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- Surpassing a Low Bar?
- Making the (Virtual) Grade?
- The Right Tools for Success
- Changes for the Better
- Transforming the Student Experience
- Download the PDF
Surpassing a Low Bar?
The Fall 2020 Student Experience
When we talked to students amid the shuttering of campuses earlier this spring, colleges and universities faced an overwhelming task. Caught up in an unfolding global pandemic, students expressed understanding and even gratitude toward instructors faced with hastily transitioning their courses online. But they also made it clear the experience left much to be desired.
The spring 2020 term is hardly a fair benchmark in assessing the impact of online learning. But with months to prepare for the fall, has the student perspective changed? Are they finding the sense of community that is so central to academic success? Most important of all, do students believe they are getting value for their higher education investment?
In October 2020, we surveyed more than 3,000 college and university students from across the United States and Canada to find out.
Waiting on a miracle?
Unfortunately for many, the months of preparation for the fall academic term have yet to produce any dramatic improvements. Students continue to view online learning as the poor cousin of the traditional in-class experience. Learning virtually on the whole is seen as less engaging and student motivation outside of class continues to suffer. Many students are also contending with a cumbersome patchwork of technologies to ‘attend’ lectures, connect with faculty and access readings and other assignments.
The loss of campus resources has only compounded these challenges. The lack of reliable access to computers, the Internet and quiet study spaces are being deeply felt by many students. This is exacerbating concerns about equity and access, with a majority of respondents expressing at least some worry about their ability to pass the current term.
Sobering findings, indeed. But when we dig a little deeper, we also find reason for optimism.
Hope (and hard work) springs eternal
Ahead of the fall 2020 term, we learned that faculty were making concerted efforts to embrace teaching approaches closely linked with student engagement and success. Judging by the responses to this survey, those efforts are starting to pay off.
While there is certainly room for improvement, a slight majority of students agree that their instructors are taking steps to make learning in the virtual classroom more active. They’re promoting discussion and integrating activities that get students working and collaborating together. They’re taking time to get to know students, to provide timely feedback and to foster a sense of community and belonging.
Many students also report being equipped with technology beyond email to communicate with peers and instructors outside the ‘classroom.’ This is helping alleviate the sense of isolation so many felt when campuses closed abruptly in the spring. The right tools are also having a profound effect on how engaged students are in the learning process itself.
The incredible empathy instructors showed toward students has also continued. Only now is this being woven into the day-to-day learning experience. Our report finds that when instructors work to create a sense of community and to make learning more interactive, students are more engaged--and more motivated both in and out of class.
Still, there is work to be done. Based on their experience so far, many students are taking a wait-and-see attitude before committing to another term. What is clear though is that important strides are being made. A growing number of instructors are moving in the right direction—and that’s good news for students and institutions alike.
About the research
Breakdown by year of study
Second year: 26 percent
Third year: 16 percent
Fourth year: 11 percent
Making the (Virtual) Grade?
The fall 2020 academic term began under the shadow of COVID-19. Although faculty and institutions had time to plan over the summer, students are still struggling to adapt to learning online.
Have you experienced any difficulties in adjusting to online learning?
Despite faculty preparation, students still consider online learning less effective than in-person
Ahead of the fall 2020 academic term, institutions proactively invested in tools and training. Even so, many instructors felt ill-equipped to teach effectively online—and many students appear to share their concerns. The online journey so far has been deemed ineffective by most, at least compared to the in-person classes they are used to.
The Right Tools Make All the Difference
Technology adoption is presenting a number of challenges. But there are bright spots as well. Equipping learners to communicate effectively with peers and instructors in and out of class is showing a positive impact on engagement, motivation and student satisfaction with their higher ed investment.
Have you experienced any difficulties in adjusting to online learning?
More isn’t necessarily better
The bottom line: too many tools isn’t helping. Almost half of the students surveyed use four or more technology tools to support the learning process. When we dig a little deeper, we find these same students report having more difficulty navigating resources and are more likely to say the synchronous learning experience is unengaging. Despite more technology, they are also more prone to lamenting the lack of face-to-face interaction with peers and faculty than those using fewer tools.
Changes to the Virtual Classroom Show Promising Results
The focus on making learning active and building community in the virtual classroom is paying dividends. Students who agree their instructors are doing well in these areas are more engaged overall and are more likely to see value in their higher education investment.
Active learning is having an outsized impact on the student experience
Small changes make a big difference. 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. The same respondents are also more likely to see value in their college investment and to have a higher opinion of their school.
Instructors are embracing community-building in the virtual classroom
Fostering a greater sense of community was a key concern for faculty in preparing for the fall 2020 academic term. The good news? Many instructors are embracing this mission. Taking time to understand student backgrounds, checking in to see how students are doing, providing timely feedback—it’s all helping to connect learners with each other, their instructors and their institutions.
A sense of belonging has the power to improve student engagement
The importance of creating community in the virtual classroom cannot be overstated. Students who agree their instructors have taken steps to foster a sense of belonging are more likely to say the online learning experience is engaging—not just in class, but outside as well.
Belonging is a powerful thing. These same students are also more likely to stay motivated and engaged with coursework and to say that they are learning just as effectively online as they would have in person. Another promising sign: these students are more likely to see value in their education investment and to have a higher opinion of their school.