How to Help Students Navigate Ambiguity and Uncertainty

Female student sitting at computer
March 17 , 2022  |  By Emilija Sarma, Molly Rapert

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The COVID-19 pandemic impacted each and every part of our lives, including higher education. In spring of 2020, colleges and universities scrambled to shift their in-person classes to online learning platforms to tame the spread of the novel coronavirus. “Zoom fatigue” became a new addition to our vocabulary, Blackboard became our second home, and spotting someone’s cat in their video stream during class was sometimes the highlight of your day. Students and teachers alike had to power through an extraordinary and challenging semester – and more – while glued to a computer screen. 

Whether it was freshmen who had just started their college experience, seniors approaching the anticipated finish line of their studies, or those who fell somewhere in between, everyone felt the impact of the pandemic on campuses across the U.S. Faculty also grappled with adjusting to the “new normal” and having to adapt their curricula to facilitate remote learning—some without prior experience teaching online.  

The pandemic brought with it feelings of stress and worry, and severely affected the mental health of young adults according to research. With fears about the health and safety of family members, the pandemic’s negative impact on job prospects, and the added factor of isolation, it is no wonder that nearly 71% of college students in one survey believed the pandemic had increased their feelings of stress and anxiety.  

The whirlwind of unexpected changes on college campuses was a source of stress for most students, and some handled the transition better than others. Researchers Sarah C. Grace, J. Manuel Mejia, Molly Inhofe Rapert, and Anastasia Thyroff explored what factors may have impacted how students managed the sudden shift to online learning to help educators and institutions better prepare for such events in the future. In their Marketing Education Review article “Emotional Awareness in Time of Disruption: The Impact of Tolerance for Ambiguity, Worry, Perceived Stress, Helpful Communication, and Past Experience on Student Satisfaction,” the researchers consider how students perceived their classes and their own performance during this turbulent period. 

Their research focused on tolerance for ambiguity, domain-specific worry, and perceived stress as possible factors that may impact how students experienced the sudden changes of their classes switching to an online format. The authors also considered the impact of communication between students and instructors as well as students’ past experiences with online learning. The researchers analyzed student narratives and surveyed forty-four university seniors in a marketing course at the beginning of the transition and at the end of the Spring 2020 semester. The researchers sought to find out what students thought faculty “could do to enhance this student experience during times of disruption.” 

Ambiguity, Perceived Stress, and Worry 

If the pandemic has made one thing clear, it is that the only thing we can count on is uncertainty. At a time when ambiguity was at an all-time high and each passing day could bring a new development in the pandemic, uncertainty also inevitably affected students’ attitudes toward education. Tolerance for ambiguity....their own academic performance. 

On the other side of this coin is stress and worry. The researchers hypothesized that while tolerance for ambiguity would help bolster students during this difficult time, worry would “decrease student satisfaction” both with the transition and with their own academic performance. Worry has long been linked to decreased academic performance in college students, so it was assumed that it would be further exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Like worry, stress is also a major factor that can lead to negative academic experiences for college students. Perceived stress refers to the “feelings or thoughts an individual has about how much stress they are under in a given time,” and as such it examines the lived experience of the person, not “frequencies of actual events that have happened.” The researchers thus assumed that perceived stress would negatively affect students as worry does. 

Combating the Negative Effects of Ambiguity, Perceived Stress, and Worry in the Virtual Classroom 

The study ultimately found that worry did not “directly impact [students’] general satisfaction with the transition.” Worry only impacted how satisfied students appeared with their own performance in the course. The researchers found that helpful communication was key for alleviating student concerns and creating an overall more positive experience. The researchers underlined that, based on their findings, instructors should reach out to students during the course to see what’s causing them worry so that students can “reflect on their emotions during times of disruption.”  

The research findings showed that the less tolerance for ambiguity students had, the more they were impacted by perceived stress. Moreover, “the more stressed [students] considered themselves, the less satisfied they were” with the transition and with their own performance in the course. This finding suggests that educators should build stress management strategies into their curriculum and make students aware of stress management options like “exercise, meditation, social and community support, counseling, or a spiritual or religious practice.” Communicating the benefits of these coping mechanisms to students could boost student satisfaction with the course and their overall academic experience. 

Curiously, the researchers found that prior experience with online learning had no significant impact on students’ level of satisfaction with the transition to remote learning. They had assumed that prior experience with online classes would be an advantage for both student satisfaction and performance. Even students who had taken just one online class prior to the transition were expected to have an advantage. Such students were expected to have a more positive experience with the transition since they’d be familiar with the setting and expectations of remote classes since “when individuals work in a familiar role over a period of time, familiarity is associated with better performance.” Nonetheless, according to the results of the study, when it came to satisfaction with the course, everyone was in the same boat whether they had taken an online class in the past or not. 

Developing Tolerance for Ambiguity through Helpful Communication 

The student narratives collected and analyzed by the researchers revealed six distinct themes: “communication, structure, compassion, continued quality, flexibility/adjustment, and personal messages.” Personal concerns were of more importance to students during the time of the first survey while the second survey revealed “a shift in focus,” in that the students placed more emphasis on factors related to “quality education.” 

The study found that students’ satisfaction with their academic performance during online learning increased when they “found communication to be helpful.” As a result, “their tolerance for ambiguity was higher, they felt lower amounts of perceived stress, and they worried less.” Therefore, helpful communication is the most “pertinent insight” of this research and can help educators prepare for similar situations in the future. 

Those students who had the “highest tolerance for ambiguity,” were able to find “the most satisfaction in the transition” to online learning. Educators should therefore be aware of the importance of facilitating students’ development of tolerance for ambiguity: “while not all students naturally demonstrate a tolerance for ambiguity, such tolerance can be encouraged by instructors and university administrators.” By communicating with students about ambiguity, educators can “better identify students who may be struggling with a major transition or change.” 

In order to facilitate learning and combat the negative effects of isolation during online learning, communication should be encouraged not only between students and instructors, but between peers as well. This can help boost engagement with the course and combat the negative effects of isolation for both students and faculty. Although instructors “cannot control students’ prior exposure to online course delivery,” they can provide “a level of emotional awareness and helpful communication in the classroom.”  

Times of disruption and upheaval like the global pandemic have demonstrated that it is crucial for educators and institutions to consider how courses must adapt to fit the needs of the student. Emotional awareness in particular “should be the ’new normal’ in higher education.” The findings of this study point to the ways that “tolerance for ambiguity, worry, perceived stress, and helpful communication,” can all “drastically alter students’ lived reality in times of turbulence.” 

Molly RapertMolly Rapert is an Associate Professor at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas where she also serves as the Director for the Walton Center for Teaching Effectiveness. The content for her senior-level Marketing Management course is chosen by an advisory board of 15 executives who contribute articles, ideas, projects, and assignments. You can reach Molly at and follow her course instagram @mollyrapert #thisishowweteach #BeEpic

Emilija SarmaEmīlija Sarma is a Fulbright Scholar from Latvia and a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies (CLCS) at the University of Arkansas. Emīlija is the recipient of the CLCS Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship and the Vance and Mary Celestia Parler Randolph Fellowship in English. Her research focuses on gender studies, intersectional feminism, pop culture, and young adult literature. Emīlija is passionate about international exchange in higher education and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. She has previously taught composition and technical writing for the English department at the U of A and worked for International Recruitment before transitioning to the role of Program Coordinator for the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Orientation online. She currently works as the MFA program assistant at the U of A School of Art.