Perspectives I: Student Perspectives on a Sudden Transition to Online Learning

By Dr. Catherine Glass, Instructor, Health Sciences & Biology
Early in 2020, students all over the world experienced a sudden, dramatic, and unprecedented shift in their academic world. Four months on, we have found ourselves finishing one semester remotely, delivering another fully online, and preparing for at least two more semesters teaching and learning in the virtual environment. At the end of the spring semester, two of our colleagues collected information to help them understand the impact of this move to remote learning.

Our first contribution comes from Catherine Glass in the departments of Health Sciences and Biology. Below, we share Dr. Glass’s article, “Student Perspectives on the Sudden Transition to Online Learning: A Second Year Snapshot (and some ideas on how to ameliorate the challenges).”

TCDC is providing a platform for instructors and instructional staff to share their reflections, opinions, and findings. If you want to contribute a piece to the perspectives series, please contact Jessica Kalra at

Student Perspectives on a Sudden Transition to Online Learning: A Second Year Snapshot (and some ideas on how to ameliorate the challenges)

Image Source: The Unfinished Horse, Ali Bati, 2018

“At the beginning of the semester, when everything is fresh and we have just had our couple of weeks off, we are the finely detailed ass of the horse. Then as we are told to prepare for online learning, we realize that we have no idea what that entails or what anything will look like. At this point we are the confused, semi checked-out torso. After we are confined to our homes, we are given sometimes clear, sometimes vague instructions on what to do depending on the class. We do not read these instructions regardless. Finally, comes the class lecture. We are not wearing pants, nor are we awake. We have lost track of the day. Is this still 2020? Who is this email from, and what’s a “Langara”? We lay down in the woods and let the moss reclaim us.”

Anonymous student comment.

Like many others, as we transitioned to online teaching and learning in March 2020, I tried to make things easier for my students in a variety of ways including: providing annotated notes, reducing the number and size of tasks, extending time for take home exams, holding more office hours, and having more flexibility in communication modes. I also provided an opportunity for extra marks on the online exams, in the form of bonus questions. For one such bonus, I turned the question to my own interest: how students were experiencing the transition.

I had come across an amusing meme on Reddit targeted at teachers (pictured above). I asked students to turn the meme around and tell me how they felt about the transition. In this report, I will share the responses of my second year, HSCI (health sciences) 2212 class. I learned far more than I had expected from something that was primarily intended to give away marks. In fact, I found the responses enlightening, poignant, and, in the case of the opening response above, hilarious. I also noted a small, but significant difference between international students and domestic students in the way they responded to the question, a difference that I believe potentially goes beyond the specifics of the described circumstance.

Here is the question I posed to the students:

“This is a popular meme traveling around educator’s circles. Turn it around and tell me how it has been for you to suddenly be transformed into an online learner! Please share positives (if there are any beyond not having to get up as early) and negatives.”

Responses were varied, but several themes emerged. On the challenging side:

  • Some students felt overwhelmed by any or a combination of widely varying instructor responses, a barrage of over-communication, increased workloads from some instructors, and navigating new assessment systems.
  • Many students struggled to organise themselves in the absence of the rhythm and structure of face-to-face instruction.
  • Some students missed the real-time stimulation and social networking aspects of classroom learning, campus activities and connections.

On the positive side, almost every student enjoyed the benefits of the extra time and flexibility gained because of not having to commute to school and function in a formal setting

The enrollment in HSCI 2212 was 23 students with a high proportion of international students, 10/23. Sixteen students responded to the bonus question, 9/13 domestic students, and seven of 10 international students. However, in international student responses, there was a tendency to describe the original meme rather than reflect personally: only two international students substantively answered the question as posed. Although not the primary focus of this discussion, I have observed this phenomenon previously. Anecdotally, I find international students often miss/do not answer bonus marks, and when they do, they sometimes misinterpret the intent, especially if it is a lighthearted “freebie” marks opportunity. This reminds me that I still take for granted the “learning framework” via which students understand assignments and expectations. While it is easy to blame the online learning environment for difficulties, although it does create some new concerns (such as access to technology and space in which to use it) the more I think about it, the more I believe that online pedagogy primarily magnifies pre-existing problems in face to face teaching.

Overwhelmed by the transition:

Of the students who responded to the question posed, many felt overwhelmed. On a side note, three of my own family members are currently in post-secondary. When I asked them, what enhanced their online experience, and what made learning difficult, they told me that every instructor had adjusted differently, making it harder to be appropriately informed and meet expectations. For my students too, balancing standard scholastic demands and variation in instructor expectations, in combination with the need to function in a diversity of new technological settings, increased academic pressure.

