Throughout 2020, universities worldwide began to teach remotely, deciding which platforms to use, whether to teach synchronously or asynchronously, how to prepare faculty, and what to expect from students’ participation while online. Curious to better understand these phenomena and how they might contribute to research on online teaching and learning, Minerva first-year students designed a survey for an assignment. The survey sought to better understand how students who didn’t choose online education learn online and what their preferences were. Together with Professor Geneva Stein, we revised that survey and sent it out through social media. 4,800 undergrad students from 95 different countries responded. Below is a summary of the findings.
Figure 1. Participants represented institutions in 95 countries.
1. Students prefer synchronous classes (but were equally distracted in them)
Synchronous learning entails live, real-time, online classes whereas asynchronous learning includes recorded sessions, videos, uploaded materials, and non-concurrent conversations. Although less than half of remote learning was primarily synchronous, 55% of the students preferred synchronous learning to asynchronous learning.
Students who had synchronous classes enjoyed their online classes more and were significantly more:
motivated to learn
satisfied with the instruction
engaged with the courses
likely to participate in class
Unfortunately, synchronous classes didn’t seem to improve distraction. Students felt equally distracted in synchronous vs asynchronous classes.
Figure 2. Impact of Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Primary Modes of Instruction on Student Perceptions.
2. Students want more interaction online
We found that the 55% of students who preferred synchronous classes prefer that mode for reasons that are related to socialization and interaction. In open-ended responses to the question of why students prefer synchronous classes, over 1300 students mentioned a reason related to interaction. There were also 320 mentions of synchronous classes being more familiar. This was important since 86% of respondents prefer in-person over online classes. Additionally, when asked to suggest some improvement for online classes, they emphasized live classes and increased interaction and participation. One can imagine that these improvements can be achieved more easily and effectively in a synchronous classroom than in an asynchronous one.
For the 14% that prefer online classes, their reasons align with previous research in the field. They prefer flexibility and convenience and are more likely to prefer asynchronous coursework. This is one of the findings that makes our research particularly novel. For the first time, a large population of students who are not traditional online learners was forced into an online format. From their responses, we can see that their preferences differ dramatically from those students who choose online learning. As higher education prepares for a future where emergency remote learning may replace snow days and emergency closures it is key to understand the preferences of students who choose to go to university in person.
3. Students prefer a combination of pedagogical techniques
The main highlight, supporting the importance of active learning, is that students whose classes used only passive-learning techniques reported significantly lower levels of engagement, satisfaction, participation, and motivation when compared with students whose classes incorporated at least some active-learning elements. Significance is usually measured by a P-value. Differences are considered significant if they can be reproduced by chance less than 1 out of 20 times, a p-value of 0.05. In our case, these differences between students with some active learning vs. only passive learning were very significant with p-values less than 0.001.
We evaluated the effectiveness of teaching techniques on synchronous classes by creating three categories of in-class techniques, namely (i) passive, (ii) 1-on-1 interaction, and (iii) group interaction. Our data suggested that the combination of all the categories was correlated with higher student enjoyment, motivation, satisfaction, engagement, and active participation. It was clear that passive methods alone were not rated as high compared to the other two in several cases and that regardless of category, 3 or more methods are better than 2 or fewer.
This pattern was repeated when we looked at teaching techniques outside of classes, also consisting of three categories: (i) provision of learning materials, (ii) interactions, and (iii) testing. Using the three of them combined was associated with significantly higher enjoyment, motivation, satisfaction, engagement, and active participation compared to using only one or two.
The variation in pedagogical techniques, that is, when instructors incorporated multiple teaching techniques instead of just one, was found to bring more positive perceptions of the student learning experience in both the synchronous and in the asynchronous learning environments, which is in line with current findings of the benefits of using combinations of methods for teaching. The main takeaway was that using more teaching techniques of different types outside and inside of a class might improve students’ perceived experience with remote learning.
Our research has shed light on the state of remote emergency education using students’ perspectives. Our findings were in line with current literature on the importance of integrating active learning into traditional pedagogies, and students’ needs to feel a social presence in a class. Although the study was not without limitations, we are confident to suggest that schools conduct synchronous classes with more diverse teaching techniques, especially ones that would promote active learning.
Finally, this research highlighted the values that students’ voices could bring to the betterment of education. There are over 10,000 responses in the total data set although we only studied the 4,800 undergraduate responses.
This data set is free for anyone to use and learn from here.