7 missing pieces: why students prefer in-person over online classes — University Affairs (2023)

We are a group of undergraduate and graduate students from York University connected with each other through sociology professor Cary Wu’s research methods courses. Led by Dr. Wu, we recently came together as a virtualgroup to discuss what makes in-person classes unique and different from online-learning. Through this productive discussion, we were able to determine what it is about in-person classes that we long for. Here, we share with you seven main themes that emerged in our conversations.

1. Community and friendship

The physicality of in-person classes presents a sense of community that can easily be lost online. Students note that in the classroom they can make personal connections with like-minded peers who share their scholarly interests. This kind of bonding experience is not easily replicated online, as most students rarely converse with each other during and after an online class.

When you are all in the same physical setting, making connections feels natural and it is unquestionably easier to reach out to classmates and professors alike. In-person classes lead to organic discussions where students can bounce ideas off of one another. For remote classes, by contrast, the on-screen dynamic we have been thrown into is impersonal and largely anonymous. “There is no sense of friendship or relationship between the students that would usually be built in traditional in-person classes,” says one student. “I feel like it is a missed networking opportunity.”

“There is no sense of friendship or relationship between the students that would usually be built in traditional in-person classes.”

With regard to peer support, options are especially limited for students in online classes. Generally, when students have questions about course directions, university processes, Moodle, and so on, they will reach out to their peers. However, now that virtual classes have deprived students of the opportunity to build rapport with others, some of them do “not feel comfortable emailing a stranger.”

Graduate students are hit especially hard. One such student indicates that, “As a graduate student, we often don’t have much spare time for hobbies and seeing friends. Class time, group meetings, etc., provide us with what is often our only social interaction during a given week. The loss of this, I believe, is causing a lot of loneliness and grief that should not be understated.”

2. Presence of social cues

Social cues are often missed in online classes, and when we fail to pick up on these cues, we misunderstand people and situations. Students observe a missing “human aspect” in online interactions. “It feels as if I’m speaking to myself or filming myself rather than engaging in a conversation.”

Exacerbating the issue, students may turn off their cameras during an online class and, without these visual cues, they may not feel safe during classroom discussions and find it difficult to “develop a sense of trust and familiarity” toward their peers who, against the backdrop of faceless learning, feel more like “strangers.”

7 missing pieces: why students prefer in-person over online classes — University Affairs (1)

“Without in-person interactions with professors and classmates, some students can struggle to focus during class and refrain from asking questions.” Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash.

3. Sense of motivation

I like seeing other people studying in the library because it gives me a sense of motivation and comfort,” observes one student. Without the option of studying in the library or other shared study space, students feel their motivation to complete their assignments and prepare for tests ebbing away. Indeed, the library seems to be a place that nurtures resilience and provides a sense of comfort and solidarity among students. Another student observes that seeing other students study makes them realize that they are not the only one struggling, and this drives them to do their best.

Graduate students also mention that staying after classes to meet with their professors allows them to connect with their professors in ways that additionally benefit their learning. “Sometimes it’s not only about learning the material. Establishing a good relationship with a professor allows me to connect with them in ways that makes me more eager to ask more questions and seek more answers.”

4. Staying focused

Engagement and focus are vital to the learning process, but are in poor supply under the regime of online learning. “Without in-person interactions with professors and classmates, some students can struggle to focus during class and refrain from asking questions.” More directly, online classes are rife with ready distractions, including “online notifications, chat functions on Zoom and other household or neighbourhood distractions that cannot be controlled.”

Just the belief that they would do better if schooling were done in-person may subliminally drive a self-fulfilling prophecy among students in which they feel that they are not well-equipped to study online and subsequently, care and work less. “Obviously, students have lectures, tutorials, assignments, tests, quizzes and exams they must do. However, there are more chances for you to push it off to another day because you do not have to be at the location personally.”

Graduate students are in the same boat. “The act of going into a specific space to study, with a group of people who can also be interacted with before and after, or during breaks, helps [them] to remain focused and interested in the topic of the class.”

5. Privacy

At home, but no privacy? Yes, this has become the reality for many students. Virtual meetings in one’s home does not afford the same level of privacy that in-person and closed-door meetings do. More likely than not, family members will be home due to the pandemic, and hence, students may forgo making appointments due to privacy concerns, depriving them of human interaction.

Similarly, some students cannot talk about their issues from home because they do not wish to have anyone else listen in on what they have to say to their academic advisors. Students also tend to feel more supported and comfortable when they talk to their academic advisors and counselors in person.

7 missing pieces: why students prefer in-person over online classes — University Affairs (2)

“Being at home has taken away this sense of routine because there is no necessity to wake early to commute or be somewhere at a given time.” Photo by Catherine Heath on Unsplash.

6. Sense of routine

Perhaps the cornerstone of high achievement is discipline. Online schooling, however, lacks structure, and this can affect a student’s grade and experience of the course as a whole. One student says, “Being at home has taken away this sense of routine because there is no necessity to wake early to commute or be somewhere at a given time.”

More troubling are the opportunities for procrastination that asynchronous classes afford. Indeed, without scheduled times, reminders by the professor and regular conversations with classmates in the lecture hall, it is almost guaranteed that students will fall behind on course readings, content and lecture material.

This lack of structure can also cause a blurring of boundaries between home and schoolwork. “I work hard at school so I can relax at home,” but “being home, there are a lot of things that can distract you from starting work whether it be family who are also staying home, or other things.”

Staying focused is especially hard for students who do not have their own proper learning space to study at home. “It is hard to focus because I have no space in my room to put a table to study and in the living room there is so much noise going on. My only solution is to do my work and study at night when my family goes to bed.”

7. Just being on campus

The simple act of being on campus makes for a positive educational and social postsecondary experience. Campus provides a sharp distinction between work and home, rather than the nebulous space students are finding themselves in at present. “I envision my home to be a safe place, a place that I don’t have to stress in, where I simply relax and forget about the day.”

Campus also provides a necessary common ground for students who live far away from each other to meet and connect. Perhaps most importantly, campus provides the right kind of learning atmosphere to study, concentrate and complete assignments. One student notes, “I go to York every day, even when I don’t have class. I’d arrive at York every day at 7:00 in the morning and just study till my class started – most of my classes were in the afternoon and I would stay at York even after all my lectures and tutorials were done till around 5:00. York was the place where work got done.”

“Even thinking about how long we are going to have to put up with online schooling is scary … Is this going to be the new reality of learning for university students?”

Thus, for undergraduate and graduate students alike, online schooling seems to hinder both educational outcomes and social experiences. “Even thinking about how long we are going to have to put up with online schooling is scary … Is this going to be the new reality of learning for university students?”

Students struggle to remain focused, motivated, committed, and there is no longer a sense of familiarity and community among students and professors. This is not to say that online learning can only produce negative outcomes, but rather, to acknowledge the difficult challenges it poses for all students.

Yes, the global pandemic has given students the opportunity to contemplate their educational experience and truly appreciate the physical space and face-to-face interactions they have had with their peers and professors on campus. In the midst of the global pandemic, we are experiencing what it is like to be left to our own devices both figuratively and literally, and the consensus view among students is that meaningful social interaction stems from campus.

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