By Adrian Granchelli & Gabriel Smith, The Learning Centre, Faculty of Land and Food Systems
The Learning Centre conducted student focus group sessions in June of 2021. At this point, students have completed an entire year of online and distanced education.
Students were contacted through the LFS Student Services Email list and incentivized to opt in with a $22.50 gift card for one and a half hours of participation.
Sessions were hosted by two staff of the Learning Centre. Confidentiality was stressed. Students were assured that nothing they say will be associated to their person.
There were four different sessions of three to five students conducted in June 2021. Two focus groups sessions had participants of upper year levels, who had experience of in-person post-secondary education while the other two focus groups sessions consisted of first-year participants who for the most part had no in-person post-secondary experience. We noted only minor differences between the upper year and first year student focus groups explained in further details below.
Within each group discussion, there was a strong cohesion of ideas, with minimal dis-agreement between students. Across the sessions, there was some minimal variance of thoughts. This displays the value in hosting multiple sessions to reduce groupthink effects.
All student quotes shared below come from the above-mentioned student focus groups.
All students reported a lack of connection with other students and their university. In particular, first year students reported that “they did not feel they were in university” or “they could have been attending any university”.
- “That [they] didn’t experience university at all.”
- That there is “no ‘meaningful’ socializing online.”
- That “you just make stronger connections in person.”
Meeting peers in online classes is extremely difficult. Students “don’t feel that [they] know anyone [they’ve] met in online classes.”
- “Relationships online are ‘worthless’ for the most part unless you work together frequently throughout the whole year.”
- Socializing “online feels forced or awkward.”
Students signified that at least 50% of the university experience is attributed to non-academic activities such as:
- Being surrounded with peers
- Connecting with others
- Building a professional network
- Personal growth
- Becoming a better learner
- Developing lifelong friendships
- Talking between classes
Upper year students focused on the professional network aspects while first year students focused on friendships.
Students identified that they may perceive students attending in a different modality differently either consciously or subconsciously. Given a hypothetical scenario where students attend in-person, while others attend remotely, some students reported that they would feel that remote students are ‘missing out’ and that they would prefer to socialize and work with peers attending in-person, like them.
The effect of Social Atmosphere on Academics
The focus groups disagreed if the lack of a social atmosphere in online learning directly affects academic performance. Some students stated that social aspects are purely social, while others identify that a lack of socializing removes opportunities to form study groups or develop a network of people to ask academic questions to.
“In those big 100-300 people class, you sit down beside someone first day, and they are your lifeline for that course.”
One focus group discussed the motivational aspect where being “surrounded by academic people push [them] to do better.”
Students identified a lack of a social environment to a decrease in mental health which in turn affects academic performance. Higher burnout was identified and described as a lack of motivation and an increased desire to skip class.
Some students noted that “keener” students were turning their cameras on and wearing UBC branded merchandise more often.
Students reported a general appreciation for flexibility. Many of the remote tools provided more flexibility than traditional in-person education. Some students really appreciated a flexible schedule and took advantage of it, while the lack of a regimented schedule made it very difficult for others to prioritize and focus on education.
“Flexibility is good for mental health.”
What Practices to Keep
What students enjoyed from remote education and would like to continue when education is in-person:
- Recorded lectures
(This was the number one choice across all the focus groups)
- Ability to pause, re-watch, ands skip portions of the lecture
- Can miss a class without added stress or guilt since a recording is available
- Can watch at half or double speed
- Having a recording of the lecture was reported to reduce stress for some
- Remote office hours
- Really easy to drop in for 5 minutes
- More convenient and flexible
- Allows for attendance when scheduling conflicts and the commute time make attendance impossible
- Live text-based questions (such as the chat feature in Zoom)
- Lowers the barrier to ask questions
- “Really helpful for those with social anxiety”
- TA’s or other students can answer the immediate “easy” questions without affecting the lecture flow
- Option for private messaging
Other Practices to Keep
- Zoom annotations
- Open-book exams
- Flexible assessments
Benefits to remote attendance
- Save commuting time – for some students, this saves more than two hours of time each day
- No need to dress up
- Can still attend when health concerns make in-person attendance impossible
One drawback, identified by some students with remote educations is being sedentary, in front of a screen for most of the day. This contrasts with the need to walk between classes in-person which was described as “energizing”.
