What To Expect When You Weren’t Expecting Online Classes

By Leigh Wedenoja

When social distancing and stay-at-home orders began in March 2020, colleges and universities scrambled to transition their programs to some form of online learning. For most students and faculty accustomed to in-class instruction, this means a radical change in the way they are expected to interact. And because stay-at-home orders appear to be slowing the spread of COVID-19, states including New York have extended the duration of these directives. Most colleges now are finishing their spring semesters fully online.

Online college coursework is bound to become a growing part of the college curriculum even after the most serious threats of the coronavirus outbreak have passed. Colleges, faculty, and students all can better understand and properly prepare for this transition in ways that will help optimize student success. In order to assist both professors and students plan for the possibility of fully online classes this summer or fall, we have distilled some of the research on how to successfully structure and take online classes. These evidence-based strategies include setting motivating and achievable goals, limiting distraction, actively participating with peers, and seeking or providing feedback and support.

Moving Online

The mid-semester transition from in-person to online learning was less than ideal, as colleges encountered immediate difficulties moving classes with hands-on learning components, such as labs, online. Further, some students found they lacked the technology to properly access and participate fully in online courses. One advantage to transitioning in the middle of the semester, however, is that students who are likely to have more difficulty with online classes—those with poor organization, planning, and self-motivation skills, for example—had the opportunity to build a foundation of success in their in-person classes before going online. Instructors of fully online classes need to figure out how to design their coursework and instructional methods to best serve these students from the very first day.

Planning for a fully online semester is very different from finishing the last few weeks of a course online for both faculty and students. First-year students and those with weaker preparation for college are the most likely to face difficulties in transitioning, and the many colleges that provide in-person summer programs for new and at-risk students are unlikely to be able to offer those if stay-at-home orders remain in place.

Online Learning Challenges

Trying to directly replicate an in-person online is likely not the most effective structure for a successful online course. When in-person and online have identical material, lectures, and exams and students are randomly assigned to learn either in-person or online, research has shown that students in online courses perform worse than their in-person counterparts. The difference in in-person and online performance is especially stark for male students, Hispanic students, and lower-achieving students. One large-scale study of 168,000 sections of 750 different courses at a large for-profit university found that students who take a course online had lower grades in that course and subsequent courses and were less likely to remain enrolled a year later compared to students who took the same course in-person.

First-year students and those with weaker preparation for college are the most likely to face difficulties in transitioning, and the many colleges that provide in-person summer programs for new and at-risk students are unlikely to be able to offer those if stay-at-home orders remain in place.

Students also appear to be less satisfied with online courses, reporting that technical problems, feelings of isolation, and lack of support from the university hurt both their enjoyment of the course and ability to be successful in it. This general sense of dissatisfaction is likely to be exacerbated by current stay-at-home orders as students may feel even more isolated and a lack of adequate technology may increase frustration. Even when students perform well in online courses they rate professors higher in in-person courses and prefer in-person classes because of the opportunity to have peer-to-peer discussions.

Designing for online is different than in-person instruction and if instruction is poorly designed for an online setting, it will certainly be less effective. There are, however, a number of strategies students and professors can use to be more successful in online courses and to help create the challenging academic community of a university from the safety of their homes. Moving online is daunting for faculty and students who only have experience with in-person courses but many researchers, faculty, and institutions have developed course strategies uniquely suited to succeed in online settings.

Put the Course In Context of Your Whole Academic Career

Students who do far better in college than their high school performance would predict—known as “thrivers”—generally have stronger noncognitive skills associated with college success including delayed gratification, conscientiousness, and time management. Such skills become even more important in an online setting. Instructors can help students learn and practice these traits by setting goals, planning how to achieve those goals, and following up on their progress toward those goals.

Thrivers also do better because they expect to do better. When asked open-ended questions about their goals of attending college students offered detailed answers about the impact they want to have in the world. In a time of social distancing and online courses, students have fewer opportunities to have those open-ended discussions. Asking online students to write a brief essay reflecting on why they are attending college, what they want to get out of it, and how each course aids in those goals can help them stay motivated and on track.

