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What Frustrates Students Most About Online Classes (COVID-19 Edition)

An informal survey found surprising insights into what drove college students crazy (Hint: It ain't the technology)

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by Norman Eng in Blog
May 17, 2020 26 comments
Showing a survey

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!

First, students spent quite a bit of time on schoolwork during COVID-19:Pie Chart of how many hours of work students spend per day

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 . . .
Bar Chart displaying what students struggled with most

Note that students could check multiple options

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.

26 Comments
  1. Melinda Andrews says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I think your results match what my students are telling me. I definitely think communication is key and giving them strategies to navigate online courses. I made my students a grade sheet so that they could keep up with what they had done and what was left.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Melinda, I love the idea of the grade sheet! I used to incorporate it into my syllabus, but now I might make it a separate sheet for online.

  2. Kevin Smith says:

    Very enlightening, Norman! Especially the fact that for students keeping track of everything. I can see that happening. If you’re taking 5 classes and each professor uploads all kinds of content to Moodle then it’s simply overwhelming. Makes me think a little more cautiously about the amount I’ll content or communication I send out. Thanks for this!

  3. Carolyn Dew says:

    Norm,
    I learn so much from you. I have used many of the techniques you have shared. This is very much on target with what I hear from my students. I provide a written mini-lecture with study questions for them to prepare for the class. This is for them only to study with and then when we are in class, I can do active learning strategies much better. This has worked for me and for them. Thanks so much. Carolyn

    1. Norman Eng says:

      So glad to hear, Carolyn! I’m curious to hear, though, how the written mini-lectures are done. Do they work better than recorded mini-lectures?

  4. Warren Daniel says:

    Been there and done that. Check out Isaac Asimov’s “The Fun They Had” at
    http://web1.nbed.nb.ca/sites/ASD-S/1820/J%20Johnston/Isaac%20Asimov%20-%20The%20fun%20they%20had.pdf

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Warren, one day the Quaranteen generation will look back and say “Wow my parents used to actually GO to school – what fun they had…”

  5. Alexia Burgess-Huart says:

    This is a fantastic and informative observation. Thank you!

  6. Martin Wells says:

    Thank you for the post Norman. Your post has re-minded me about how I need to LISTEN (to the students) WITH THE SAME PASSION WITH WHICH I WANT TO BE HEARD”. I’ve got all my stuff going on, they have all their stuff going on and if I’m really unconscious of that, unfortunately we might have between us, only a tiny space for sharing and caring for each other. Also, I have had the ‘luxury’ of time for figuring out what it is I’m trying to communicate, this will be their first immersion and I need to create space for their exploration of what I have already explored. Thank you.

  7. Dana says:

    Norman-
    We are trying our best- I team teach with colleague . Prior to the pandemic, we used the flipped classroom. We provided some lecture videos with PowerPoint and readings. The active case based teaching/learning was done in class. I am finding that my groups are challenged with the online synchronous class- I put them in breakout groups to discuss and work. Our class is 4 hrs long and we try to break it up in clunks, but the duration is soo long. University says we can’t break up the class to meet in two different session. Any ideas ?

    1. Norman Eng says:

      I empathize, Dana. My comments are fairly general, as that’s all I have to go by. To confirm, are you saying the university requires you have synchronous sessions or that if you do have live sessions they can’t be broken up? I can’t imagine the former. In fact, I can’t imagine they have any way to enforce either. Generally speaking, I would never hold 4 hour live sessions. In fact, I can’t imagine any expert in best online practices for teaching online would ever recommend this. My first question to them would be to push back, or at the very least ask them to explain why: why synchronous? Why one session only? The research on student-centered learning (i.e., that students, and people in general, won’t want to sit through long sessions–I don’t care how engaging it is) suggests that regular 4-hour sessions is a daft approach to teaching. It should be more asynchronous sessions, with relatively shorter live sessions in between. Again, I don’t have the specifics of your situation, but there you have it. Thoughts?

      1. Natalie says:

        If your university is like mine, they might have made the rule because other professors were changing schedules willy-nilly, double-booking students so that they would skip my properly scheduled class to go to another class. I think you are careful to check with student schedules and not encroach on their other classes, it would be better to “ask for forgiveness than permission”. I was able to find holes and reschedule my class twice because of personal conflicts of working from home – it worked out.

  8. Maria Martha Chavez says:

    Fascinating findings Norman, thank you for sharing. I love the glimpse to the student’s world that you have provided to us in reference to time spent on school work, access to materials and the fact that our students are considering becoming essential workers. I look forward to learning more from you.

