Did Students Learn As Much During Remote Online Instruction?

May 20, 2020

As this COVID-disrupted semester comes to a close, we wanted to know how well the emergency online teaching experiment went at colleges, and what it felt like from instructors’ point of view. Was it as good? Did the students seem to learn as much? So for this week’s episode of the EdSurge Podcast, we talk with two college professors about how the partially remote semester went.

We were particularly interested in how well large lecture classes translated into a remote format. After all, these kinds of classes are what many people think of when they close their eyes and imagine college teaching.

Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below. Or read a short recap below.

The first professor I talked to was Brian Balogh, a longtime history professor at the University of Virginia who has won awards for his teaching. The large lecture course he was teaching—to about 100 students—was called Viewing America: 1940-1980.


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Before the pandemic outbreak, Balogh gave lectures twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesday, and the students met in smaller groups once a week for a discussion led by a teaching assistant.

After the university shifted to online teaching, the professor started recording lectures and posting them on Sunday nights for students to watch on their own time. Meanwhile, teaching assistants led the weekly group sessions via Zoom, at the same time each week. And Balogh started sending a weekly email to go over what was expected that week in terms of assigned readings and a required film viewing.

He had never taught online before, and he expects none of his students had taken a class virtually either.

The other professor who shared her experience is Rachel Davenport, a senior lecturer at Texas State University who has also won teaching awards. She was leading a course for about 100 students on “the Biology of Sex and Reproduction.” It was something of an experimental lecture class, one that used “active learning” techniques.

Before the outbreak, “I taught it in one of our brand new ‘smart’ classrooms. We have all of these different setups for active learning,” with students grouped in tables of six, she says. “For every lecture there was a little bit of lecturing, but there was also an active learning activity. And students were doing a lot of group work.”

Once the pandemic hit, Davenport had to quickly pivot online as well. For her, that was less foreign, since she has actually taught fully-online classes in the past.

Her plan: “to make videos and send out weekly to-do lists, which would include asynchronous tasks. And I did that because I have several students that don’t have good access to the internet or devices, or who suddenly find themselves with childcare or lack of childcare.”

So how did it go?

After all, students at many colleges have been calling for tuition refunds, arguing that the online teaching is not as good as in-person teaching, and that they are not getting the on-campus experience they signed up for.

Did students in these courses think the quality of instruction was as good online? Did they learn as much?

“My gut says they probably didn’t learn quite as much,” says Davenport. That’s partly because she had almost no time to prepare for the online teaching. “When I’ve taught online courses, I had months to prepare. This time I had a week,” she says. “I do think I could make this into a good learning experience, but not on the fly like I did.”

And for Balogh?

“I think the students who wanted to learn a lot of history really did learn a lot of history from this class,” he says. “Certainly, content-wise it was all there. But I don’t think it was quite as engaging.”

For Balogh, one surprise was how much time he ended up talking about history with individual students, on telephone calls or Zoom office hours. “I found the discussions over the last weeks to be far more substantive, far more about history, far more about the content of the class,” he adds. “And we got into other things as well and that truly made this an incredibly rewarding semester to me.”

One theory as to why the students dug into the content: “A lot of students are really anxious. A lot of people around the entire world are really anxious. And I think that actually getting into the material was a welcome relief” from thinking about the coronavirus. “After spending six weeks locked in your house with your family, maybe it’s a nice way to get away from your family.”

This is a brief recap. To hear the voices (this story works better as audio), listen to the podcast episode.


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