Despite professors’ best efforts, students struggle with online classes

Lack of motivation, connection and community makes participation difficult

Despite professors’ best efforts, students struggle with online classes
Cherry blossoms in bloom on an empty campus.

Editor’s note: this article originally appeared on theeaglecoronavirusproject.com, a separate website created by Eagle staff at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020. Articles from that website have been migrated to The Eagle’s main site and backdated with the dates they were originally published in order to allow readers to access them more easily. 

Despite professors’ efforts to smooth out the transition to online classes following the suspension of in-person classes in March, many students said that learning from home presents challenges that cannot be easily solved. 

Issues tied to mental health, online engagement and the lack of an allocated learning environment make it difficult to concentrate and keep up with assignments, students said. However, some said professors are understanding and adapted to the new paradigm quickly. 

Dance classes are live-streamed and recorded from the studio. Political science professors are working the government’s coronavirus response into their curriculums. A physics professor mailed her students small motor kits so they could complete their next project at home. These efforts make a difference, students said, but distant learning still brings challenges. 

Meanwhile, some professors are only posting assignments on Blackboard.

“I feel like there’s no accountability anymore,” said Kada Jackel, a sophomore in the School of Education. “I like to think that I’m good with time management, and even with my time management skills I can’t get anything done.”

Jackel said her experience is complicated by mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s able to continue meeting with her therapist remotely, but it’s hard for her to concentrate in online classes. Beyond that, participation feels inaccessible, as classes lack the typical social cues associated with periods of discussion or questioning.

Some professors have barely changed their approach to classes, students said. 

Carter Allen, a senior in the School of Public Affairs and School of Communication, said that one of her professors hasn’t been clear about whether he’ll maintain regular lectures or conduct asynchronous classes instead. This conflict means she’s never sure how to prepare for classes. 

She was also instructed to adhere to all the deadlines set up at the beginning of the semester, regardless of extenuating circumstances. If papers are handed in late, students were told they'll get an “F,” Allen said. 

The SPA administration hasn’t been very helpful either, Allen said. After reaching out to the SPA dean’s office about the professor’s failure to communicate, the administration told her that his conduct was satisfactory. 

“This is a class I need to graduate,” Allen said. “I’m a graduating senior who works three jobs. I have a paid internship for 30 hours a week. I’ve been taking 17 credits every semester. They just don't seem to get the gravity of the situation.”

Vicky Wilkins, the dean of SPA, said that her team is working hard to provide assistance to professors and students. While she hasn’t heard many complaints about professors, Wilkins said she takes everything seriously. 

“We did not in every case get every class where we wanted it,” Wilkins said. “But I think we had a good process in terms of trying to support the faculty and getting the students moving forward. Every day, I learn a new struggle a student might be having that you wouldn’t expect. It’s hard to even imagine all that you guys are going through.”

Jane Russo, a senior in SOC, described online classes as “just a blip in her day, not really an experience.”

It’s hard to focus while worrying about the pandemic, Russo said, and it’s become easy to forget that she even has school work to do.

SPA professor Ron Elving agreed. Absences in his classes have more than doubled, he estimated. It’s impossible to ensure full attention from students, and Elving said he can imagine how distracted they must be. 

“I understand how tempting it would be to wander off and keep one ear on whatever the professor is saying,” he said. 

Adding to the stress are the varying ways professors run their online courses, students said. While some professors conduct lectures live or record them, others prefer to assign discussion posts or short writing assignments on Blackboard. Even the live classes are complicated, as professors often change their minds about which service to use and sometimes require students in different time zones to conform to wildly disconnected schedules. 

Taking classes from home has other unexpected side effects. It’s easy to fall back into your high school self, SPA junior Vincenza Belletti said. She said even being in the room she grew up in makes it hard to concentrate. 

CAS sophomore Cate Ginsberg also said the return home from school has been difficult.

“Motivation is at an all-time low,” she said.

Ginsberg’s voice class pivoted to practicing audition tapes, she said, which require a set of skills distinct from normal performances. Dance classes are “pretty much the same” as they were in-person, she added, with students following the professor’s demonstrations from home. The biggest problem with that is finding space, something some students in her class lack. 

Physics professor Teresa Larkin decided early in the semester to make her classes as community-oriented as possible. She often makes food for her Habits of Mind students, and she sees the class as a family.

Larkin invites students to watch movies on the weekends and keeps them updated on what she’s cooking throughout the week, in the hopes of de-stressing everyone. She’s now more open to extensions and due dates, too. 

Larkin, who teaches by recording videos that supplement her live-streamed lectures, taught one class with her grandson on her lap, she said, and students loved it. 

“I'm sharing more personal things with students.” Larkin said. “Personal stories, you know, of insignificance, but that I think help the students realize that we're all human.”

When the class reached a unit dedicated to building motors, Larkin said she couldn’t imagine teaching the class without them getting the components in their hands. So, she mailed kits to each person. 

It wasn’t always like this, Larkin said. On 9/11, when the University descended into chaos as it tried to decide how to move forward after the tragedy, even contacting students was difficult. The difference? 

“Technology,” Larkin said. “All we had was a class Listserv.” 

Elving compared the experience to his recollections of the chaos following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. As campuses across the country began protesting, many sent their students home or told them not to return from spring break. Others canceled classes, allowing students to stay on campus. 

“We were all still influencing each other,” Elving said. “Sending everybody home, which is in many respects the opposite, but telling them they still have to go to school, really breaks up … the whole set of reinforcements you get from being an on-campus university. It’s more like everybody’s at a commuter school, and the commute is to their computer.” 

Students aren’t only impacted by the transition to online classes. 

A freshman in SPA who asked not to be named said that his parents tested positive for the virus after spending time with a family friend who was later diagnosed. Although the student hasn’t been tested, he said he’s had minor symptoms on and off for the past week and lives in close proximity to his parents. 

However, he said that he didn’t want to take a test from someone who needed it. 

The freshman, who struggles with stress and feelings of isolation, said the few professors he told were understanding.

Still, online classes are testing many people’s resolve. 

“The benefit of all of this is that we’ll learn why we’ve been doing [higher education] the way we’ve been doing it,” Elving said. “You hear people talking about online dating. I don’t think it’s going to replace the real thing.”

dpapscun@theeagleonline.com

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle

Would you like to support our work? Donate here to The Eagle Innovation Fund.