What Students Want

What Students Want from Fall 2020

A growing number of studies are helping us better understand what students found most challenging at the end of the spring semester, and what their expectations are for fall. While students generally understand that the spring semester was a surprise to everyone, giving us all credit for the quick pivot, they have much higher expectations for us for the fall.

Key Takeaways

If you stop reading after this section, make sure you understand these three key points and find ways to address them this fall:

  1. Students felt disconnected from their instructors, and they want more frequent and sustained communication with you. Live video classes, Zoom office hours, and timely email responses can all meet this need.
  2. Students felt disconnected from their peers, and they want to see more community, interaction, and collaboration built into their fall classes.
  3. Students felt a lot of their spring assignments were busy work, and they want to see more meaningful and explicit connections between assignments and the larger course learning goals.

Details from the Studies

An IU study called "Going Remote: Actionable Insights from Indiana University's Transition to Remote Instruction due to COVID-19" examined our current students' experiences last spring and makes three key recommendations for fall (a fourth was from the faculty perspective on resource/content sharing):

  1. Assign classwork judiciously, and in alignment with clear learning goals.
    Make learning outcomes clear and be explicit about how each assignment helps them attain those goals. Consider using the TILT model to make sure assignments are transparent and aligned. Realize that fewer, more focused assignments might be more effective online.

  2. Create opportunities for student-instructor communication, especially for first- and second-year students.
    Work at increasing your presence in the courseshort videos, personal connections, online office hours, etc. And look for opportunities to give frequent feedback, perhaps through the Student Engagement Roster.

  3. Facilitate student success and foster a sense of virtual community through student-to-student communication.
    Explore ways of facilitating the creation of study groups, utilize group activities, and use breakout room activities in Zoom-based classes.

More details, including representative comments from IU students, are available in the report.


Another study, reported by Educause, explores What Incoming First-Year Students Want Online Learning to Be, based on students' experiences during their senior year. The important messages from this study are:

  1. Students' isolation led to increased anxiety and decreased motivation.
    Again, consider ways of increasing your presence in the course as well as interaction among students. They have problems staying on track and motivated if they feel they are in this alone. And look for ways of helping students find personal connections to your course content that will help boost their motivation.

  2. They want structure.
    Most new college students already have challenges adjusting to the self-direction and self-motivation required in college learning, and that is going to increase in online and hybrid courses. You may need to coach them through how to be a good student more than you usually would, since their past experiences aren't as useful in this new context. Consider ways of providing structure that can help them build these skills.

  3. Perceived busywork is a challenge, as it was in the IU study.
    Look for more engaging assignments, with clear connections to course goals and interaction with classmates. Worksheets and individual assignments decreased their motivation.

  4. Concerns about academic success were often connected to not knowing where to go for help—e.g., tutoring or support for learning disabilities.
    This is common among first-year students, but a sense of isolation may increase this inability to find the resources they need to succeed. Be ready to coach them through these processes and the "hidden curriculum" of higher education.

These two reports—which report similar findings as others across the country—give us some good indications of what students will need from us this fall semester. The good news is that it all centers around us doing what we do best—teaching in ways that are supportive, caring, and flexible. Be open to talking with students about these issues, do occasional check-ins to see how they are doing, and you will be well on your way to ensuring their success in a challenging semester.