Fall 2020 Student Focus Group Report: Remote Learning Experiences

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the pivot to Emergency Remote Teaching, instructors and students had to adapt quickly. To continue educating, instructors relied on various strategies and technologies. The past seven months of pandemic remote education have revealed both the possibilities and limits of how we teach and learn remotely. To assist instructors as they consider refinements for future semesters, Academic Technology Support Services (ATSS), along with collegiate partners, conducted four student focus groups. During the focus groups, students from across the University of Minnesota system shared what was working well and what they found challenging during Fall Semester 2020.

This report synthesizes themes we heard from students and outlines recommended short and long-term actions instructors can implement.

Student Insights: What is Working Well

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Consistency and Learning Routines

“I didn't think I would like it [remote learning] at the beginning, but it's really been consistent and it's worked out well…how we always know what we're doing, day to day, that has really made it stand out above the other classes that I have this semester.”

Students appreciate clear, consistent communication and instructions that start with stating expectations for the class in your syllabus.

Students value learning cycles and routines. Repeating patterns of learning tasks, materials, and assessments can ease student anxiety about what is expected from day to day and week to week. Create these routines and patterns in both your Zoom classes and online Canvas resources.

Contact [email protected] for a consultation on how to use your syllabus as a portal to successful course design.

Students can plan better when they can see all assignments listed in Canvas from day one. Even if the content is hidden or will be posted later, seeing what is part of the course helps students set personal learning goals and manage schedules for all their classes. During the pandemic students especially appreciate knowing what is expected at least a week in advance so they can plan accordingly.

Humanizing Learning Experiences

“I like it when it's everyone there at once, and the professor’s checking in with us, engaging how we're doing...taking the initiative to try and like interact. That's at least kept me kind of coming back to some of the [classes].” 

Students find faculty efforts to personalize and support their learning extremely valuable. Examples include:

  • Display your face on video recordings. 
  • Sharing insights about your current COVID challenges.
  • Inquiring about students’ situational learning challenges (e.g., access to special software, computer equipment, stable WiFi connectivity), and doing daily check-ins. 

"It really helps when the professor has, like, an in-class activity. Like exercises or problems that you have to do with a group. It’s a way that kind of forces classmates to work together and actually engage with each other."

Many students are feeling alone and not connected to each other or their instructors and appreciate the opportunity to establish and maintain connections with their instructor and their peers. Students expressed appreciation for:

  • Check-ins before, during, and after synchronous meetings. 
  • Participatory strategies in Zoom through polls, breakout rooms, or other interactive activities that give them a chance to converse and collaborate with each other and the instructors.

See Zoom: Teach Online Class Sessions; Engaging Students.

Attend Facilitating Student Engagement in Synchronous Zoom Sessions Workshop.

Student Insights: What is Challenging

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Managing Multiple Platforms and Course Structures

"I know the professor is doing her best. But it's really tough because she doesn't lay it out as clearly as my other classes. The hard part is having to navigate the course and what I have to do for each day. It's not very clear. And so I guess to sum up what I said [it’s easier to navigate a course] when they lay it out week by week or even day by day. That's really helpful because then I can actually do the work."

  • Students feel overwhelmed when dealing with multiple courses that have very different course structures (especially if there is publisher software involved too). Having to learn and understand the structure of each Canvas course and publisher site entails dedicating more time to figure out the course and less time to focus on learning the actual content and completing assignments.
  • Students want to have everything linked in Canvas, even when assignments are meant to be completed on other platforms (e.g., publishers’ sites).
  • Students struggle when instructors have different expectations around communication, emails, and where to turn-in work.
  • Students prefer NOT to turn in work via email.

Connectivity (Personal and Technological)

"I have to negotiate with my four roommates who want to watch Netflix when I need to take a proctored test."

  • Students are sharing WiFi and devices with family and friends.
  • Zoom and proctored tests require extra bandwidth.
  • Watching Kaltura or YouTube videos through Zoom is NOT a good experience.
  • Playing video during a Zoom class is a complicated process. Students have a disjointed viewing experience due to bandwidth issues when a video is shared over Zoom.