Remote studies allowed for flexibility in schedules that traditional in-person education does not. Some students reported being able to consistently work a part-time job, pick-up extra shifts as they come, and had the extra opportunity to be present for friends and family. This flexibility made education feasible for students with demanding responsibilities such as financial responsibilities or raising a family.
Some students reported being significantly more productive with a flexible schedule, however, others struggled without a structured schedule.
Students expressed that online education is equivalent to in-person education in terms of content and value but that there is stigma associated to online education, especially to a degree obtained completely online. Students shared that:
- There is a perception that online is easier.
- “A degree received from purely online education is not equivalent to in-person” (in reference to the stigma).
- Some “would argue that you are not learning as much.”
- There are shortcuts in online learning.
- Learning alone is “different.”
Remote learners have a lack of access to physical UBC services and equipment such as laboratories, amenities, and study spaces. Additionally, students may not have access to reliable devices nor internet and their home environments may not be conducive to studying. Access is the most discriminatory factor to learning (Bates, 2015) and should be a primary consideration to delivering an equitable course. One opportunity for greater access is to offer low-bandwidth options. Technically issues will always arise and when they do, it is important to treat students with compassion.
A preference of in-person versus remote education varies from student to student. The students that prefer in-person learning environments believe that such environments are better suited for education and that they learn better in them. In remote learning “it is very easy to get distracted”. Students shared that “anything synchronous is more engaging” and that collaboration is a terrific way to learn but exceedingly difficult to do remotely.
Academic Fairness – Remote Exams
Some methods of conducting online exams are extremely cumbersome and difficult. All faculty should test any tool that they use before assigning students to use it. For example, WeBWorK, a math/science online testing environment, requires students to write long mathematical equations using a keyboard. In this program, a simple clerical error such as missing a single bracket will result in a zero on the question.
- Writing equations on a screen “sucks”.
- Cannot show work for questions and as a result there are no way to achieve part marks. Some instructors allowed for an image upload, where a student is to submit their additional work on paper.
- Technical difficulties are extremely stressful.
Some students report less exam anxiety when writing at home while others say it is more stressful. Student identifies factors that affect stress and anxiety:
- Proctoring software
- Hectic and loud home environment
- Online testing is less “practiced” or “normal”
Opportunity to cheat
Some students believe that at least 10% of the class is cheating on online exams and find this unfair. Additionally, longer exams illicit greater unauthorized collaboration.
With this being stated, students believe that “UBC should assume the best in students.” Students should not be punished for having opportunities to cheat.
The need to define the full extent of cheating
Most classes have external group chats on platforms such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or Discord that are private from instructors and TAs. Sometimes students ask one another questions about the final exam. Questions between students are broad and are reported to not “feel” like cheating such as:
- “What kind of questions are on the exam?”
- “What should be re-read?”
- “What page of the lecture should I review?”
- “What zoom lecture should I re-watch?”
In a hybrid situation, all students should take the test in the same modality, either all at home, or in-person (at testing centres if attending distanced from the university).
Potential issues with Hybrid, predicted by students
“If a prof is tech savvy there is less of a divide between remote and in-person classes.”
Students feel that it is easier to develop connections with people face-to-face. This may create a divide between in-person and remote students. Students reported that they would not treat students with different attendance modalities differently, but that they may do so unintentionally. There is a concern that remote students “may not feel connected”. Without a conscious effort, professors may develop stronger relationships with students in person as it is more “natural” and focus less on remote students. Teacher-student interactions are valuable to learning and students shared that “When you feel that profs know you, you try harder”.
Students want faculty and staff to continue to truly listen to student’s feedback. Instructors “have not experienced what [students] have been through”. If students choose remote studies, then “the teaching team should reach out regarding mental health”. In the last year, professors have been more understanding and supportive. Students have noticed professors being “more patient”, providing flexible deadlines, addressing accessibility concerns, and this overall “really helped anxiety and mental health”.
First year students want faculty and staff to know that when they return in person, in second year, they will feel like first year students.