Almost seven out of 10 (68 percent) students feel online learning is less effective than in-person instruction, and more than half expressed concern about their ability to pass the current school term

The role of educators has become more important than ever, as survey finds students whose instructors prioritize active learning, community, and belonging in the virtual classroom are motivated, engaged with learning, and likely to return to school in the Spring 2021 academic term

More than half of students report their instructors are pursuing a student-centred approach to teaching and embracing active learning principles 

Students assigned more tools to support the learning process experience greater difficulty with technology

In contrast to many market insights about freshmen and their higher ed experience, this survey found that first-year students are likely to return to school in the Spring — especially when their instructors enabled human connection and active learning in the virtual classroom 

Compared to the Spring 2020 term, students are now more willing to continue on their academic journey, despite the short-term uncertainty of the higher ed experience

TORONTO — November 12, 2020 — In a new survey conducted halfway through the Fall 2020 academic term, students were clear about two aspects of their current higher education experience. First, they still preferred in-person learning to online learning. Second, and more importantly, students who believed their instructor made an effort to understand their goals, interests, and challenges — and actively engage them in the learning experience —were likely to return to school in the Spring 2021 term.

The Top Hat Field Report: Higher Ed Students Grade the Fall 2020 Semester survey was conducted by Top Hat, the leading active learning platform for higher education, of 3,412 higher education students in the United States and Canada. The survey was designed to uncover student sentiment about the online learning experience now that educators and institutions have had months to plan for the Fall academic term. The report shares insights on their experiences and highlights the challenges adjusting to online learning. It also sheds light on how different teaching practices, technology and tools, and connection with instructors and fellow students impacted their learning experience this Fall.

“When we surveyed students in the Spring, shortly after emergency campus closures driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, they told us that the emergency remote instruction they received left much to be desired,” said Nick Stein, CMO, Top Hat. “While they were understanding back then about the incredible challenges their schools and instructors were facing, they had much higher expectations about how their education would look in the Fall. Thankfully, what our latest student survey shows is that many instructors are providing the more engaging, interactive and human experience students desperately need. Instead of replicating a ‘sage-on-the-stage’ lecturing model over Zoom, many educators are leaning in to active learning and creating community in their virtual classrooms. And we are also seeing that students are likely to continue their studies next term and beyond.”  

“Top Hat’s release of a second survey allows the higher ed community to gain valuable insights into the remote and hybrid student experiences that will mostly continue through the spring term,” said Phil Hill, partner at MindWires, LLC. “It is becoming more and more evident how important increased student engagement is and will be to enable student success during the pandemic.”

Students Continue to Give Low Grades to the Online Learning Experience

Ahead of the Fall 2020 academic term, institutions invested in technology, tools, and training for educators to provide high-quality online learning experiences. Yet many instructors expressed a lack of confidence in whether students would be successful this term — and students felt the same way. Almost seven out of 10 (68 percent) students indicated they were not learning as effectively online as they would have in person. More than half (54 percent) expressed at least some concern about their ability to pass the current school term. 

Despite months of planning by institutions for the Fall academic term, students indicated many factors that contributed to their difficulties with adjusting to online learning. This included a lack of an engaging in-class experience (76 percent), lack of face-to-face interaction with faculty and students during class (75 percent), lack of reliable access to study spaces (48 percent), the need to balance coursework with caregiving responsibilities (39 percent), difficulty navigating or using online learning tools (38 percent), and difficulty accessing online learning materials (28 percent).

Adding to the challenges was the loss of on-campus resources integral to their educational success and experience, including access to study spaces (64 percent), fitness and sports facilities (45 percent), technology (22 percent), and food services (21 percent).

Enabling Connections with Technology and Fostering Community in the Classroom Impact Student Retention

While challenges with online learning continue to impact student experiences, the survey indicated positive developments in student experiences, led by dedicated instructors who are focused on improving human connection in the virtual classroom. 

