Like many schools across the United States, in March 2020 Baruch College transitioned to fully remote teaching and learning. As we facilitated this change, the Center for Teaching and Learning began to have conversations about how best to support faculty during this challenging time. One of the things that became quickly apparent was that we needed more information about the student experience. To address this need, Seth Graves, Allison Lehr Samuels, Hamad Sindhi, Pamela Thielman, Katherine Tsan, and Ron Whiteman developed a survey instrument to distribute to undergraduate and graduate students from all schools at Baruch College. We deployed it for the first time at the end of the Spring 2020 semester and have continued through the fall 2021 semester.
The survey was distributed to all registered students, though they were free to choose to respond and there were no incentives for completing it or consequences for not doing so. Our questions address the following topics: how students define flexible learning; concerns about technology; faculty communication; student engagement; what students want faculty to know about their current circumstances; and preferred course formats. The text of the survey has remained relatively stable over time. We made minor changes from the early iterations to later ones to improve the clarity of the questions. We made one major change for the fall 2020 survey with the addition of questions about preferred course modalities in the post-fully-online world. You can find a PDF of the most recent iteration of our survey (summer 2021) below.
Responses and reports
In all iterations of our survey undergraduate student responses significantly outnumbered graduate student responses. Within the undergraduate population, students from Zicklin School of Business responded most often, followed by students from Weissman School of Arts and Sciences. Very few undergraduate students from Marxe School of Public and International Affairs responded. This pattern held for graduate students as well. The largest number of responses came from students from Zicklin, followed by responses from Weissman, then Marxe. In the graduate population, Marxe students were more robustly represented.
The aim of the survey was to provide CTL with actionable information to help the largest number of faculty adjust their pedagogy as efficiently as possible. This meant that at the end of each survey period staff members Pamela Thielman, Katherine Tsan, and Ron Whiteman reviewed the responses, summarized and made recommendations based upon them, which were disseminated internally. However, the staff found the survey responses so helpful that after the fall 2020 survey Pamela, Katherine, and Ron started writing up their findings more fully in order to share them. Reports for fall 2020 and spring 2021 are linked below. The report for fall 2021 is currently in progress.
- Spring-Summer 2020 Reflections (internal document)
- Fall 2020 Report
- Fall 2020 Summary Slideshow
- Spring 2021 Report
- Summer 2021 Report
- Fall 2021 Report (coming soon)
The datasets we’ve collected extend from the initial transition to fully-online learning (spring 2020) through the (projected) final semester of the fully-online learning mandate (i.e., summer 2021). Over the course of this time, several key takeaways emerged pertaining to the themes of instructor ‘communication’, ‘organization’, and ‘understanding’, as well as ‘learning flexibility’ and ‘in-session engagement’. As much as these themes appear to be of regular interest to students, there is also evidence that viewpoints on these matters shift, semester by semester. While there is value in reflecting on how the student perspective has changed over time, we interpret such changes with caution. The period in question has obviously been tumultuous, and one thing our respondents have made clear is that for many Baruch students, things remain that way. Looking ahead, we would therefore prompt instructors to be flexible and adaptable in how they think about and apply the suggestions for improving their teaching offered in our reports and briefly summarized below.
- In the Spring of 2020, the majority of the students we surveyed (65%) reported having had only “a little experience” with online classes prior to the transition to online learning. Moreover, 28% reported having had “no experience at all”. This suggests that many of our students experienced a steep learning curve with respect to the online modality at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving forward, faculty teaching online or hybrid courses can safely assume that their students are coming into the semester with some online learning experience.
- Improving communication was one of the main foci of the responses in the Spring ‘20 and Summer ‘20 surveys. While a subset of respondents continues to register dissatisfaction with the way their professors are communicating with them, in Spring ‘21 there was substantially less dissatisfaction than before. Nonetheless, the urge remains high (and is in fact increasing) for instructors to demonstrate greater clarity, consistency, orderliness, and organization in their communications. Moreover, there is now a new plea for instructors to use more communication that would aim to encourage and enhance student engagement in their online classes.
- A desire for increased engagement in synchronous learning sessions continues to be a principal focus for students. A similar, albeit softer, plea exists for asynchronous classes. Students would like their live classes to feature a variety of activities—for instance, a chance to participate in peer-to-peer learning via breakout groups or group projects. They also wish to receive class content through diverse modes, from the traditional lecture to videos they can annotate and even guest speakers. Meanwhile, for engagement in asynchronous classes, discussion boards, and digital communication tools were seen as the most effective vehicles.
- Flexibility in the learning experience continues to be important to students. While some instructors may be concerned that the term “flexibility” connotes completely acquiescing to students, or foregoing rules, on the contrary introducing flexible learning can allow for greater accessibility and therefore a richer learning experience for a wider range of students. Although students have varying opinions about what “flexible learning” means, the undergraduate sample continued to care mostly about having flexible deadlines for their work. There was also some interest in being able to order their work as they saw fit and not having to be online at specific times. Thus, flexibility seems mainly to be defined as having some governance over the timing of their work. Perhaps instructors can consider relaxing within reason the time frames in which work is to be completed and submitted.
- Requests for understanding/empathy featured prominently in students’ responses when they were prompted to discuss how challenges of the current time have affected their learning. Similar sentiments also came up in response to questions dealing with ‘engagement’ and ‘communication’. The need for compassion is an important takeaway, and is consistent with the CTL’s ethos that building a classroom community—indeed, practicing good pedagogy—means trying our best to “meet the students we teach where they’re at”. A willingness to check in with our students, gauge their feelings, and express affirmation of the specific situation they are in and/or the difficulties they might be experiencing is a characteristic we should always strive for as instructors, independent of the moment we are in with the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Good organization remains a basic prerequisite for a successful class. Teaching fully-online or hybrid courses requires particular attention to clarity and consistency in posting materials and assignments ahead of—or right after—the lecture, posting reminders about upcoming dates, and overall maintaining a predictable pattern of communication. This includes reaching out to students before the semester begins in order to make sure they are set up to succeed in an online environment.
For further information, you can contact the survey team at firstname.lastname@example.org.