  • “Some of my classes added several additional assignments to ensure that we read the posted notes, and I completely understand that instructors need participation marks and stuff, but it is a painful time for an increased workload.”
  • “I am not a techy person … [I] found that professors made quizzes and midterm more challenging… I [have] been bombarded with emails, which makes it difficult to track deadlines and submission folders.”
  • “…it is hard for a professor to come up with proper forms of examination to reduce cheating because no one [knows] what’s happening at home which creates more stress because we are given a time limit which for me at least builds up more stress and anxiety.”

A few students also mentioned the challenges of learning in a family setting:

  • “…because of the family, there is no personal time or space.”
  • “Spending all day studying while the fam screams in the background”

Organisation and time management in the absence of face-to-face instruction

  • “I can tend to be quite disorganized outside school; however, I’ve recently been able to pick up the slack during class time or be organized for class beforehand…I always relied on lecture/class times to parse all my study sections…”
  • “Independence and freedom from the classroom are nice but it magnifies the need for time management, something I have always struggled with. I also have been able to confirm how much in-class discussion does for my retainment of material as well as my interest of the topics.”
  • “I struggle a lot with procrastination and giving too much freedom in terms of view notes, keeping up readings and announcements can be a bit of struggle when it’s online and nothing to keep me in check like physical classes and what not.”
  • “…when students started using the online platform to learn it all became about self-teaching. Now, students have to teach themselves using notes provided or google and youtube… Some students need that in-class interaction or examples to grasp the topic well.”
  • “I have to view all my work for all 5 classes as a lump sum and it is extremely overwhelming for me. I have bad ADHD and cannot focus from home yet the amount of work remains the same so I seriously struggle to keep up with the work load.”
  • “…it is hard to motivate yourself to wake up and read your professor notes because when going into the class…I was more engaged in the material and learning lots more.”

Loss of social support and connection

  • “I miss my professor and classmates, miss human interaction.”
  • “Being able to engage with bright intelligent minds…and bounce ideas and thoughts back and forth is the learning experience I truly long for.”
  • “I don’t get to see any friends anymore, especially with social isolation happening right now. Also I feel less inclined to ask questions or get help if I’m at home because it seems like more work than asking face-to-face in class.”
  • “…there are some things that can only be discussed or done in the class and online teaching does not provide that kind of ambiance. Honestly, most of the students including me do not feel engaged with the lecture when it is online.”

Despite the hurdles of the transition, students were generally very happy to escape social expectations of dress, routine, and face to face pedagogy, appreciated the relaxation of normal time constraints, and for long distance commuters, delighted in the travel time saved:

  • “…the obvious benefit would be the luxury of doing coursework/taking tests in an environment I am most comfortable with: my own desk. It makes me feel much more at ease knowing I do not have to worry about ‘finding a good place to sit’ before taking a test. I also do not have to worry about any individuals peering over at my work— I can be as “free” and as efficient as I wish to be at my desk, and in my situation, this blows any other positives out of the water.”
  • “The benefits to online learning is having extra time to answer take home assignments and being able to sleep in a bit more. Another benefit is having the ability to schedule study time according to personal needs.”
  • “…having the freedom to allot my time and learning on my own is wonderful…
  • “There are positives to the online classes with the ability to completely go at your own pace on studying the notes that are provided…”
  • “I love being able to do school work in my pyjamas with a coffee and in bed, it makes me feel so much more comfortable while I am learning. I also really enjoy being able to work at my own pace on a very small time restraint. Instead of having to get to school and listen to a lecture I can sleep in and do the lecture material later in the day.”
  • “Some of the positives of this are the comfort of learning in your own room at your own pace.”
  • “…can take breaks whenever I want, can get schoolwork done in the morning (as I am not forced to be in class) so my afternoons are free, don’t have to commute to school,…better internet connection than at school, feel less inhibited when participating in online class discussions than in-person ones (this is probably why people are so nasty to each other online).”
  • “I like the flexibility of online learning, I can do everything at my own pace and study (theoretically) where ever I would like.”
  • “…helps me maintain a routine of sleeping at a decent time because I have to wake up and attend a virtual lecture at 9:30 best in my PJs.”

Overall, while students appeared to enjoy the flexibility and freedom associated with learning online, the general sense I received was that they felt very isolated. I thought it particularly interesting that some members of the “digital generation” were more hesitant to reach out electronically than in person. I tried to compensate for what I assumed were very different levels of online functionality by providing, scheduled group Zoom sessions, appointments on demand, and very accessible email communication. Interestingly though, one of my first year students who came through the latter part of their class most successfully, phoned me regularly. A few continued to come to meet in person, while this was still permitted.

