courses appear to have benefitted more generously from them. Finally, an auxiliary analysis shows that living in neighborhoods with better broadband technology is associated with a larger increase in grades among students who had to switch from in-person to online instruction during COVID-19. This finding supports the argument that unequal access to technology might have caused learning disparities to get deepened during the pandemic.
The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.