INTRODUCTION: The social distancing restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have changed students' learning environment and limited their social interactions. Therefore, the objective of this study was to investigate the influence of the social distancing restrictions on students' social networks, wellbeing, and academic performance.
METHODS: We performed a questionnaire study in which 102 students participated before and 167 students during the pandemic. They completed an online questionnaire about how they formed their five peer social networks (study-related support, collaboration, friendship, share information, and learn-from) out-of-class. We performed social network analysis to compare the sizes, structures, and compositions of students' five social networks before and during the pandemic, between first- and second-year students, and between international and domestic students. Additionally, we performed Kruskal-Wallis H test to compare students' academic performance before and during the pandemic. We performed thematic analysis to answers for two open-end questions in the online questionnaire to explore what difficulties students encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic and what support they needed.
RESULTS: The results showed that the size of students' social networks during the pandemic was significantly smaller than before the pandemic. Besides, the formation of social networks differed between first- and second-year students, and between domestic and international students. However, academic performance did not decline during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, we identified three key areas in which students experienced difficulties and needed support by thematic analysis: social connections and interactions, learning and studying, and physical and mental wellbeing.
CONCLUSION: When institutions implement learning with social distancing, such as online learning, they need to consider changes in students' social networks and provide appropriate support.