Overwhelming Amount of Information

“I've had a few separate times now where I will do my genuine best to try and get everything turned in on time and still just end up missing something just because of a technicality like I didn't know it was there. Or the teacher didn't mention it or something.”

  • Students are being presented with long lists of things to do for each class. Some lists are in emails, some lists are in Canvas, some lists are verbally shared during Zoom classes.
  • Students need adequate time to complete assignments. One student noted that an instructor assigned a video just a few hours before class time. The student did not have time to watch it and adequately take notes.

Remote Classes

“One of the things I know that's made a bad experience... A lot of the time they'll [instructors] have a very long question or prompt or something that they want you to answer. And then they'll send you to the breakout rooms and you no longer have that information, because you can't see their screen in the breakout room or you can't hear them talking to you. And so, you lose what you're supposed to do. And then people just sit there silently for minutes and return back to the main course after that”.

Breakout rooms in Zoom can be a great way to connect, but not having clear instructions does not make for a good learning experience.

Allocating too much time can also grow awkward for students, especially if there wasn’t an explicit goal for the room.

Students are not always clear about rules for turn-taking or claiming the floor. For example, they don’t know if (or when) they can interrupt an instructor to ask a question in Zoom.

Students noted that instructors rarely remind them of upcoming assignments during Zoom classes as they would normally do face to face.

Students appreciate stretch or bio-breaks during long zoom sessions.

  • Long sessions that do not parse the content to allow for bio and mental breaks are challenging for students.
  • Students appreciate knowing when they can anticipate short breaks.
  • Students are less anxious when communication is clear as to when it is OK to step away unexpectedly.

Optimal Use of Accessibility Features

“Just use the live transcript part of Zoom”

Students want and need Zoom transcripts turned on.

Students want and need captions for recorded videos.

Video captions and audio transcripts provide access to people who:

  • are deaf or hard of hearing
  • are learning another language, or whose native language does not match the audio content (i.e., international students)
  • have learning disabilities or other cognitive impairments
  • learn by taking in information in multiple ways
  • are in quiet environments where audio output is undesirable (i.e., libraries)
  • are in noisy environments where audio may be difficult to hear or understand (i.e., student unions).
  • do not have equipment that supports audio output (such as headphones)
  • are looking for information contained in a video; search engines can find information in captions and transcripts, but not in a video or audio file


Short-term Implementation

COVID-19 has required changes to teaching and learning. Though we can glean some ideas from effective principles and practices for asynchronous online learning, learning during a pandemic brings additional challenges and layers of complications. Here are some tips and suggestions that could increase or enhance opportunities for learning in future iterations of courses.

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Create Consistency

Consistent course structures assist students to effectively manage their time and complete assignments on time.

Students want routines and consistency to help ease anxiety around what is expected (with some variety thrown in occasionally for fun or with fair warning). Students are often learning on several different Canvas sites and learning how to navigate publisher materials and any other tools you may be connecting. Anything you can do to help create consistency for students will help. You want them spending time learning the content not trying to find the content.

Consider setting up your Canvas course with consistent navigation features from week to week and show students how you envision they would navigate and use your Canvas course. Consider adding information about the workflow you want students to follow when completing assignments or navigating your course.

Students want everything connected to Canvas (even if they are being sent to a publisher site).

Students want due dates on all activities, assignments, and assessments at the beginning of the semester (and/or week) to help ease student anxiety.  If you are sharing videos you want them to watch, create a Canvas page and add it to the student's To-Do list. 

Clearly Communicate

Clear communications avoid confusion, leaving more time for students to focus on completing work. When students have to spend time figuring out instructions or how to communicate their confusion, it slows them down and can create more work for you.

Provide timely, brief, concise emails or Canvas Announcements.

  • Using a weekly Canvas Announcement outlining the activities for the week (ideally with time estimates) helps students manage their time and align their personal learning goals for all their courses, work, and extracurricular activities.
  • Review the multiple ways to Communicate with Students in Canvas.

