Student Perspectives on Online Learning

Over the past few months, we’ve focused a lot on giving instructors tips for successful online teaching using Visible Body Courseware. We’ve primarily talked about online learning from the instructor perspective, so we thought it would be a nice change of pace to look at the perspectives of college students. We spoke to college students about the online education they received during the Spring 2020 semester and what they would like to see in the future. 

Brunette young student using her tablet and notebook for doing homework lying in the living room

Visible Body intern-turned-employee Nick Riley was kind enough to share his online learning experience from last semester with us. We also heard from his sister, Kay, who is entering her junior year, and his classmate, Paul, who graduated with him this spring. Their responses were lightly edited for clarity.

What was your first thought when it was announced you were going to be learning online? Did your perception change as the semester went on?

Nick: Believe it or not, when I first got the email from Suffolk saying we were going online I was with my sister in Montreal at a hockey game for spring break. I honestly didn’t know what to think. Since I was on my spring break in Canada, I never really understood the seriousness of everything until I got home. I honestly didn’t care that school was going online. Yes, it sucked realizing I might have already had my last days at school. But c’est la vie. I had the mindset that I would just have to make the best of it. 

After I got home from Canada, I realized that COVID was no joke and basically the border closed a few days after we got back. My mentality never really changed throughout the semester. I personally was not the biggest fan of online learning but I knew everyone was making sacrifices because of the pandemic so going online for school was not that bad, in my mind, if I put it in that perspective. 

Kay: Honestly, I was excited to go online because I thought it would be easy and I could earn more money working. My perception changed a little bit because I couldn’t be working, and even though it was easy, it was not engaging, and each of my classes had a different way of handling online [instruction] that made it feel disorganized.

Paul: I was very angry because I saw being forced to take online classes as unfair. I’m not good with technology and to really learn something, I need to be in a classroom, as it helps me focus. As the semester went on, my perceptions didn’t change because it was hard to pick up new information, I wasn’t familiar with Zoom, and some professors didn’t understand that some people had difficulty with online classes.


How did your professors handle the transition to online? If there were any professors who made the transition well, what did they do?

Nick: For the first couple of weeks back to school you could still tell the professors were in shock and really didn’t understand how to make the most of online learning. I feel like most of my professors couldn’t get over teaching an online class. One of my classes turned into an email class—we would read the class notes and turn in an assignment each day our class would have met. Another professor just basically took his boring lecture on Zoom. Not to say he was a bad professor, but he would basically Zoom and just lecture us. One of my professors really tried her hardest to make the online learning experience a positive one. She would have a prerecorded lecture and allow us to watch it whenever we wanted as long as we answered the discussion questions by the end of when class would normally meet. And since we were in group project mode she would Zoom with every group every week to check in on our progress. 

I was also a TA last semester. The professor I was teaching with was a mother of three and she had a lot going on with her kids at home and [their] online learning. We tried one class online and we learned the students wouldn't get much from the course online so we decided to make the class assignment-based. We did offer our phone numbers to the class just in case they needed someone to talk to during that transition and stressful time.

Kay: Last semester I feel like I had every type of professor you could imagine. My microeconomics professor didn’t make many changes besides going online and continued with the same syllabus schedule and same classroom rules like no hats during class time and raising hands. My nutrition and psychology professors just put up assignments and tests on eLearn with lecture videos that we could complete however quickly we wanted to. I ended up completing everything in 2 weeks for the nutrition class, so then after April I only had to worry about the final for that class. My AIDS and emerging infections professor sent us a PowerPoint every week with links to videos and then emailed us a Word document with quiz questions that we just had to send back by a certain time. My brain and behavior professor used Panopto pre-recorded lectures to teach topics (a few videos per topic) and then did weekly Zoom calls to review what we learned and answer questions. I think this was the best method of teaching because it gave us time to work at our own pace as well as getting those clarifying questions answered every week.

Paul: Some professors understood that online school was a lot different than in-person and made adequate changes to help the students, but other ones did not. One professor changed a presentation to a paper because many would be confused with presenting online. Some professors were unprepared and didn’t try to help or adapt.


