How students felt about their year-plus of pandemic learning

July 12, 2021

Recent student focus groups hosted by the Hub offer a candid look at what went well, what didn’t, and what ideas might have staying power post-pandemic.

 A collage graphic representing online learning, featuring a male college professor teaching from "inside" a laptop screen surrounded by students in "bubbles.""
A collage graphic representing online learning, featuring a male college professor teaching from "inside" a laptop screen surrounded by students in "bubbles.""

How will the pandemic reshape our lives — even after things go back to “normal”? It’s a question folks are asking in all kinds of contexts, from workplaces, to restaurants, to our social lives. There’s a ton of buzz in the higher education world too, particularly around which pandemic-spurred innovations might be worth keeping around. While that’s a topic that will take months to sort through, some recent student focus groups hosted by The Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources offer some substantive initial insight into what worked for students and what didn’t. The full report is definitely worth a read, but we’ve broken down some of the key takeaways below for an appetizer. Special thanks to Hub Instructional Designer Jessica Riviere and CECS Academic Advisor Roberto Novelli for taking us through the report. And they both wanted to give a shout out to Hub alum Alfonso Sintjago, who helped organize the student focus groups and has since moved on to a position with U-M’s Language Resource Center.

Hybridity is popular, and it could reshape student expectations

One of the overarching themes of the Hub’s report is that doing some things in-person or synchronously online and doing other activities asynchronously has its benefits. Novelli says short-form recorded lectures, for example, were generally a big hit with students (more on this below) “because it gave them this new ability to go back and review a concept if they didn’t get it the first time.” Conversely, group work was something that many students reported was tougher in a remote environment. “Looking forward, my hunch is these experiences will shift everyone’s tolerances a little,” says Riviere. “For example, students’ tolerances for being able to sit quietly in a classroom and listen to a lecture for 50 minutes with no break and no chance to repeat it may be diminished. And there may be a bigger appetite for using that in-person time to collaborate or get questions asked and answered, and much less tolerance for using class-time for transactional stuff that could easily be in Canvas.” In other words, students appear to be coming out of this pandemic learning experience with more sophisticated views of what activities work best in each format — and a desire for course designs that can capitalize on that.

Recorded lectures were popular, discussion boards were a struggle

Recorded lectures and discussions boards were two of the most relied upon tools for faculty as they pivoted to remote class formats. But only one of these online learning staples got high marks from students. In general, students really liked recorded lectures, though Riviere and Novelli note students’ clear preference was for shorter lectures (in the 5-20 minute range), and for lectures that focused on material directly related to things they were going to be assessed on. (Riviere says it’s also important to note that some recent research shows students often feel like they’re learning the most from lectures compared to some other activities, but that’s not always an indicator of actual learning.) Interestingly, one thing students didn’t comment on was production values. “I thought this was significant because I know some of our faculty feel under a lot of pressure to create professional-looking videos, and at least in our focus groups, this was not the criteria that students were judging them on,” Riviere says. Instead, students seemed to care most about content and the instructor’s ability to connect. “We were all craving connection during this time, and frankly, it might have been harder to connect with a really polished-looking video.”

Jessica Riviere and Roberto Novelli
Headshots of Jessica Riviere and Roberto Novelli

Discussion boards, on the other hand, got a pretty consistent thumbs down. Novelli says many students felt like it was “busy work,” and reported “fatigue” with the format, especially when they had several classes using the same discussion board formula. “I think many students’ experience of the discussion boards was that they were going to pick through the thread, look for their opportunity to make a quick comment so they could check that box and move on,” Novelli says. “There was just no way they were going to read through everyone’s comments, especially if they had to do the same thing for three more classes.” Riviere doesn’t think that means we should junk discussion boards as an online learning tool, but it does warrant some rethinking of what exactly we’re trying to achieve. In an in-person class discussion, not everyone is going to speak up and we’d have no problem considering that a successful discussion, Riviere says. “But typically with a discussion board, we’re asking everyone to participate. So do we need to be creating more options for participation? And is some form of watching from the sidelines viable, similar to how some people in an in-person class are going to take in the information just through listening?”

So is this a transformative moment for higher ed?

It’s still early days, but there are some signs that our pandemic experiences could be spurring change in areas of our lives that once seemed pretty durable. (How remote work is changing our ideas of the office is a good example.) So is higher ed heading for a moment of fundamental transformation? Riviere’s take is “we’re about to find out.” But she has her eye on one less talked about aspect of the educational environment in particular: how our physical bodies factor into our learning experiences. She said our struggles to create functional spaces at home to learn or work showed just how much our physical environment matters, and many scholars are doing very interesting research into how taken-for-granted things like that 10-minute walk between classes, or physical interactions with peers in a language class, actually aid learning. This is especially relevant because it could help us sort through this fundamental question of which activities benefit from in-person interactions, and which can be handled remotely or asynchronously.

In the student support resources space, Novelli says he’s hopeful that we’re heading toward an era of more flexibility and informality. “I think it’s a great opportunity for us to meet students where they’re at,” Novelli says. “If it’s not possible for a student to physically come to campus between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., I think we should totally have remote options. And even in our office, I personally want it to be more welcoming. Enough of working behind a desk. Let’s work side by side, together, sharing experiences. Our offices should not be intimidating; they should be inviting.”


Want more details about students’ experiences during the pandemic? Check out the Hub’s full report from its recent student focus groups.