Provide clear expectations on all assignments and activities.

  • Make sure to use due dates so students can manage their time.
  • Allow time for questions before, during, and after Zoom class OR provide clear directions on how/where they can ask clarifying questions. The clearer the instructions the fewer emails you will get. 

Turn on Live captions in Zoom - if you or students are distracted by the captions they can individually turn them off, but captions help with accessibility for all students.

Humanize the Learning Experience

Building personal connections is still possible and beneficial in a virtual environment.

  • Let students know you care or are having your own pandemic experiences too. You can do this via your weekly communication, during Zoom classes, or in pre-recorded videos.
  • When using videos during synchronous Zoom sessions, consider sharing a link in Zoom chat and allow time to watch the video on their own, or even better, consider adding it to your Canvas site and allow students several days to watch ahead of time. Watching videos over Zoom makes for a poor experience for many students.

Use Zoom to personalize your teaching and build connections.

  • Intentionally announce and allow time for informal conversations in break-out rooms and/or before or after Zoom class.
  • Provide a space (office hours) for students to ask questions informally. Invite and welcome students into that space.
  • Consistently invite students to office hours and open office hours up for groups of students. Students appreciate hearing other student’s questions (and don’t want to sit in a waiting room for an unknown period of time). If you use a waiting room consider instead creating appointment slots so students have set times to arrive.
  • Build participatory experiences: use polls, Zoom whiteboard, chat, ChimeIn Jamboard (not screen reader friendly), or other features to generate engagement.
  • Use Zoom breakout rooms intentionally.

Students like connecting with other students in breakout rooms and want instructors to be more intentional about the purpose and expectations for each break-out.

  • Timing (i.e., not all activities warrant the same time);
  • Purpose (i.e., not all activities need a breakout room);
  • Expectations (i.e., what are students reporting back); and
  • Accountability ( i.e., provide expectations and accountability before students head into breakout rooms). See Zoom: Teach Online Class Sessions; Engaging Students. Attend Facilitating Student Engagement in Synchronous Zoom Sessions Workshop.
  • Use the chat feature to share the discussion prompts or any links to a Google Doc, Google Slides, Jamboard, etc. Make sure to include whatever the expectations are around what groups should be doing in the breakout rooms.
  • Seek feedback after breakout rooms about the timing (too short, just right, too long)?
  • Use the chat to help answer questions. Even if it’s hard for you to track during class you can return to questions after class. See Saving in-meeting chat.

Long-term Implementation

Students appreciate robust, intentional course design. Time invested in developing and creating this type, of course, translates into meaningful learning experiences that students value.

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Concise, Quality Recorded Videos Help Keep Students Engaged

Chunk your lecture videos into short 5 - 10 minute segments.

Provide objectives for the videos (so students know where to focus their note taking). 

Share lecture videos more than 48 hours in advance (students can take twice the time of the video to watch, pause and take notes). 

Seek feedback from your students to help hone your skills.

Restructure Assessments

By reflecting on the essential learning, leveraging technology, and providing the appropriate support and feedback for students, we hope that all instructors are able to provide effective assessments and to assure student learning. Some ideas that came up from the student focus groups:

  • Asynchronous discussion forum prompts should ask students to apply their material more than just a check for understanding.
  • Alternative and formative assessments promote beneficial learning experiences. 
  • Students indicated they appreciate open notes tests (and often find them harder), especially during the pandemic. 
  • When determining the use of proctored tests, be sure to add a practice test, and consider surveying your students to make sure these proctoring tools can be supported and integrated.

Adjusting your assessments may be more challenging in some disciplines than for others. Assistance is available.

Contact Teaching Support with questions or to request an assessment consultation. 

Flipped Classes Work with Remote Learning

Students embrace the flipped classroom format, especially during pandemic remote learning. They appreciate the effort of instructors who have shifted this direction.  

Shifting to a fully flipped course may seem like an overwhelming task. Consider flipping a specific lesson, week, or topic to get started.