Student experience with online learning: Recommendations for faculty

From June 12 to 22, 2020, members of the UBC community using Canvas were invited to participate in a survey asking about their online summer course experience. 2,584 Canvas users responded. Below are recommendations developed by the CTLT Research and Evaluation Team based on the results.

Recommendation 1:

Offer both synchronous and asynchronous opportunities for engagement and learning in your courses.

Synchronous elements offer students the chance to connect with instructors and peers, manage their time and keep up with course work.

TIP: Offer live classes through videoconferencing platforms that allow the active use of polls and chat features. But, limit the usage of breakout rooms as students report disengagement when constantly put in small groups.

Asynchronous elements offer flexibility and the option for self-paced learning, both of which help work-life balance and students in different time zones.

TIP: Record and post live lectures, and make use of discussion boards.


Student comments:

The class with live lectures (using clickers and in-class activities) is way more engaging and helps keep me on track. I think [my professors] did a great job trying to keep the class as engaging as possible, given this situation.

The recorded lectures have been extremely helpful, I can focus on what the professor is teaching and then go back to the recording in case I missed an explanation.

Asynchronous courses are recommended, suited to all students around the world.


Recommendation 2:

Provide multiple opportunities for student-instructor and peer-to-peer interactions.

Students report feeling isolated and disconnected. This leads to disengagement and difficulties with keeping up with course requirements.

TIP: Schedule regular office hours, tutorials, teaching assistant (TA) support, and study groups at different times. Encourage students to self-organize study sessions and provide opportunities for students to connect with one another.


Student comments:

[It’s challenging] not being able to go to my prof/TA office hours. Emailing back and forth takes twice the amount of time. It’s very difficult to learn and ask questions without being able to talk to your prof [in person]. They should offer online/virtual office hours where you can speak to them.

The [most challenging part of learning online is] there are zero actual teachers, and peer/classroom interactions, and you spend too many hours staring at a lifeless screen.


Recommendation 3:

Modify your teaching practice to be more conducive to online learning.

Adapting teaching practices to the online environment supports students’ motivation, learning and wellbeing.

TIP: Make lectures shorter; prolonged periods of screen time negatively impact student performance. Limit the requirement for group work as students face unusual challenges to connect with others and work collaboratively.


Teaching and learning remotely are different than in-classroom instruction. Consider diversifying materials and course requirements to support student engagement.

TIP: Offer diverse resources and materials to foster opportunities for student engagement. Consider alternatives to remotely invigilated exams, given concerns about equal access to hardware and internet bandwidth needed for some tools. However, be mindful of the potential impact of your choices on student performance.


Student comments:

Long periods of just staring at the computer screen and listening to one person talking for an extended amount of time [make it difficult to learn online].

When people design courses where they give way too much reading to compensate for no in-class component makes it so challenging for me.

Since it’s hard to proctor exams for online courses, most students end up writing tests that are harder than recent exams to compensate for the fact that the exam is open-book.


Recommendation 4:

Organize Canvas materials with students in mind.

Inconsistent structure and location of course materials on Canvas lead to student confusion and frustration.

TIP: Look for examples and course templates from colleagues and teaching and learning consultants.


Student comments:

It took me over a week to figure out how my three teachers organized their material. For each, I had to hunt down several places to find the syllabus, where assignments posted in different categories, the rubric or messages. It would be helpful that all teachers use the functions of Canvas in a similar manner to save time.

I think when teachers or professors are planning the course for the term or individual lectures, they should consult the format for courses that are solely held online.


Recommendation 5:

Seek support and training.

Creating effective online learning experiences and managing online learning technologies are skills all faculty can develop. Even small changes to your course can make a big difference for you and your students.

TIP: Educational consultants at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology are available and ready to help answer questions or give advice about your particular courses! Request a course consultation.