A new study says college students may prefer the flexibility of hybrid classes—but that doesn’t mean they want to leave campus.
Holly Burns, for instance, long dreamed of attending the University of California at Berkeley. She took some intro-level courses at her local community college, and when she applied in 2018, she couldn’t believe she was accepted. Burns chose Berkeley because of the beauty and energy of its campus.
The adjustment as a transfer student was challenging. “It took me a little while to find a group of people that I wanted to be around, and feel like I was connected to the campus,” Burns says. “Especially as a transfer student and being somebody who was older than most of the undergraduates.”
Just as she found her footing, the pandemic hit, forcing her classes online and a new reality of campus life. “I was absolutely devastated,” Burns said. “It was like this thing that I had been working towards for so many years was just kind of ripped away.”
Remote education couldn’t compare to the in-person instruction and sense of community that attracted her to Berkeley in the first place. “I’m an in-person kind of person,” Burns says. “There’s something very bizarre to me about looking at my screen all day.”
Burns is one of the millions of college students forced to adapt to remote learning at a pivotal time in her education. As thousands of students like her emerge from unprecedented turbulence, they and college leaders must ask, What should class look like now? And how should we keep students engaged and best support them?
Returning to campus didn’t feel like Burns expected. “I felt really disconnected from my professors, and I was very eager to get back in person. Then I get back in person, and then it hits me—I’m really happy to be back, but I’m exhausted,” Burns said. “I can’t even believe how tired I am. The second that I get out of my class, I’m running home, I can’t wait to get back home.”
She loves having the option to attend in person, but some days, knowing that she won’t sacrifice her only opportunity to absorb course information greatly reduces the stress she feels, she says. She also thinks maybe the pandemic changed her. “Now, my brain is more geared towards being able to learn this way,” she says of remote instruction. “But I don’t know if it’s for better or for worse.”
Burns’ appreciation of that new flexibility, and her uncertainty about its true impact on her studies echo research and observations from experts around the country, revealing that questions about what format colleges should teach in have become widespread.
A Natural Experiment
Perry Samson, a professor of climate and space sciences at the University of Michigan, has been experimenting with remote education and student engagement for years—since well before the pandemic. He created a tool that allows him to receive more instantaneous feedback from students. Once the pandemic forced most teaching online, Samson used that tool to better understand his students’ attitudes about in-person and remote learning, publishing his findings in Educause Review. Samson’s findings highlight the varied opinions students hold of remote learning.
Samson gave his students what he considered reasonable options: They could come to class, participate remotely during class time, or review recorded material and contribute to class discussions asynchronously, so long as it was on the same day as the class. He found that students hold varied opinions about remote learning, and universities would be wrong to assume students participating remotely are less committed or less hard-working.
At the start of the fall semester in August, more than 90 percent of students attended in person, but by October, that figure hovered around 20 percent. Similarly, while early in the semester most students were participating during the usual class time, by November about a third were participating asynchronously, using a discussion group where they could chime in when it was convenient.
Upper-level students were about half as likely to show up in person as first-semester students, Samson found. But the format students chose didn’t seem to have much impact on the grades they earned. In fact, those who participated asynchronously out-scored those who participated during class time by about five percent.
These findings highlight that being in the classroom does not guarantee higher grades, and that students ought to be considered holistically, Samson says. “The students are busy people, they have a life,” Samson adds. “So it’s acknowledging the fact that these are actually people coming into our classrooms, and some days they choose to come and other days not to—and those students who come to class are not necessarily the better students.”
Samson argues the flexibility he has baked into his courses is actually better at meeting the needs of students while giving them the space to build time management skills.
“I love that classroom, I love being in the classroom,” Samson says. “And as I showed in this paper, the students may love that classroom. But they really prefer having options.”
Some in higher education take that notion even farther, arguing that the lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is actually further evidence of the importance of a campus community.
In a recent interview with the FutureU podcast, Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University in Boston, was asked what the future of higher education will look like in light of COVID-19. Aoun said that early in the pandemic, many believed remote learning signified the end of the residential model of higher education. The consensus was that online learning would eventually do away with physical campuses. Since then, though, “we learned that this is not the case,” Aoun said. “We saw that during COVID that students wanted the human contact.”
This became clear when so many students chose to cluster around shuttered campuses in order to maintain some semblance of the campus community. “The human factor is important,” Aoun said. “The human interaction is important.”
Samson, of the University of Michigan, agrees that time on campus is invaluable. “It’s the interaction, that peer to peer interaction. That socialization is extremely important—it’s how you grow up and mature. University isn’t just about knowledge dropped, it’s about maturing, learning interpersonal skills,” Samson says. “The campus environment allows you to incubate.”
Samson is deeply curious about what fosters an engaging community and how universities can help students feel like they belong in higher education. He’s seen how increasing student feedback and flexibility leads to more engagement. Since he began giving his students more options, he’s noticed a change in his classroom.
“Over the course of the semester, I might get two dozen questions, usually from white male students,” Samson says. But after he introduced a digital backchannel for students to pose questions, he found out students were frequently confused during class but didn’t feel comfortable asking questions aloud. “It was quite sobering,” Samson says. “After all these years of teaching, I’m now averaging 500 questions a semester when I used to get a dozen or two.”
Burns, the U.C. Berkeley student, has noticed the same thing in her online classes. “When I first got to Berkeley, I was stunned at how terrible the communication skills were. Then we got online, and all of a sudden, everyone’s commenting, they’re raising their little virtual hands and talking more. I guess this is how they feel comfortable.”
Burns still attends every course she can in person. But on those days where it feels impossible, she appreciates that she can click over to Zoom and not fall behind.
She has mixed feelings about hybrid lessons going forward- She says that class discussions don’t go as well when some students are in a classroom and others are connecting remotely via Zoom or some other video platform. Yet, she hopes professors continue to record and distribute lectures for those rare occasions when she can’t be in the room.
She came to college to discuss big ideas, to share her perspective and to join a community. Against all odds, she says the pandemic didn’t totally derail those objectives. She found a home on campus, and managed to feel connected despite the physical and intellectual distance.
“This is my community,” Burns said. “These people know how to look at me in my face. They know how to have a conversation and bounce ideas and everything like that. You just don’t get that with the internet.”