Pandemic Education: What incoming first-years want from professors

James M. Quirk and James P. Quirk

As high school staggered to its quarantined, online ending, a university professor and high school senior asked the Class of 2020 what they wanted if their first year of college begins online

Nearly 150 students from across the United States assessed their spring online learning experience and made 500 comments about what they want while beginning college online. Detailed research results were published with Educause Review, July 2020. But here’s the bottom line.

Spring was not good

Unprepared teachers and unmotivated students combined for a real lack of learning.

When they go to campus this fall, students want the virtual experience to include structure, guidance, flexibility, and real community- and relationship-building.

Students want meaningful assignments with effective communications and consequential engagement. They understand that their high school teachers didn’t have the training or experience to move overnight to online teaching. Many teachers offered uninspiring busywork and limited communications. Students also acknowledged their own shortcomings. They were concerned about life more than school, they had school districts ensure safe grading, and they were already admitted to colleges. Some students and teachers were more productive, but overall students want it to be much better when they start college.

Engage me

Most of all, students want to be engaged in meaningful work. They want to know their professors care about them personally and professionally. They want (some) live-online instruction, not just recorded videos. They welcome the academic challenges of college but need some instruction on how to do it well: clear syllabi and explicit rubrics, but also a greater understanding of a course’s broader learning goals and value.

Students want to undertake all this as part of a classroom community. Based on their experience this spring, they lack confidence in online teaching and learning. They expect their professors to be better prepared than their high school teachers who had to adjust so quickly. Students want assignments and meetings in small groups, where they can begin to develop relationships with their classmates and professors. They want one-on-one time in online office hours.

Students know they need to do better too

As high school droned on toward its disappointing end, students acknowledged their own lack of efforts. “I did the minimum amount necessary” was a common theme in the students’ comments. Students recognize that without the regular 8am-3pm schedule of high school, they need to develop time management and independent learning skills. They need to seek out new ways of meeting people.

Students also recognize they need a productive work environment. For some, laptops in bed needs to be replaced with breakfast and clean desks. But some still won’t have home-settings that include their own computer, reliable Internet, or ideal space and quiet.

What does this mean for faculty and universities?

Students are nervous about what good college learning and good online learning looks like. They didn’t get either this spring. They think they won’t know where to find help for tutoring or learning disabilities. But most of all, students want to meet people and work with people. They want to make real connections. What can we do?

Let students know you are genuinely present and they are truly valued. Some universities have had faculty and older students reaching out to incoming first-years by phone, email, and social media. We need to continue to do this once school starts.

Offer explicit academic guidance. Hints, tips, clarifications, reminders – these were always acquired from classmates and faculty in those short moments after class, in the hallway, that fortuitous moment walking across campus. Those moments are gone for a while.

Offer guidance on what good online learning looks like – to faculty and to students. Colleges have been teaching their professors technology all summer, but have they been teaching pedagogy? Teaching online is different that teaching in a classroom. Many professors have never been an online student and haven’t seen that perspective. For students, years of social media doesn’t make them experts in education tools. Begin with an introduction to your learning management system. Offer a couple of ungraded assignments where they introduce themselves and get a chance to test the technology.

Offer opportunities for students to connect with each other and to connect with you. Not all teaching needs to be live-online – watching Zooms all week is draining for everyone. But by a ratio of 8 to 1, students say some of the instruction needs to be live-online – with opportunities for students to interact with faculty and with each other. Students specifically mentioned small-group assignments and online office hours. Zoom and learning management systems offer the chance for polls, surveys, and discussion groups (video or text) with the chance to explore ideas without being graded for “wrong” answers. Students value good classroom discussion, even if it is online.

Students want what they always want

Students know this is all unusual and they want to make the best of it. They want a rich academic experience and they want to develop relationships with their peers and professors. Students know they need to develop all the usual skills required to adjust to college and pandemic-specific skills as well. They are eager to do this. In all the usual ways and in many new ways, they need our help.

James M. Quirk teaches in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.





James P. Quirk is a Class of 2020 graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland and will be an engineering major at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.




Detailed research results were published with Educause Review, July 2020.

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