In the Spring 2020 shift to emergency remote teaching, more than half (53 percent) of students surveyed told Top Hat they no longer had regular access to their instructors. Almost seven out of 10 (69 percent) students no longer had regular access to their peers. This survey indicated slight improvements in this regard: 46 percent of students indicated they do not have regular access to their instructors and 65 percent of students no longer have access to their classmates.

Students equipped to easily stay in touch with their instructors are more motivated: In the current academic term, the majority of students said they have been provided with tools beyond email to stay connected with instructors (70 percent) and peers (61 percent). These students are significantly more motivated and engaged with learning outside the classroom than the average student. What’s more, 73 percent of students who are adequately equipped are likely to return to school in the Spring 2021 term. Conversely, of those students who reported not being provided with tools to stay connected with instructors, only 64 percent are likely to return to school in the Spring 2021 term. It is also important to note, however, that although the majority of students appreciated having the tools to stay connected, many also reported having difficulties staying connected in virtual environments. (chart)

Instructors who take the time to get to know their students impact student retention: Almost nine out of 10 (87 percent) educators agree that fostering community is a top concern. This academic term, almost six out of 10 (59 percent) students say their instructors have taken steps to create a sense of community in the classroom. When asked about how their instructors are engaging with them, 73 percent agreed their instructors are making an effort to understand students’ academic goals, interests inside and outside of the classroom, and issues that might prevent them from participating fully in the course. Among this group of students, 73 percent say they are likely to return to school in the Spring 2021 term. In comparison, among their peers whose instructors have not prioritized understanding student goals and needs, only 62 percent say they are likely to return to school in the next term. (chart)

When Learning is Active, Students See More Value in their College Investment

According to Top Hat’s Faculty Preparedness Survey from August 2020, educators were making concerted efforts to prepare for the Fall academic term by embracing teaching approaches strongly associated with improved student engagement and learning outcomes. Almost seven out of 10 (67 percent) instructors received training and support to deliver active learning or student-centered learning. 

Many students agree their instructors are making learning in the virtual classroom more active: Their instructors promote discussion and interaction among students (60 percent), get students to work and collaborate together (53 percent), and challenge students to apply what they have learned (66 percent). 

Instructors who promote active learning help drive student retention: Students who agree their instructors make regular use of activities to promote discussion and get students working and collaborating together find the online learning experience more engaging than the average. The impact of making learning active doesn’t stop here, either. These same respondents are also more likely to see value in their college investment, to have a higher opinion of their school, and to say they plan on returning for the Spring term. 

Students are Overwhelmed by Technology — and the Volume of Disparate Tools is Affecting their Learning Experience

Technology is now central to the learning experience but many students are struggling to find their virtual bearings. Almost all (98 percent) students are learning online in some capacity. So it is concerning that, given this term’s heavy reliance on online learning technology, close to 40 percent of students reported difficulties navigating these tools. Plus, almost 30 percent reported similar challenges with accessing online learning materials. 

Students who are assigned fewer tools experience less difficulty with technology: Many students are using a number of different technology solutions to attend class meetings, complete homework and assignments, and communicate with their instructors and peers. Almost half (49 percent) of students use four or more technology tools to support the learning process. Of these students, 43 percent noted having difficulty navigating tools and platforms. Comparatively, of students who reported using only one tool, 26 percent had difficulty navigating and using online learning tools.

Students like having the ability to connect virtually with video: When asked about their experience using video chat and streaming in the virtual classroom, almost 80 percent of students said that video chat and live streaming have made online learning somewhat or significantly better. And the majority (66 percent) confirmed they like tuning in to real-time lectures and discussions using video conferencing. Seventy-two (72) percent of students responded positively when asked about the importance of using video to connect with instructors and peers. And while most students prefer to attend classes in person, 41 percent are open to the possibility of continuing to use video to engage with instructors and fellow students after the pandemic. 

Freshmen are Less Likely to Feel Impacted by School Closures

Perhaps one of the most pressing concerns at the top of administrators’ minds is how students’ current experiences with online learning will impact student retention. According to this survey, 73 percent of first-year students indicated they are likely to return to school for the Spring 2021 term, compared to 68 percent of later-year students. 