What did you like about learning online? What did you not like?

Nick: Since I was a marketing student, I really was not a fan of online learning because most of my professors didn’t use technology to their advantage. It was funny—when I was watching the VB Office Hours and Cindy Harley talked about how she made videos using VB to get student engagement higher, I was like “Wow, I wish more professors were like her!” 

That being said, for business schools, it would definitely be hard to engage students. That was a reason why I was so quick to reach out to some of my friends with these questions. VB is very professor heavy, which makes total sense. However, the student voice is missing and I feel like teachers should know what the students are thinking so they can have a better class. 

Want to see how Prof. Harley is teaching her A&P courses online? Check out her Office Hours session.

Kay: I liked how I could work at my own pace for a few of my classes and that everything seemed to be easier. I can’t tell if I was spending more time on the material because we were in quarantine, or that my professors knew they couldn’t cram so much information all at once and taught at a steady pace. 

I didn’t like the live teaching last semester simply because there was a lot of time wasted. For example, some professors had technical issues regarding Zoom, microphones, PowerPoint/sharing screens, or students had technical issues that the professor had to solve before continuing to teach. Moreover, during one of my finals, it was timed and my professor spent the majority of the time talking with students who couldn’t see the graphs on the blackboard testing page. That was extremely distracting. 

Paul: There is honestly nothing I like about online learning. I can’t say a single good thing about it. I strongly disliked how the professor’s live feed would cut out often and how sometimes it was hard to get into your class session. I also disliked how it was hard to communicate with professors during or outside of class time.


Did you feel you would have learned more if it was in-classroom learning? If so, why is in-class learning better?

Nick: I am definitely a better in-class learner. Well, I should clarify I was not the biggest school-fan in the world. I never liked the structure of school. I was a bigger fan of real world experience like internships and part time jobs (like working for VB). I learned a lot more about marketing from the company than school. But that can be a discussion for another day. 

I felt in-class learning for me was better not because the material was different but because the location was different. Since I was a commuter student I was on campus for the whole day. Basically I spent my time in the classroom and the library. When I was in the library I got all my work done and was productive. Plus, being in Boston, if I needed a break I would walk around or get some food somewhere with my friends. Once online learning happened my bedroom was my library. It was a mental thing for me but I just did enough to get by for online learning. 

Kay: I do think that in-class learning is a better option for many students and even though I find online classes bearable, I still prefer in-person. I think the in-class experience is something that you can’t replicate. Since we all were in preschool or kindergarten, we have developed an association of school being a classroom and home being a [space to] study and [relax]. After 15 or so years of having that conditioned into our brains, it is nearly impossible to all of a sudden switch that. Furthermore, for many college kids, we had to move out of our school rooms. For me, that was a big transition because I associated my dorm room with hard work and studying and my room at home with vacation since I would only go home on breaks or long weekends. 

Paul: I felt like I could’ve learned a lot more with in-person learning. Being in a classroom keeps me a lot more focused than doing class in my room on a computer. I can also pick up what is being taught easier and get help from my professors in a more efficient and effective manner.

close up of an empty school classroom

Adjusting to online learning, and no longer having a dedicated physical space for their classes, was difficult for many students this past semester.


What did you wish your professors had done to make online learning more manageable?

Nick: Like I said, I am not sure how business professors can make online learning more engaging—maybe bring in more topical situations like how is COVID affecting marketers or something. Not for me personally, but I feel allowing students to watch the class whenever they have time to would be helpful. I am not sure how you would handle class participation. [My classes] in general were quiet and class participation was minimal. You throw in online learning and [students] don’t even want to turn on their cameras. Good luck with that. 

Kay: I don’t think it’s a personal professor issue as much as an institutional issue. I believe that my professors were doing the best they could with the training they were provided and the sudden transition. I think that my college and especially their IT department should have assisted professors [more] in learning the technology and being on call when problems arose. This would help eliminate some of the wasted time and students sitting on Zoom while the professor tries to get ahold of IT. 

