top of page

Online Learning: How are students doing?

By: Casey Mitchell, Jarred Dela Cruz, and Lauren Levesque

The transition to online learning due to restrictions imposed by COVID-19 has shifted the way students normally learn. From daily routines to class structure, a lot has been changed. These changes have various implications for different students and these may not be visible due to the lack of face-to-face interactions. As Instructors, it is imperative that we better understand how students are perceiving online learning.

To gauge students’ perceptions of online learning, we created a brief anonymous survey. The survey was answered by undergraduate science students from SFSU. Here are some of the resulting responses:

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Learning:

SFSU, like many other colleges, is offering some classes as synchronous (regular weekly meetings), and others as asynchronous (no regular class meetings, pre-recorded lectures). We asked the students which they prefer, and preferences were pretty evenly split. A little over a third of the students (31 students, 36.9%) said they preferred asynchronous, while another third said they had no preference (27 students, 32.1%), and the rest said they preferred synchronous (26 students, 31%). Given the even split, it makes sense to offer both structures, but it should be explicitly stated from the beginning what the class structure will be. Thankfully for Spring 2021, SFSU has labeled classes as asynchronous, synchronous, or some sort of hybrid in the Class Schedule, so students are informed before registering for them. Hopefully, this will allow students to choose classes that align more with their needs.

Feeling of Learning:

Maybe the most depressing finding from our survey was that 70 of the 84 students surveyed (83.3%) said they did not believe they were learning as much as they would in person. Although not a direct measurement of actual learning, the fact that students believe they are missing out is in of itself troubling. It could lead to a lack of confidence and frustration with future courses. Exactly how to remedy this is still an open question. While faculty have been working tirelessly to give student’s the education they deserve, the fact remains that we live in unprecedented times. We don’t actually know what works. Given that, keep this in mind when schools open back up again. Some backtracking and more review might be necessary for many students, as they were not able to learn as much as normal.

The Hardest Part of Online Learning:

The survey prompted students to think about what has been the most difficult part of online for themselves. Here are the most common responses:

1. Staying Focused:

The most difficult aspect of taking online courses would be time management and staying focused and not getting distracted.”

Students have noted that not being in a classroom and the lack of structure in the daily routines causes distractions. A majority of students live with their families and home life proves to add additional pressures that detract from their focus on learning.

2. Lack of Connections:

“I feel like it is very hard to engage with my professors and it can be hard to speak up during class. Asynchronous classes make it a lot harder to do this. There is a lot of disconnect and emailing can only do so much.”

Online learning, especially if asynchronous, does not allow a lot of opportunities for students to interact with their peers and instructors like normal. The absence of these interactions makes it difficult for students to seek help, ask for clarification, and form friendships with their classmates.

3. Online Labs Aren’t As Enjoyable:

“Doing the labs would've been so much fun if it was in person. It is hard to do them online.”

Science students typically crave hands-on experiences provided by lab sections. The online format makes it virtually impossible to create these experiences. Although some courses have made significant attempts at creating new lab activities for online learning, it’s no substitute for in-person labs in which they learn how to use research techniques and are presented with exciting ways to understand scientific concepts.

What Students Want From Instructors:

As instructors, it is easy to get into the mindset of “teacher knows best”, but that is not always the case. Online learning is one thing, but when you add in a global pandemic, housing insecurities, and racial injustice, the year 2020 has culminated into an extremely stressful time with unique challenges that cannot be understood by those who are not currently engaging in online learning. Instructors need feedback from students in order to make accommodations necessary for the success of their students.

This survey allowed us to ask students what they would like to see from their instructors. Out of the 86 responses we received 3 major points of advice emerged:

1. Be organized and Clear:

Give clear due dates and assignment lists be reasonable with expectations.”

An organized class is always important, but it has become even more important in the switch to online learning. Previously, students could pull a teacher aside in class to ask for clarification on an assignment, but in the online classroom, that is not an option. Some students may gain the courage to unmute and ask a quick clarifying question, but many students are not comfortable with this (as we all know from the long silences after asking a question in class). With students more hesitant to ask questions in class, it is more important than ever that instructors have clear teaching material, and layout the course requirements, expectations, assignments, and deadlines in a clear way.

“step-by-step format and clear and informative class slides for all classes”

Instructors can help their students by organizing the class resources online. Maintaining an organized and easily accessible online teaching platform would decrease student stress. They would no longer be panicking that they have missed an assignment that was not clearly stated online.

I think advisors should have an organized ilearn page, so I can navigate things easier. Also, I appreciate having the lecture slides available, since there might be times that I'm not able to make it to class or need a refresher on notes.

2. Add Class Activities:

Unlike the spring of 2020, in the fall of 2020, we have seen students choose to enroll in online classes, despite the numerous challenges of this year. While the missed assignments and lack of student participation may make it seem otherwise, these students want to learn. If students really do want to get the most out of their education, then why are we seeing a lack of student engagement? Our survey results shed light on this, in the form of the second piece of advice to instructors.

“Staring at a screen while the professor/instructor lectures can get very boring and redundant, and can lose student engagement, participation, and interaction.”

Students are not being engaged in class! Lecturing for 1-3 hours in a row, even in person, has always lost some students' attention but imagine sitting at home and watching a face on a screen talk at you for an extended period of time. It’s no wonder a student would zone out.

Try to make lectures engaging or in any way more interesting since it's very hard to focus on anything for too long during this time.

Add breakout rooms, give poll questions, and facilitate classroom discussions, were all suggestions we received. Instructors need to get creative and add engaging activities to help their students connect to the material and stay engaged.

The most difficult is not having the opportunity to engage in activity in person so we students will not be able to understand the materials better.

3. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE! Be patient and understanding!

The overwhelming majority of survey answers simply asked instructors to be understanding. Students are now learning in a different environment and dealing with new struggles. Many have had to move back in with their families due to housing insecurities and job loss resulting from the pandemic.

“Students will get overwhelmed with assignments that pile up from not only one class, but many others as well. we have to stare at our screens for a longer time than normal. We also have a harder time separating a learning environment from a relaxed home environment.”

Some teachers argue that since students are stuck at home all day they should have no trouble keeping up with their classes. Being back home at your parents house is much different than living in the college dorms and teachers need to understand the challenges that this presents.

“Several of us students were not expecting to be home while taking the course but now that we are we have other situations happening during the day... smaller siblings running around or on zoom can affect our test taking... now that I am home my parents expect me to work and help out financially along with taking 16 units.”

“Instructors need to understand that our mental health isn't okay, some of us live in very toxic homes or are working multiple jobs trying to survive during these times.”

Students are not asking to remove all homework and cut all deadlines, all they want is a little flexibility. Maybe an assignment deadline can be extended a week, maybe the quiz a student missed can be given at a later date. Small accommodations would not alter the integrity of the course, but they would allow students to catch a break when they desperately need one.


Overall these survey results are emblematic of what many instructors feared: distance learning is REALLY hard. Not only is it hard for the students to learn the material, but it is hard on their mental health. They no longer have access to the resources provided by college campuses that create an environment conducive for learning: daily interactions with peers, designated study areas, health services, hands-on activities, etc. In addition, it is now even more difficult for students to do the daunting task of talking to instructors, both in and out of class.

This has been a tough year in general, and a particularly tough year for education; and it looks like we should expect the same for next semester. It is crucial for instructors to alleviate these burdens as much as possible: have an organized class structure, communicate expectations well and in many forms, and create opportunities for students to engage with each other and the material. However, the best advice we can give for both students and faculty is to be patient and understanding, not just with others but with yourself.


bottom of page