As Spring 2020 comes to a close, I decided to take stock. What worked in my online class during COVID-19 and what didn’t, from a teaching perspective? What can I take away for next semester?
So, I conducted an informal survey last week with my students. Thirty-four responded. I’d like to share the results, which can hopefully help my readers!
Over half (55%) indicated they spent at least 3 hours a day doing homework, reading, and other assignments—not just for me, but for all their classes. Almost 30 percent spent over four hours.
To put that into perspective, the average college student in the U.S. spends almost two and half hours a day (2.4) on school work. So what does it all mean?
Maybe I’ve been assigning more work compared to the average professor (doubtful). Or maybe online classes are harder and more time-consuming than regular classes. Anecdotally, at least, that’s certainly possible. Maybe the jump online has students scrambling to figure out how to navigate multiple technology platforms and tools (like Blackboard, Zoom, Google Sheets, Google Hangouts). Or maybe this “black swan” coronavirus event has affected everything (almost certainly likely). We’ll come back to this.
Next: What part of the online course was most difficult for students?
Percent of Students Who Chose . . .
Organizing and keeping track of everything was the biggest challenge. Same with self-motivation. Not technology, interestingly enough.
COVID-19 aside, it says a lot about what students face. And what we as instructors can do.
I definitely put out A LOT of content—including announcements, assignments, directions, readings, reminders—on our learning management system (LMS) platform, email system, Google Docs, Dropbox, and in some cases, via texting. Students have to check here, check there. I knew this was going to be an issue.
Multiply that by the four other classes students take, and the result is cognitive overload. I’ve had students email me questions like, “Where do we upload the fieldwork timesheets again?” or “I’ve lost track of where we can find [XYZ].”
But at the same time, students wrote feedback like: “[We] were able to call or text, watch a video of him explaining something, so it never felt like you were left out to drown” or “[Prof. Eng] sent constant descriptive updates that helped to keep track of work and assignments.”
So, should I continue sending multiple announcements, texts, and emails? I’m not sure. After reflecting, here’s my takeaway:
- Keep a routine (so students know what to expect).
- Keep everything in one place (if possible).
- Keep sending reminders.
Finally, let’s hear students’ actual feedback. The question I asked them: What is something professors should know about the online course experience, from a student’s perspective? Each group of comments starts with an insight.
Insight #1: Clear, prompt communication means everything to students
One thing I want my professors to know about an online class is to make the instruction specific and reply to emails, especially for those courses that meet only once a week. Professors from my [XYZ Course] changed the assignment requirements all the time, never reply to my emails or update the syllable, so I had difficulty starting the assignments ahead of time and have no idea how to make the assignment satisfying [sic] the rubric. We also got extra papers that were not on the syllabus and sometimes we had to turn in two essays each week just for that course. I am the kind of person who likes to arrange my time properly, otherwise, I will get extremely anxious. However, that course forced me to leave all assignments to the last second, so I just felt so speechless and overwhelmed.
Communication is key! Having students know exactly where to find assignments, receive feedback, find resources, materials or anything needed for the course makes the flow of the semester. As a student, having an ‘open door policy’ is another way of comfort while virtual learning. Having your professor answer e-mails, have discussion posts, answer questions and make sure you are completing the course as you would in person is essential to making the online class enjoyable, worth the time, engaging, achievable and satisfactory to both the student and professor.
I would say communication. All of my professors have been amazing at getting back to me either through email or text, except one. I’m actually doing poorly according to my standards and I want to boost my grade up. However, the professor did not lower his standards in grading nor is he being lenient in grading. It’s a math course so it’s difficult. Since we can’t meet anymore, I can’t go over the math problems with him. He doesn’t even check the homework, so we don’t know if we did it correctly or not. The only time I can reach him is after class, otherwise I am lost. I really do hope I don’t fail his class, I wish he was a bit more understanding with everything that’s been going on. I know not all professors are, so I guess I don’t mind.
