Students were asked to identify specific academic obstacles to their successful transition to remote learning and almost all (96.7%) of the surveyed students reported facing at least one academic obstacle. Here we highlight the most frequent responses, along with key teaching strategies to counteract these negative effects for students.
Primary Student Obstacles to Remote Learning:
Lack of motivation for online learning (75.4% of students)
Motivation is critical for student learning. Research on learning identifies four primary levers to boost student motivation: a sense of the value or relevance of the goal; confidence in their own competence; a supportive, relationship-rich environment; and autonomy. In Minds Online, Michelle Miller (pg 169) notes that “We strive to be good at things, to develop bonds with other people, and to make our own choices. People are the most intrinsically motivated and experience the most growth in environments that support these … basic needs.”
Establish relevance: Sometimes students struggle to appreciate how their learning experiences relate to their personal and professional goals. Instructors can look for ways to make explicit connections between course content and students’ interests. Start with our recommendations for how to check in with students to learn who they are and what their interests are. Then, look for opportunities to align course content with those interests. To support course content “sticking,” offer students repeated opportunities to reflect about where course content intersects with their goals and experiences (through short writing assignments or discussion prompts). Making space to identify existing connections between students and content also allows instructors to more effectively build on existing student knowledge and uncover misconceptions (Ambrose et. al, pg 17).
Support competence and self-efficacy: Students’ ability to experience their own competence is tightly related to self-efficacy (and both correlate strongly to student success). These are particularly crucial to activate when learners are experiencing stress. To support a student’s experience of competence and self-efficacy, instructors can do many things, including 1) giving students frequent, lower-stakes opportunities (which are challenging but dilute the long-term effects of failure) to demonstrate competence and mastery, for example with Canvas quizzes and peer teaching experiences, 2) clearly identifying criteria for competency and mastery (with rubrics, for example), 3) explicitly letting all students know that you believe in their ability to succeed, and demonstrating that by engaging with their work (on discussion board posts, in SpeedGrader, or by referencing their ideas in class meetings, for example), and 4) normalizing failure by making it clear that most students struggle and have difficulty.
Build relationships: Instructor-student and student-student relationships are strong motivators. Instructors can support relationship-building in many ways, including demonstrating care for students, sharing a bit about yourself as a person, providing early opportunities for students to introduce themselves and share something fun or meaningful with each other (through intro surveys, videos, and discussions), and using structured small-group discussions (live or on a discussion board) throughout the term. Learn how to build a survey in Canvas or see an example introduction video here, find additional ideas for building connection here, and see examples of what colleagues are doing here.
Build in student autonomy: Creating opportunities for student agency and choice builds autonomy and correlates with increased intrinsic motivation. Maryellen Weimer, in her book Learner Centered Teaching (pg 98), encourages instructors to think about areas of the course where we can invite student feedback and provide autonomy, including 1) activities and assignments, 2) course policies, 3) course content, and 4) evaluation of learning. Instructors can do this even in the middle of a course and without a significant time commitment. Some of the most common ways include having students co-create a course compact, allowing options for customizing assignments (for example, students choosing one of several questions to address, or submitting their response via video, audio, or text), and seeking/integrating feedback about participation policies.
Lack of interaction/communication with other students (67.8% of students)
Many of us miss the interaction inherent in face-to-face classes. Students are no exception; they continue to emphasize their desire for more peer interactivity in courses. As an instructor, consider these ways you can structure your course activities to support student interaction.
Create a class compact. Explicitly identifying what types of interaction support student learning is key to creating a class where those interactions happen, and it is valuable to involve students in creating the list. Instructors might start with a list of their own and invite students to modify it (or, in larger classes that have discussion sections or base groups, ask each subset of students to modify), or might have students collaborate on building one from scratch. TEP’s Remote Starter Syllabus includes a “Discussion and Engagement Guidelines for Participation” section which includes useful examples of what you might include in your class compact. Ideas for co-creating or modifying a class compact with students can be found in the “Facilitate Productive and Respectful Interaction” section in TEP’s Teaching In Turbulent Times Toolkit.