  9. Thomas Hoffmeister says:

    Dear Norman, many thanks for sharing this. It’s about what I hear from students who are just overwhelmed with all the good wee try to do, ignoring the difficulty for them to even find a quite place for studying. I hope many more of my colleagues will share this.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Appreciate you sharing this post, Thomas!

  10. Natalie T says:

    As I teacher of international students, and I suspect some of the comments above were from an international student or two, I have heard the same thing from the students I spoke with – complete overwhelm. I even had a couple of desperate students show me their LMS for another class – it was indecipherable. I’m sure horror stories abound everywhere, but I felt for my international students who were struggling in an already unfamiliar educational system.

    As we head into Summer term, I will continue to teach remotely. In order to prioritize, better communication, one of the things I will implement more regularly is virtual office hours, where I will sit at my computer, working on what I need to, but with Zoom on the whole time so students can drop by and “knock” anytime in that window – the “waiting room” feature will definitely be on.

    Thanks, Norman, for the insights once again.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Natalie, thanks for your thoughts. I did do virtual office hours regularly today–doing exactly what you mentioned (“with Zoom on the whole time so students can drop by and ‘knock’ anytime in that window” and with the waiting room feature turned on)–and it worked out very well. Students appeared to feel that I was meeting their needs and they didn’t feel forced to sit in on synchronous classes (unless it was needed). I’ve even had students just “stop in” and do work while their camera was off (I encouraged it!!). Thanks for writing.

  11. Sandy Rogelberg says:

    Thank you! This information was really helpful. Much of it confirmed what I already suspected or knew – students had problems motivating and felt overwhelmed. The information about the synchronous vs asynchronous learning caught my eye…

    When instruction went online, I chose to finish out the semester with asynchronous class sessions. I gave short assignments (analogous to in-class activities) for each lesson. These served as formative assessments (ungraded) to check student understanding of material. I then provided feedback to each student, or posted the answers afterwards (more work for me). For the most part, this system worked fairly well, but there were times I wish I could have addressed misconceptions in the moment.

    In the fall, I’m going to do a combination of synchronous and asynchronous class sessions. I’m thinking of providing the “lecture” asynchronously, and then do the “class activity” synchronously (in small groups) – flipped classroom? This is all new to me – I’m open to any suggestions!

    Thanks so much – again!

  12. Anne Fletcher says:

    I agree with your findings, Dr. Eng. Those are similar to the responses I had from my students. Number one is always that what was most important to them was connecting to the professor and getting help when it was needed. Office hours didn’t really work because in a class of 20, every student was on a different schedule after the pandemic broke out and we turned to online learning.

  13. Trina says:

    Norman,

    Thank you for this post. I’m just finishing reading your book to implement more ideas. It looks like classes will either be in Hybrid mode or fully online for the fall semester. Any specific advice for instructors on how they should proceed? I know for most of us, we were just in survival mode for these past few months. I teach a math methods course.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Hi Trina, I teach math methods as well! I’m putting the finishing touches on my new premium course to address your very issue! It’s called Teaching College Online – if interested, go here. This will help tremendously.

  14. Melissa S says:

    Dr. Eng,
    Your reflections are relevant to me, and I teach in a private international secondary school. Thankfully, a colleague shared this with myself and other HoDs, as it confirmed much of what we thought the hurdles were for our adolescent/teen students. I think OUR biggest issues as secondary educators is managing our expectations for students with synchronous and asynchronous learning…meaning not to lower our expectations in work, thought, effort or attendance but to be more reasonable in what we are asking of our students. What is most important for this course and how do we support our students in achieving the step to accomplish this? It is an important lesson for all of us to learn…Thank you for your insight!

  15. Peter C. Herman says:

    Your survey and your results overlaps nicely with my students’ responses to online learning, summarized in my IHE article:https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/views/2020/06/10/online-learning-not-future-higher-education-opinion

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Very interesting article, Peter, and I agree. It’s one reason why teachers will never be automated (even though so many will be), and why teaching is one of the most secure professions, adjuncting aside. In fact, one could argue that in virtual education, teaching skill becomes even more highly prized and that those who are (now) investing in their own professional development are the ones who may potentially reap bigger rewards. Hard to know, but if we listen to our students, we can’t go wrong!

  16. Lillian Kay Hinson says:

    This was helpful and aligned with what our students are saying. Now my university will be mandating “HyFlex” for the fall term. For classes that are currently listed as face to face, we will use level 3: ftof with limited seating for physical distance, remote live via Zoom (recording, captioning, and uploading to LMS within 24 hours), and then asynchronous online.
    Do you thoughts about fall?

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Hi Lillian, honestly your guess is as good as mine! There will be so much variation among colleges, but I think most will have some version of what you described with HyFlex. My college has given us the option to teach remotely the existing f2f courses. Keep us posted what happens!

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