First-year students perceive this academic term differently from students who are further along in their higher education career. Overall, freshmen were much more likely than later-year students to report that school closures had minimal impact on their quality of life (34 percent versus 27 percent respectively) and education (30 percent versus 22 percent respectively). 

Freshmen reported they are less impacted by the switch to online learning: This survey indicated that, while freshmen do not have previous on-campus experiences to compare with, they were far less likely than later-year students to report loss of access to student services (18 percent versus 29 percent), faculty (41 percent versus 50 percent), and classmates (63 percent versus 68 percent). They were less likely to report missing on-campus resources such as food services (18 percent versus 23 percent), technology (18 percent versus 25 percent), and study spaces (57 percent versus 71 percent). They also indicated fewer difficulties adjusting to online learning, being less likely to report lack of regular reliable access to the Internet (18 percent versus 23 percent) and having to balance coursework with caregiving (28 percent versus 38 percent). (chart)

Instructors are driving retention of the Class of 2024 by embracing the idea that learning is active: Digging deeper, the survey shows the extent of impact instructors have on student retention. Among first-year students who agree their instructor has made an effort to understand their goals, interests, and challenges, 76 percent said they are likely to return in the Spring term. Conversely, among their freshmen peers whose instructors have not made that attempt, only 62 percent are likely to return. This same pattern is evident amongst freshmen whose instructors promote discussion in the classroom and enable collaboration among students — 76 percent and 77 percent respectively are likely to return to school. Comparatively, among their peers whose instructors do not promote discussion and enable collaboration, only 68 percent of students are likely to return. (chart)

Instructors Play a Key Role in Student Satisfaction and Retention

While COVID-19 will continue to upend the world of higher education for the foreseeable future, educators are making progress in improving the online learning experience for students. More instructors are embracing proven approaches that engage and motivate learners. Students are better armed with technology to communicate and collaborate with faculty and peers. By embracing active learning principles to deliver engaging and rewarding learning experiences, and by using community-building activities to humanize the virtual classroom, educators are impacting students’ motivation and coloring how students feel about the academic term. 

At the administrative level, concerns about student retention continue to run deep. According to Top Hat’s student survey in the Spring 2020, only two-thirds of students indicated they had not changed their plans to attend school in the Fall 2020 term — the good news is that, according to this latest survey, that percentage of students has gone up. The majority (70 percent) of students say they are likely to continue their studies into the Spring 2021 academic term, despite the short-term uncertainty of the higher ed experience. 

Perhaps the most important takeaway in all of this is the remarkable power of community. Creating a sense of belonging in the virtual classroom has far reaching effects: Students are more engaged, they have a higher opinion of their institution, and are more likely to return for the coming semester. Creating community in the virtual classroom may be one of the best means available to keep students engaged this year — and ensure they re-enroll next year


Survey report: Top Hat Field Report: Higher Ed Students Grade the Fall 2020 Semester report

Chart: Student Sentiment for Fall 2020: By Level of Support from Instructors

Chart: Student Sentiment for Fall 2020: First Year Students

Research Methodology

Survey responses were collected by Top Hat from 3,412 undergraduate students in the United States and Canada from October 2 to 11, 2020. Demographic breakdowns are as follows:

Institution type

4-year public: 71 percent

4-year private: 18 percent

2-year public: 11 percent 


United States: 82 percent

Canada: 16 percent

Other: 2 percent

Student’s year of study

First year: 47 percent

Second year: 26 percent

Third year: 16 percent

Fourth year: 11 percent

About Top Hat

Top Hat is the only all-in-one courseware platform that enables active learning — a proven student-centred teaching pedagogy that promotes deep understanding, critical thinking, and subject mastery — with interactive content, tools, and activities. Millions of students at 750 leading North American colleges and universities use Top Hat to teach and engage with students before, during, and after class, in both in-person and online education. 


Top Hat

Dianna Lai Read