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Student Feedback on the Pandemic-Induced Switch to Online Instruction, Part 1: Areas for Improvement

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Student Feedback on the Pandemic-Induced Switch to Online Instruction, Part 1: Areas for Improvement

This article is part 1 of a two-part series on student opinions of the efforts of our colleges and universities in moving classes online in spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Part 1 outlines several areas where improvements for fall 2020 are warranted. Part 2 identifies additional areas for improvement and lists several consequences of institutional inaction.

There has been much written in recent months about the impact of COVID-19 on higher education. The fiscal consequences of lost dollars from unrealized income (event income including athletics, rental income, spirit wear sales, food, etc.) and refunds (campus housing, parking, fees) starting have been substantial. Coupled with anticipated enrollment losses for fall and, in the case of public institutions, reductions in state support, they may be severe enough that some colleges and universities may not survive—a result that will change the landscape of higher education in the US. Final tallies for individual losses will not be known until solid income projections are available for 2020–21 and the actions of the federal government are complete.

A voice that has not been heard very frequently is that of the students. Our colleges and universities have received “high marks” for the rapidity of their response in converting in-person courses to online experiences. Given higher education’s reputation for being slow to change, this was a remarkable achievement. Even more remarkable is the fact that most faculty who accomplished this quick turnaround had never taught an online course and likely had not even considered doing so. But how did the student audiences receive these online courses, and what does this reception mean for future semesters?

Some of our institutions were sufficiently farsighted to develop and distribute surveys to their students while they were enrolled during the spring term. As universities worked to develop evidence-based restart plans for future semesters, obtaining real-time input from students seemed the most reasonable approach to aid campus leaders who were finding that historical trends and past investigations were of limited value during the onset of a novel global pandemic. In addition, national organizations polled students chosen from institutions across the country. The surveys had different foci and used different language to elucidate some common elements of student opinions. For example, a state-wide survey by the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) targeting undergraduates and high school seniors focused on the fiscal impact of COVID-19 on them personally and how it influenced the choice of the institution they would return to or attend. By contrast, the purpose of Indiana University–Bloomington’s survey of its students was to “examine student and faculty [the survey had a faculty component as well] experiences of the transition to remote instruction, and to identify actionable insights that may improve instruction during future semesters.” The results of these two surveys, as well as others, have recently been made available publicly. In spite of their differences in focus, these and other surveys evince common themes; we will identify these and suggest areas where institutions might improve in upcoming semesters to meet students’ learning needs and ensure that students continue to persist to degree completion.

Although the switch from in-person to online instruction was made quickly to ensure the health and welfare of campus communities, results of student surveys suggest that, from a quality learning perspective, it did not go well or well enough. The greatest concern of continuing California undergraduates and graduating high school seniors, at 90 and 82 percent, respectively, was online classes. These levels of concern exceeded the values for all fiscal concerns. The surveys we cite were conducted toward the end of spring semester after several weeks of online instruction and after the initial announcement that many California campuses would be going online for fall. In surveys conducted by the Panetta Institute for Public Policy and TopHat, both of which polled students from across the country, 58 percent and 68 percent, respectively, of respondents found online instruction to be “worse” than in-person instruction at their current schools. In a survey of its students, the University Illinois–Chicago found that 73 percent rated online courses similarly. Finally, a survey of graduate and undergraduate students (Hansen et al., 2020) conducted at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) found that few students agreed that the online learning experience was as effective as face-to-face courses (only 20 percent). As a result of these ratings, many students advocated a return to face-to-face teaching as soon as possible.

Before delving further into the reasons for online instruction’s low ratings, we should consider why recent high school graduates go to college and why so many families support them in this endeavor. Although enhanced social mobility and obtaining a higher education credential that will prepare them for future careers are primary college decision drivers, there are other factors to consider. The college experience provides students with the opportunity to interact with experts in many fields and engage in formal mentoring relationships. Students often meet many peers from different parts of the country and the world as they progress through degree completion. As such, they learn skills that prepare them to consider and evaluate our interconnected social, political, and cultural systems and engage in the collaborative work needed to address local and global issues. Through common interests (both academic and social) and institutional structures, they often form bonds that will last a lifetime. Parents view college as a time when their children begin the transition to adulthood through semi-autonomous living arrangements and decision-making. Many of these benefits derive from immersion in institutional culture and are difficult to duplicate virtually.

The concerns students raise regarding online classes fall into three categories:

  • those that are faculty-based and are, with appropriate institutional support and faculty initiative, correctable;
  • those that result from insufficient, direct human interaction in the online environment and can be improved upon; and
  • those that result largely from the pandemic’s impact beyond college coursework and will disappear when a safe and effective vaccine is available.

Most faculty (and a substantial number of students) were online novices during the spring of 2020. Thus, it is not surprising that some faculty could not assimilate all the principles and implement the necessary strategies for effective online teaching with just two weeks’ notice. Survey results indicated that instructors need support and professional development as students were keenly aware that instructors were learning to adapt alongside them. Many instructors were unfamiliar with best practices and often at a loss for what approach to take in spite of the institutions’ rapidly organized offerings of workshops, consultations, webinars, and training. A primary concern in this area was that faculty used too many, and often irrelevant, assignments (busy work) as supplements to class time. This caused great stress for students as they often had less time for their work due to additional personal responsibilities during the pandemic. Another weakness that surveys revealed was that some faculty members were not familiar with the technology available, including the course management system in use at the institution. Finally, there were examples where faculty substituted power point files, videos, and reading assignments for actual teaching. These flaws are easily correctable and hopefully faculty members have had time over the summer to invest in correcting these shortcomings.

Beyond faculty concerns, students reported that the top disruptions experienced as a result of transitioning to online formats were stress and anxiety; online learning being a difficult format to learn in; feeling disconnected to other students and instructors; lack of access to academic and learning support (advising, tutoring, and mentoring); distractions at home; and technology problems, including slow internet connectivity. Stress and anxiety were the result of multiple factors including concern for finances both personal and family, health, adapting to online courses, added responsibilities at home, isolation, and the loss of access to faculty and peers. These stressors along with the lack of motivation and engagement reported by students (69 percent at IUPUI; see Hansen et al., 2020) are a dangerous combination of factors. Related to this malaise is the fact that up to 50 percent of students reported spending less time on their coursework. Some of this could be related to the switch to online, while the pandemic and its negative impact on student attitudes must take some of the blame. Together, they raise potential mental health concerns among this population. Improving online courses and the online environment along with providing additional psychological support would make a real difference here.


Hansen, M. J., Janik, R., Rauch, J. T. Marsiglio, C., & Keith, C. J. (2020, May). 2020 IUPUI student COVID-19 transition needs survey. Institutional Research and Decision Support, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN. Unpublished report.

Michele J. Hansen, PhD, is assistant vice chancellor for institutional research and decision support at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

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