Structure activities in Zoom breakout rooms. Students are missing out on opportunities to check in with peers before, during and after class sessions. Consider building a few extra minutes into a breakout room for students to introduce themselves and interact with their peers.
Encourage student collaboration. Instructors can support student interaction by giving collaborative assignments and encouraging students to identify study partners. Many students are still wary of group work and find it especially challenging in remote courses, but well-designed group work supports students by reducing the cognitive load of identifying how to work together so they can focus effectively on learning. Using transparent design in assignments and activities and identifying clearly the process for working together (identifying group roles, means of communication, deadlines for different parts of process, etc.) or providing a space for small groups to do this themselves is frequently useful. In addition to supporting the practical steps of collaboration, making time to support community-building is key; see TEPs ideas for supporting student interaction.
Offer group office hours. For many students, office hours feel daunting regardless of modality. But office hours are an important place to build relationships and enhance motivation. To encourage students to use your office hours, it can be helpful to identify why, specifically, they might want to attend, and the types of things students find them most beneficial for. Describing how past (unnamed) students used your office hours in positive ways can help them envision themselves accessing this resource. Additionally, some instructors invite students to attend in pairs or small groups. Another option is to hold them just before or just after any live class time, billing them as “tea time” or using some other phrase that signals a less formal but still interactive space to engage.
While some courses/sections are being taught face-to-face this term, we encourage instructors to hold office hours over Zoom, as opposed to in-person.
Inability to learn effectively in an online format (61.3% of students)
Many students didn’t sign up for an online learning experience and may be unsure about how effective it will be for them. Our recommendation is to have a direct conversation about your course design and how you believe students can be successful, and to highlight that no specific format is intrinsically more or less effective than another. Talk about what you are doing to help them learn effectively and emphasize that you believe they can learn in this format. You can share this infographic, created by Maile Hutterer of the Department of the History of Art and Architecture, with tips for success for students in remote learning environments.
Many instructors also have reservations about the effectiveness of online learning. However, a number of meta-analyses indicate that fully online and hybrid courses can be at least as effective as face to face courses (the Department of Education’s 2010 Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning is one). The general principles and design choices that best support learning in a face-to-face course are the same principles and design choices that will best support learners in other modalities, including remote and online.
Lack of access to appropriate study space or a distracting home environment (52.2% of students)
Don’t require students to turn on their cameras in Zoom meetings. Many students may not have access to appropriate spaces for distraction-free Zoom meetings. However, you can still encourage ongoing student engagement: students can engage in the chat or use Zoom “reactions” to respond and engage in class meetings. You might also choose, as a class, to create a way to signal responses with images; for some great examples of this, see the short presentation about the “Zoom Black Box Dilemma” created by Plymouth State’s Open Teaching and Learning Collaborative.
Design your course to be flexible. If you teach a remote course, make sure you have a backup plan for supporting learning if your internet connection becomes unreliable or a student is unable to participate live. For example, many students report appreciation for recorded class sessions and the ability to engage with the course even if they couldn’t fully participate during scheduled class time.
Identify deadlines early and give feedback well in advance of when it should be applied. This can be challenging because it’s not only students who are juggling demands on their time. But when students lack access to appropriate study space or have other home responsibilities that distract from their work, the ability to plan ahead is especially important. Identifying deadlines as early as possible and sharing feedback with ample time to implement it may ease these challenges.
Lack of clear expectations for remote learning from instructors (43.1% of students)
The transition to remote learning has made it harder for students to track course expectations among a variety of course modalities and organizational structures. In a previous survey, we found students appreciated consistent organization, weekly emails clearly outlining tasks, and updated assignment due dates so Canvas calendars and To Do lists were automatically populated.
Looking to clarify expectations and navigation in your course? Check out these good ideas.
While students have identified their primary obstacles, many of these challenges are related and interdependent. Consider asking the students in your class about what’s working and what obstacles they are facing in their learning. You can take advantage of the Midway Student Experience Surveys that will be deployed as normal this term during week 4 or see TEP’s advice on how to check in with students.