Paul: I wish professors had office hours online because a lot of the assignments were hard to explain through a Zoom session. Interacting with students on a more personal level can relieve stress and help the students excel.

Male teacher explaining a subject to his students in class

Zoom/video office hours have been recommended by many online teaching experts as a way of encouraging connection between students and instructors.


Do you feel your professors used technology to their advantage?

Nick: No, they definitely didn’t. 

Kay: In short, yes. I prefer PowerPoint presentations during lectures because not only does it make it easier for students to follow along, but it gave professors an agenda to follow and organize the discussed topics thoughtfully. I have also seen an increase in using supplemental items to complement their lectures. TedTalks, YouTube videos, and new articles are just some examples that professors gave—either optional or mandatory—that helped connect the dots. Not to get scientific, but neurologically speaking, people learn things faster when they have more familiarity and connections to the topic they need to [learn]. Having multiple sources saying the same information [in] a different way and with different examples helps reinforce those big concepts and increases the chance of finding an example that resonates with you. 

Paul: I do not. Professors for the most part treated Zoom classes in the same way as in-person classes. A lot did not know how to fully work the technology as well.


This semester are you mostly online learning or in-class learning? Are you okay with doing in-class lectures? 

Kay: I have 3 fully remote classes—2 are adapting the Panopto lectures and discussion Zoom calls, and my health psych class is adding group work via breakout room. My computer science class got rid of exams because the professor couldn’t find an adequate way to administer them online, which I am more than fine with. 

One of my classes is a “Hyflex” course where I, and half the class, meet in person on Tuesdays and over Zoom on Thursdays and the other half does the opposite. I have one class that is fully in person, but there are 3 or 4 students remote learning on Zoom while the rest of us are in class. Most of my exams, quizzes, and assignments are going to be online to keep it uniform between the remote and in-person learners. 

I am okay with doing online [learning], especially after hearing about some reckless behavior going on outside of campus, simply because it is safer for everyone. I am excited that 2 of my classes have prerecorded lectures. 


How do you feel about the upcoming semester? What are some improvements you think could help you learn better? 

Kay: I feel a little anxious about this upcoming semester because there is so much unknown to come. We could get sent home, everything could go online, one of my friends could get COVID and have to quarantine, or everything could slowly go back to normal. My professors have to keep a seating chart now for the contact tracers my college hired, but only one of my professors even followed through with that. And she just took a picture of the classroom and called it a day. 

I think the best ways I have found through online learning are loads of supplemental sources, prerecorded lectures, and more discussion and application-based synchronous learning. Though it does create a lot of work outside of the classroom, some of my professors are shortening or removing days from our scheduled class time to balance out the asynchronous learning.

 With Visible Body Courseware, A&P students can participate in engaging virtual labs and asynchronous assignments such as learning modules with 3D models and animations, multiple choice and dissection quizzes, and professors’ custom content.


Could you do another semester of online learning?

Nick: No. I couldn’t even do another semester of in-class learning. I am happy I am out of school and [working at] Visible Body. 

Paul: No, not a chance. I deferred my first semester of grad school to January because all of my classes were online, and if they are still online in January when I’m scheduled to start up, I will not go to grad school at all.


The Big Picture

The main takeaways from these student interviews were as follows: 

  • An online class shouldn’t just try to re-create in-person lectures. They’re different media. 
  • Students like being able to work through content at their own pace and on their own time. 
  • Students also appreciate having well-organized Powerpoint presentations and more supplemental resources (TED talks, YouTube videos, research articles, and so on) in online courses. 

Here are four major issues with remote learning that students pointed out, and some suggestions for improving the online learning experience in the future. 



Technical issues (dropped connections, screen sharing difficulties, exams, faculty not knowing how to use technology) 

More university IT support and training for faculty

Different courses using different technology leads to a feeling of disorganization and confusion

More technological uniformity/consistency across courses 

Reduced communication with professors

Regularly-scheduled live Q&A sessions with instructors

Students have difficulty focusing when not in a physical classroom

More professor-made content in small bites


Interested in learning about how to create an effective online anatomy and physiology course? Check out these related blog posts and resources: 

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