Soft, but official, commitments to stay on track also can provide direction for students and improve outcomes. Students who were offered the opportunity to sign a document stating their intent to graduate and pass exams were more likely to do so. Schools can solicit these agreements from their students, or students can write letters to their advisors or professors spelling out their intentions and goals for the academic program as a way to keep themselves accountable.

Set “Task-Based” Goals

We all set goals ourselves, but not all types of goal-setting have been shown to substantially improve student performance in college. Research shows that goals that pertain to completing specific, discrete, achievable tasks—such as the number of practice tests to complete, the number of supplemental videos to watch, or the number of responses to post on the class discussion board—are substantially more effective at improving course performance than more general performance goals. These “task-based” goals are more effective than general goals for two reasons. First, they function as commitment devices that help prevent procrastination and distraction. Second, they encourage students to perform tasks that have been shown empirically to improve course performance. Intending to do well in a course and spending more time studying will not improve course performance if a student doesn’t know how to study or prepare effectively.

Simply setting schedule-based goals is not enough either. One study showed that students who were asked to do a planning activity at the the beginning of the semester and then received reminders based on that schedule performed slightly worse overall than students who did not complete the activity.

Performance-based goal setting for online students also can present challenges, as students’ beliefs about their ability to succeed and the effectiveness of their learning approach are often wrong or misguided. Students who are poor judges of their own learning retain less than students who are more accurate about judging what they have learned. Task-based goal-setting, on the other hand, creates a cycle of study-test-judge that can improve students’ ability to study and judge their own learning accurately.

Limit Distractions to Improve Time Management

A perennial problem for college students—both online and in-person—is poor time management. Distractions on college campuses such as sports, jobs, clubs, and social events, are easy to see and identify, but in-class distractions also hurt learning. In an experiment at the US Military Academy, students who were permitted to use laptops during class had lower final exam scores than students in the same course who were not permitted to use laptops. In-class distractions are even more likely in online lectures when instructors are less likely to notice if students are not paying attention. Some experienced online professors, like SUNY Empire State College’s Rhianna Rogers, have limited these distractions by requiring that students keep their cameras on during lecture and using exercises that solicit active participation from each student. A good strategy students can try to help prevent distraction is to use the same best practices in an online lecture as a live one: turn the video on full screen, turn cell phones to silent, and take notes with a pen and paper.

Distractions for online students are more likely when studying, too. If all course materials are provided electronically and accessed online, students may be distracted to use their computer time for things other than coursework. One study of students in a MOOC (massive open online course) found that certain kinds of focus devices helped students in the online course improve their grades. A commitment device, which limited the amount of time students could spend on distracting websites, improved both course completion and performance. Here, students spent more time on the course website actively using course materials compared to other students. Students can set “parental controls” for themselves to block noncourse websites or even turn on airplane mode to only use downloaded course material to mimic this focus treatment and prevent distraction.

Students who sign up late for online classes, suggesting some level of disorganization, are less likely to complete assignments on time and thus more likely to fail the course. Reminders can help disorganized students and prevent late assignments, and the most successful reminders are about specific tasks and deadlines with information about how to complete those tasks. Studies typically have focused on reminders directly from schools and faculty, but students can also set a series of calendar reminders and alarms on their own based off the course syllabus at the beginning of the semester.

Find Peers and Participate

Students are substantially influenced by their peer groups in college, but how these groups function in a fully online environment is bound to be very different from typical on-campus experiences. Rather than becoming friends because of the physical proximity of being in the same dorm or in the same class section, more effort is required to find friends to learn with and lean on when classes are online. Peer effects in college are both academically and socially significant and affect everything from grades, to major choice, to alcohol and drug use.

Discussion and participation, in general, improve outcomes in online courses. Online discussion boards can provide the same active learning that is so important in in-person classes.

Fully online courses also may limit students’ ability to expand and diversify their social network. Students who are assigned a roommate of another race subsequently report having more friends outside their racial group, for example. Minority group students report feeling more belonging when they have majority group roommates, and white students report being more comfortable with minority students and are observed to behave more inclusively after having a minority group roommate.

An advantage that online courses offer is that discussion boards and chat rooms can be used to facilitate discussion among students of very diverse geography, and potentially very diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. In another MOOC experiment, researchers took advantage of the fact that students could be in distant locations and found that students assigned to geographically diverse discussion groups performed better than other students on later quizzes. Students and professors should seek to create diverse groups of viewpoints and backgrounds in their classes.