Going Forward

When COVID forced us online in the spring, we all adjusted the best we were able. However, I want to do a better job this fall. Fortunately, I don’t usually teach in the summer term, so I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to deliver a full course load (four full courses) online. I have also talked to colleagues teaching in the summer, have attended multiple seminars and workshops online, and have a few different ideas about how to approach some of the most challenging facets of online teaching for September. Although the themes that emerged from my bonus question were student focused, they also apply very much to me: I was overwhelmed, I sometimes lost track of time, and I missed my office resources, my face-to-face routines, my students and colleagues.

Helping students to avoid feeling overwhelmed and supporting online time management

Colleagues with online teaching experience have told me I am likely to cover less material teaching online than face-to-face, contrary to what I imagined. I had already planned to strip my lecture content down to the essentials, post short videos on these lecture basics, and use one synchronous session a week to go over concepts, so this reinforced the intention to focus on the fundamentals in pre-recorded, asynchronous lecture time. I had heard of the phrase, flipped classroom, but COVID has accelerated a trial run of the approach for me, as my online plan is effectively a flip from my norm.

My family members told me they found well-organised course outlines and assignment guidelines very helpful. They also noted clear reminders were useful A recent TCDC workshop I took, “Online Course Design and Delivery” emphasized clear expectations, and the “What, How, Why” approach to assignments. Make it clear to students what they need to do, explain carefully how to do it, ideally with examples and a clear rubric, and, why you want them to do the task. Students who understand the reasoning behind tasks may feel more engaged. I’ll be honest, I haven’t used rubrics to date, but I plan to start this fall! There are many examples online, and TCDC can provide support in developing appropriate rubrics for your course assignments. One of the small things I enjoyed about the Course Design workshop was a daily checklist. It was a helpful reminder, and satisfying to work through: who doesn’t like a completed to do list?

Another major emphasis for the Online Course Design workshop was scaffolding. “Yay me” I thought as I metaphorically patted myself on the back for the extensively scaffolded 2212 term paper. However, as I worked through the readings and exercises for the workshop, I realised that while I did some scaffolding for my first years, I didn’t make it as explicit and organised as I did with the second years (don’t ask me why this hadn’t previously occurred to me). This too will be a focus as I develop my online curriculum.

Something I did do in the spring was ask students to complete low stakes tasks ahead of major assessments to make sure everyone was familiar with the technology and expectations. I will use the same approach come September.

As I put together this article, I reached out to my students to check they were okay with sharing their quotes. One student, along with her permission gave me another good idea: “create ‘a question and answers’ folder on D2L, so that you don’t have to respond to numerous emails of the same nature”.

Optimizing social support and connection

Personally, I think this will be the hardest part of delivering a full online course. The Online Course Design Workshop asked us to create a Kaltura video to introduce ourselves. I had never used Kaltura, and immediately ran into difficulties: I ended up redoing my video 3 times. My eventual triumph increased my confidence though, and I am thinking of asking my students to create a similar video for me at the beginning of term, hopefully to give them an immediate feeling of success and connection. One of the phenomena I found most difficult in the spring transition was the almost resolute refusal of students to turn on their cameras while attending Zoom meetings. I am hoping the video will help to create an initial connection. I will be using regular breakout rooms for applied group work (check out active learning techniques through TCDC for some ideas), and again, I am hoping the smaller groups will encourage communication.

I have no magic solutions for transitioning to online teaching and learning, but many ideas. Like any new venture, I am sure some will work, some will flop, and as in any term, regardless of delivery format, some students will engage, and some will not. I am a self-professed luddite, but armed with a variety of new technologies, inspiration from TCDC, and my first cellphone ever (yes, the report on Hades freezing was true), I am starting to feel tentatively hopeful.

COVID times are challenging times, and one of my coping mechanisms has been to look for the silver linings in our new circumstances. An unexpected surprise associated with the spring transition to online teaching, was that some adjustment I used were so effective that I plan to make them a regular part of my courses, no matter the format. Similarly, the thinking and learning required to plan for full online September delivery has highlighted some weaknesses in my existing pedagogical approaches, but also pushed me to expand my teaching horizons. I still look forward to an eventual return to face-to-face classrooms, but I will be carrying some new technique from these difficult times when I step back in. None of the tactics I have mentioned is exclusive to online teaching, but the peculiar nature of online education make them all the more important, both for me and my students.

2 thoughts to “Perspectives I: Student Perspectives on a Sudden Transition to Online Learning”

  1. Thanks for this entertaining and thoughtful piece, Catherine! These are challenging times, indeed — but it is clear that you are using this opportunity to learn and grow, while keeping the welfare of the students at heart.

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