Fall 2021 Student Focus Group Insights

Building Momentum from Remote Teaching

March 11, 2022 will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In higher education, we witnessed a dramatic transformation in our approach to teaching and learning. Through necessity, many of us enhanced our educational technology skills. This profound pivot has naturally inspired reflection about what aspects of our teaching we truly value and how we will apply what we've experienced going forward.

Alongside instructors, students have also come to appreciate some of the affordances of digital learning. During the final weeks of Fall Semester 2021, we asked undergraduate and graduate students representing all system campuses to join us in considering key questions about remote teaching and learning and the return to campus. In these discussions, students identified elements of remote teaching they found very effective and would like to see maintained. Students’ feedback in the focus groups identified three core pedagogical pillars which can guide innovative approaches to new challenges, and support student learning.

Three Core Pedagogical Pillars

  1. Creating and supporting learning routines (e.g., clear and accessible Canvas courses, consistent and timely communications). 
  2. Building opportunities for engagement (with content, and across multiple levels, e.g., student-content, instructor-student, and student-student). 
  3. Integrating and offering options for student self-regulation and course feedback.

Students identified elements of remote teaching that they found effective and gave recommendations for continuing their use in the future. Insights and related resources are below.

Student Focus Group Insights

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Keep Using Canvas and Other Technologies to Support Learning

Student quote: "A good change is that more instructors are using Canvas and using it better after emergency teaching.” 

Students appreciated

  • ways that many of their instructors improved at using Canvas and other technologies in their courses.
  • instructors who found ways to use Canvas that suited their own instructional comfort and skill level to meet students’ needs for course organization.
  • instructors’ understanding of the challenges presented by incorporating technology (bandwidth, accessibility, and technology learning curve issues, for example), and instructors’ efforts to accommodate for that. In these circumstances, students willingly crowdsourced amongst themselves to help an instructor to resolve technology issues as they happened during a course.
  • instructors who showed students how to navigate their course sites - either as part of an early class session or as a short video tour.
  • instructors’ selective use of visuals (such as small icons) to increase ease of navigation and to make it easier for students to find information about readings to be completed, assignment descriptions, testing details, and discussions to be completed.
    • Also, students appreciated the incorporation of accessible photographs or diagrams or figures (accompanied by alt-text) within Canvas as these helped students connect to a class topic or explain a concept.
  • instructors who communicated a "game plan" for the week and checked in on students' experiences. They especially appreciated instructors who made an effort and took the time to set up course communication and explain Canvas site organization to students. While there was no agreement across the four focus groups about whether email or Canvas announcement platforms were more effective for communicating with students about upcoming course sessions, there was agreement that both platforms were most helpful when they “gave us a game plan for the week,” conveyed reminders that were “timely and pertinent,” and occasionally “checked in on students (particularly when remote) to see what's happening with an individual when an assignment didn't come in, and to see how they're all doing in general.”
    • Additionally, students noted:
      • email allowed them to find all of the communication in one place, while Canvas would let them check on course-specific updates.
      • video or podcast formats to outline the coming week’s work were helpful to many.
      • instructors should discuss custom Canvas notifications with students to highlight how they could best be used for different purposes in their course.
      • there should be specific notifications sent if there are any changes made to the syllabus.

Students prefer

  • Students stated a preference for having a Canvas site for their courses as compared to no Canvas site at all
  • Students felt they benefited from the incorporation of various instructional technologies: recorded videos, synchronous and asynchronous chat or discussion options, polling features - have been helpful both online and in the transition to more on-campus courses. Students value that these tools allow them to engage with the class in different ways; for example:
    • recorded videos allow students to watch later as they study;
    • some students watch at faster speeds, some students skim through the transcript to find the concept talked about in class;
    • using chat, even in an in-person discussion, makes it easier for some students to ask questions and interact with their peers.
    • students also appreciated having time to shape responses and hear from a range of peers in response to online discussion questions.
  • Students do not want to lose these technologies moving forward.


Keep Canvas Sites Simple, Transparent, and Consistent

Student Quote: “I swear I spend hours just trying to figure out where the heck everything is. Modules [in Canvas] are greatly appreciated when I don’t have to hunt around to find the files, then the discussion, then back to files for the prompt.”

Students' requests for simple, transparent, and consistent Canvas sites

Canvas: consistent template 

Students prefer consistency in the use of Canvas to aid their navigation.

  • Some students expressed the wish that all instructors use the same template for Canvas, but understand that’s unlikely to happen University-wide.
  • Instead, the main suggestion was for departments and colleges to develop their own templates so that students can orient themselves to a consistent way to navigate a unit’s Canvas sites.
  • Ultimately, students want instructors to develop Canvas sites with a clear organizational structure and consistency in setting out what students are required to read, engage, complete, and upload for each week or unit of a course.

Other students noted finding it helpful when instructors asked those in class to share their strategies for navigating Canvas in synchronous and asynchronous courses.

Canvas: instructors new to Canvas

For instructors learning to leverage Canvas, focus group participants suggested reaching out to teaching peers “that are doing this stuff well.”


One instructor learned a strategy to foster engagement with a video during a synchronous class session:

  1. provide students with a link to videos they’d watch during a synchronous class session, ​
  2. give students time to leave Zoom to watch the video on their own, enabling them to pause the video as needed to take notes, and rewatch as needed.
  3. come back to Zoom for a class discussion.
Syllabi: option to print and consistent content
  • provide links for a printable syllabus at the start of the semester;
  • syllabus content should minimally include:
    • instructor contact information,
    • an overview of the course, and
    • assignment information including due dates so they can map out a general schedule for all their courses.