It feels like professors are constantly sending updates and expect us to be online, ready to answer them all the time. I wish they understood that not only are we not always free, but when every single professor is giving multiple announcements daily, they pile up.
Online class challenge us to learn a lot of the content on our own, so being descriptive with how to do assignments can be helpful and video walk throughs can make things a lot clearer for us. Reminders really help us to keep on track with our assignments.
Insight #2: Motivating themselves and staying focused is hard, especially when lectures suck
In a comfortable environment [i.e., the home] sometimes it’s hard to muster the [will] to get things done. You want to do other things. It also doesn’t help that we’re prevented from going outside in this pandemic – if libraries, coffee shops were open, etc., I think it’d be easier.
I want my professors to know that it is very hard to keep me motivated to listen to the lectures that they post on [Blackboard LMS], which are like more than one hour of podcast. I find it so difficult to just sit there and listen to a person talk and take notes. If I was in class, I would see the professor with movements (showing things with examples), but now I can just see them saying without seeing the example.
Do not make your assignments boring and long. I had a teacher who gave a LONG midterm. It was boring and super long to do. It had 4 questions, but in each question, there were 4 more sub-questions and in those sub-questions there were 2 more questions. Like, we [have] other classes, you know, and family to take care of.
It’s extremely hard to stay motivated. I know that I have x amount of assignments due and will even write them down in my calendar. But because I’m always home and not stimulated enough, I end up not wanting to bother with anything. Even when I have all my readings out and a word document open, I just sit there and have absolutely no energy or will to do the assignment. Or, there’s more assignments given because professors assume we have more time and then I end up forgetting about other assignments or I fall behind.
For lecture classes, it is hard to stay focus. When the professor talks for more than 10 mins without any break, we get distracted easily.
We have no motivation thus things that don’t have a point should not be assigned.
Insight #3: It takes longer to do things online
Many of the professors tried to cram more work in because they felt as if we were at home or maybe they were forced [to do so], but if you are not a tech person or if you are also home schooling, it becomes overwhelming and anxiety may set in. For example, one professor no longer held class; she however thought it was a better idea to assign extra readings and more work in addition to what was already on the syllabus to make up for missing the 3 hour time slot. But this ended up turning the class into an ALL day sit session. It was horrible. She then gave a generic test and you could tell she was not interested in teaching us anymore.
Online classes mean more work to make up for a participation grade. It gives the students so much burden. Now that I’m home, my mom makes me do things around the house since, “You’re home now; you’re not doing anything; help with so-and-so.” My mom is at least understanding and lets me off the hook, [although] I know not everyone has parents like that. I have no idea, but even if my assignments are done for the moment, I still go through my anxiety attack thinking I have more things due the next day. It’s sad that I can’t even relax in my own house. I understand having trouble breathing due to anxiety outside, but inside my own room… during class I just walk out and hold onto my mom to calm down. I wouldn’t have minded any of the workload, it’s just I hold my effort and grades to a high standard, so thinking about it being ruined after this semester scares me more than I had expected it too.
Insight #4: The debate between going synchronous and asynchronous isn’t settled
Online classes are more productive when held live or when the professor records themselves teaching a lecture. The downside of having an asynchronous class is that we have to be more responsible for teaching ourselves the content. When we register for classes, we rely on professors to teach, so having recorded lectures or synchronous classes relieves this stress. I believe I’m teaching myself incorrect information if it’s all up to me. When classes are held live, I can get immediate and reliable answers to my questions. Professors that opt to not record themselves teaching or not hold live meetings place the responsibility on the students and have to make themselves available to at least reply to emails quickly.
Synchronous classes are way too difficult to manage. Asynchronous classes are way better. I feel for the essential workers who still are in school. Plus I am currently unemployed and considered finding an essential job but couldn’t because 5 out of my 6 classes are synchronous.
Professors, what do you think? What can we learn from this informal survey? Your comments are most welcome.