Discussion and participation, in general, improve outcomes in online courses. Online discussion boards can provide the same active learning that is so important in in-person classes. Message boards may not have the immediacy and direct engagement of a typical classroom, but students who use these tools to participate actively in class discussions perform better in courses, especially those who read numerous posts by other students. On the flip side, students who procrastinate tend to do poorly online in part because they often do not participate fully on class discussion boards.

Large online courses can be split into multiple small discussion groups, helping ensure that each student’s (digital) voice gets heard. Instructors also can provide more discussion topics than would be possible in a traditional in-person class session to engage more students. Class size seems to matter less in online courses: research has shown that a 10 percent increase in class size has no effect on student performance. Faculty who take advantage of these tools may be better able to manage large classes online than they would be able to in a lecture hall.

There is evidence that not all engagements and peer interactions in online courses are the same. Synchronous engagements—chat rooms where a group of students participate at the same time—are more predictive of higher exam scores than asynchronous engagements, such as discussion boards where students do not need to post at a certain common time. Peer interactions are most effective when group members have clear instructions on how to interact and support each other and are well-matched in terms of ability.

Solicit Feedback and Seek Out Support

To keep students on track between exams and homework assignments, instructors leading in-person classes can randomly call on students to respond to questions, react to assigned reading, or explain concepts to the class. Online environments don’t naturally foster these valuable informal interpersonal exchanges in the gaps between assessments. A key way to help keep students on track is to give students nongraded mini-quizzes with immediate feedback during every class, and online environments are ideal for this type of structure. Short, multiple-choice, automatically graded quizzes can be regularly injected as part of many online college courses. One research study shows that when these types of mini-quizzes were implemented, student performance improved and, notably, the achievement gap between high- and low-income students reduced by half.

A key to the success of this partially online system is that coaches are encouraged to be aggressive in arranging meetings rather than waiting for students to come to them with questions.

Feedback on higher-importance assignments such as midterm exams and comments on early essay drafts improve final exam performance. At a UK university, students in departments that traditionally give midterm feedback improve more between their midterm and final exams than students in other departments. The feedback is especially important for students who are new to the institution and therefore have less information on expectations. This is even more important in an online setting. Professors can provide frequent direct feedback to students about their work, and students can seek out that feedback, to improve overall performance. Feedback also serves as an informational nudge for students who are poor judges of their own ability.

Support and feedback are not confined to the classroom. Students benefit from the counselors, advisors, and mentors that help them navigate the often complex academic requirements to obtain a degree. This academic and counselling support system functions differently in the online world, but many of the lessons learned in traditional college settings remain the same. One-on-one coaching for low-income and nontraditional students has been shown to be particularly effective, and although this coaching is generally in person, it has been shown to improve performance even when 50 percent takes place over text or Skype.

A key to the success of this partially online system is that coaches are encouraged to be aggressive in arranging meetings rather than waiting for students to come to them with questions. These “get to know you” meetings can help students feel more grounded and give them space to ask questions. Instead of framing office hours as times of general availability for students to ask questions, professors can require that all students meet for a one-on-one video meeting early in the semester to establish a foundation for ongoing support. Changing the framing of student-professor meetings from optional to expected can encourage students to communicate more consistently with faculty. Framing changes may aid in-class discussion as well, asking “what questions do you have” rather than “are there any questions” makes asking questions, rather than silence, the default.

Online College Is College

Adapting to online classes is an ongoing and evolving process for both students and faculty. Even before March’s stay-at-home orders, enrollment in online courses had expanded dramatically with 33 percent of college students taking at least one online course. Students and faculty who are moving online for the first time will have to adjust to the increased distraction, technological hurdles, and feelings of isolation that come with teaching and learning through a computer screen.

Despite the challenges, it is important to remember that these changes, though seemingly substantial, are largely cosmetic. Students still choose classes and courses of study based on their interests and career goals and faculty still teach classes in subjects where they have expertise. Just as students and faculty have developed strategies to learn and teach in traditional in-person settings, through trial, error, and open communication they will be able to adapt those strategies to online courses.


Leigh Wedenoja is a senior policy analyst at the Rockefeller Institute of Government