Demonstrate Care and Ask for Feedback

Student quote: “We were often asked ‘unmute if you have a question’ but never an ‘if this isn’t working for you, please tell me.' "

Express Care

Students emphasized how much they value (and desire) their instructors’ efforts to humanize their learning experiences and demonstrate care about them as a student and as an individual. Expressing care motivates students to engage with one another, the instructor, and course content.

Ask for Feedback

One of the easiest ways to demonstrate that you care is to ask students for feedback. Ask students about the course content, about course delivery, and also about the students themselves.


Whether it’s a beginning of the semester survey, weekly get-to-know-you questions, or feedback at the end of the course, students want to know instructors care about their learning and their well-being.

Follow-up on Feedback

Whenever you gather feedback, let students know how you will report back to the class, and about what and how you will act on the feedback that students shared.

Feedback Approaches


Students preferred anonymous feedback, such as Google form surveys.

Exit Tickets

One strategy that students found effective was the use of Exit Tickets. These can be simple questions students are asked at the end of a session, such as:

  • What’s a concept you learned well this week?
  • What’s something I could have gone more in-depth about?
  • Implement the "Keep Start Stop" series of questions about course structure, practices, policies, or behaviors linked to learning:
    • Keep (to support your learning);
    • Start (to better support your learning); or
    • Stop (it impedes your learning).


Create Community and Connection—with Intention

Student Quote: "I learn more through students and discussing materials and bouncing things off of other students."

Breakout Rooms

Breakout Rooms offer great opportunities for student engagement, but they need to be carefully planned so that students don’t say what we heard during these focus groups “Breakout rooms are the absolute worst.”


Students expressed frustration when they were sent to breakout rooms without a sense of accountability - either to peers in the small groups or for the tasks they are asked to complete.

Group Continuity & Useful Prompts
  • Frustrations primarily derived from regularly working in random groupings rather than working with a set of peers over time. Students repeatedly explain how collaborative work in breakout rooms can increase when working with peers with whom they have relationships (whether established before or during the course) and with well-designed prompts or tasks to guide synchronous discussion.
  • Furthermore, undergraduate students explained that there is no incentive or accountability to turn on video or unmute and participate. Students who had learned something about their peers through informal interactions expressed more willingness to actively participate in groups since being acquainted with them increased their sense of accountability.

Peer Review & Discussion

  • Peer review was one peer-learning activity that students found productive both as a way to seek and gather feedback on their work, and to interact with peers to understand course concepts and expectations. Students described peer review as useful in both one-on-one and small group settings.
  • Peer learning discussion activities also helped students feel connected in their courses with students noting that they learned as much or more from bouncing ideas off of peers via synchronous (e.g., Zoom chat, in person active learning practices, ChimeIn, Jamboard) or asynchronous discussion activities (e.g., Flip (formerly Flipgrid), Google docs, and slides) and forums (e.g., Canvas discussions).


Integrate Helpful, Innovative Instructional Techniques

Student quote: “Some of the technologies that were implemented due to emergency teaching have been helpful even in the transition back to more on-campus work.”

Students are more adept at noticing instructional practices, especially in digital learning. They noted the following strategies instructors were implementing to support students' learning and well being:  

  • Check-ins: Requiring quick conferences during scheduled class time. One instructor had 2-minute meetings about a writing assignment as a quick check-in. Students signed up for appointments and had to review the feedback provided by the instructor prior to the meeting. 
  • External Communication Tools:
    • In a face-to-face class an instructor used Zoom so that students could interact and ask questions in Chat.
    • Other instructors used Canvas Chat, Discord, and Google Docs in similar ways.
  • At the beginning of the semester, one instructor asked students to discuss and decide (via individual votes) on whether to allocate a higher percentage of their grade to the final exam or to weekly homework assignments. Students opted for more emphasis on the weekly homework.
  • Engagement:
    • In a larger class, an instructor and students set up an ‘on call for the day’ list that rotated who was expected to turn on their zoom video and engage more overtly during that class session’s discussions.
    • Instructors used response systems (like Chime-In, Mentimeter, and Zoom polling and chat features) to foster engagement via authentic questions, responses to scenarios, and quiz-like polls and questions during the course lectures.
    • Instructors stayed beyond scheduled class time (in-person and online) to answer questions and have discussions.
    • Some instructors reserved 5 minutes at the end of class for students to ask their questions about upcoming assignments; one graduate student teaching assistant reported that this also reduced their time answering email questions.

Enhance Your Technology Skills to Support Learning

Student quote: “We don't want to go back to not using technology. Different people learn differently and technology helps with those differences. Instructors need to engage in learning the tools so that they can improve and diversify their approaches.”

  • Focus group participants in both graduate and undergraduate courses reported that as instructors became more skilled in ways of using teaching technologies and digital instructional practices, students became more cognizant of what is helpful or unhelpful to their learning and self-regulation as learners.
  • Especially with regard to Canvas, students mentioned when instructors paid attention to how people navigated the Canvas course site, they were better able to better determine how to design the course. Further, they allowed students to be active agents in the learning experience and the design of course sites and other technologies.
  • Students also observed an overall increase in peer review practices - both in terms of actual reviews of course assignments (seeking, offering, and using feedback), and in terms of working with peers to understand course materials and concepts.


Previous focus group reports related to digital learning:

About the Focus Groups

Four 60-minute focus groups were held with students enrolled in all course formats available (e.g., hybrid, online, in-person, hyflex) during Fall Semester 2021. Within each theme, students provided details, examples, and reasons for continuing certain remote digital teaching practices, and they outlined ideas about why and how to improve others. The focus groups were organized by Academic Technology Support Services, along with system-wide collegiate partners.