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One student, three teaching modalities: What are the pros and cons for each?

Imagine being a freshman in college during early March of 2020. You’ve made it through the first half of the year. Spring break is on the horizon and summer is close behind. You’re in a groove and things are going well. Then came COVID and everything changed overnight — changes that are still evolving today as college students prepare to head back to the Fall 2022 term. While online programs have been steadily growing over the past several years, the sudden arrival of the pandemic caused an overnight upheaval in the way college courses are delivered. Since that time, students taking the traditional college campus route have gone from on-campus learning to completely remote learning to hybrid learning with a variety of additional formats along the way. Which formats work best? Which are least effective? What are the pluses and minuses of each teaching and learning modality?

For answers from the student perspective, we worked with our summer intern, Aaron — a freshman when the pandemic hit, now a rising senior at the University of Oregon. Aaron’s unique perspective highlights an actual student experience from the past two and a half years — experiences that can give student support staff a real-world look at areas where additional student support is needed. And to help with additional insights and issues to be aware of, we’ve also enlisted the help of a long-time InsideTrack coach. While these perspectives aren’t comprehensive of every learner and coach experience, they give us an opportunity to put ourselves in our students’ shoes and think about the lived experience of students in ever-changing learning environments.

In-person learning: A familiar system designed for maximum personal connections

From September 2019 through mid-March of 2020, Aaron was a freshman attending in-person classes and living on campus in Eugene, Oregon.

PROS: In-person learning is the traditional classroom experience. With students living, dining and going to classes on campus, the school becomes a full life experience, often representing the first time students have lived away from home and on their own. Because classes are held in person, students connect directly with other students and their professors. Live discussions with classmates each day create opportunities for students to learn to work together. The environment is controlled and specifically designed for learning. Because students live on or near campus, they have the ability to fully immerse themselves in the in-person experience,  figuring out how to balance class time with homework, work schedules, athletics and a full roster of campus activities.

CONS: For students who commute to school or for students living on sprawling university campuses, transportation and time management can be a real challenge. Taking prerequisites in a lecture hall can make it hard for students to focus or feel involved with classmates and professors — and for some, accessibility issues come into play, with tight spaces and the front of the room being far away. Some students have social anxiety being in larger groups or close quarters. And it can be harder to take notes when simultaneously listening to a lecture and watching slides. The on-campus modality can also be limiting to the applicant pool, as students often have to stick close to home in order to get lower in-state tuition rates and many can’t afford to live in college towns with rising costs. Thus in-person learning can be limiting even before students get to the classroom.

NOTES FROM OUR COACH: In general, colleges have the most experience supporting students with the challenges of in-person learning. Students taking in-person classes need help to stay organized and on top of a schedule that involves classes at multiple locations throughout the day — and can sometimes involve scheduling conflicts. Students may also need help with focus, note-taking abilities, test prep, communication, and just “being present.” Students that juggle jobs (which is the majority of students these days) need help with time management. And institutions often need to evaluate blind spots regarding accessibility, as well as manage support for students in crisis.

Remote learning: Routine for some, a fresh struggle for others

From mid-March of 2020 through the summer of 2021, Aaron continued his studies online — first, living with his parents in the San Francisco Bay area and attending Zoom classes in his childhood bedroom, then moving to an apartment with friends in Eugene at the start of his sophomore year in September 2020.

PROS: With remote learning, class sizes can be larger, allowing for more students to take classes that were previously hard to get into. Students can attend class from wherever they’re at, with no need to run across campus or worry about parking spots or seats near the professor. Lecture slides fill the screen, making it easier for taking notes. Students can take a screenshot of important graphics to reference later. Professors can have their lectures recorded and transcribed with closed captioning, providing students with the ability to review the session to clarify notes or prepare for an exam. And one big plus for Aaron, our southpaw intern: you don’t need to worry about finding a left-handed desk.With online learning, students have the benefit of being able to attend the school of their choice for a set cost, even if it’s in another part of the country. Remote learning also gives students the added benefit of being able to fit school in around their own schedule, rather than needing to show up in a certain building at a certain time each day.

CONS: Each year, millions of students choose online learning. This is especially true for working adult learners as a way to fit school into their lives and earn their degrees. Yet for the majority of on-campus students in March 2020, remote learning wasn’t something they selected or asked for. It became an overnight necessity when campuses had to shut down. And that immediate transition was often a challenge.In this scenario, there was less connection with the classmates, the professor, and in some cases, the material being taught. Some students found it much harder to focus outside the classroom, often competing with parents who were working from home and younger siblings attending school online. Reliable internet service and wi-fi were often a barrier, particularly in rural areas. Students needed to have a computer at home that could handle the needs of Zoom classes. And it was difficult to make and maintain friendships when all you see is small rows of heads in boxes with the scrolling chat feature as the only way of interaction. The loss of community and campus culture quickly took its toll on students who were used to hanging out and working together every day.

In terms of academics, with online learning, it’s challenging to ask questions about the lecture material in real time. This isolated modality also made it easier for students to cheat on exams. And it was hard to stay motivated watching lectures on your own with a professor you’ll never meet, let alone get to know.

NOTES FROM OUR COACH: For many students, taking remote classes over the past two years was a new experience, and not one they signed on for. Students learning remotely need extra help with learning and retaining information taught in their classes. Support staff can help educate students on screen fatigue and how to reduce its impact. The online environment can create a difficult (or, at the very least, less-than-stellar) learning environment without adequate support. With so many distractions at home, class becomes just one more thing to do in the day and its importance can be lost.

 Under these circumstances, it’s easier for a student in crisis to slip through the cracks. Knowing how to find and access available resources can be difficult when you are in crisis three states away using only a computer. Unlike campus life, students may not have a community around them to check in on them or notice when something is off.

When remote, students lose touch with campus support systems — everything from friends in the dorm and the ability to be part of clubs and intramural sports to valuable resources, such as tutors, writing centers and other ways of receiving help on-campus. Students also need help connecting with professors. The ease and comfort with asking for recommendations, a valuable part of the college experience, was greatly affected by the switch to remote learning. Support staff can help students connect with professors and build strong relationships that transcend Zoom windows. That said, the increased flexibility of online learning can be a great bonus for busy students — especially adult learners with family and work obligations. Attending courses remotely, students don’t have to sacrifice their education because of work or family. When institutions have the support structure in place for remote learners, this modality can be a great fit and lead to success for a greater number of students.

Coach Call-Out:

"I worked with a student once who was doing school from her bed. She couldn't stay awake for class. Together, we brainstormed another location where she could set up her computer. When she moved her setup to the kitchen table, she was much more engaged."

Hybrid: Combining elements from in-person and online to mixed results

From September 2021 through June of 2022, Aaron continued his studies both online and in-person, living in an apartment near the University of Oregon campus.

PROS: As campuses began opening back up in limited fashion, hybrid learning — a mix of online and in-person courses — became common. One form of hybrid learning is asynchronous Zoom in a classroom — with some students attending in person and others watching remotely. This gave students the choice of which modality to use on any given day. This also lets students with (or exposed to) COVID to remain at home while keeping current on their coursework. Along those same lines, it allowed students concerned about COVID — including those with compromised immune systems or loved ones at home to protect — to attend classes remotely. Another form of hybrid teaching involves having the professor record lectures that the students can watch and review at a time that works best for them, then ask questions and discuss in class.

CONS: Hybrid learning can put a strain on professors, as they may have to repeat part of the lesson for students using Zoom rather than being in the classroom. If students are asked to watch lectures via recording, it can be isolating for them as there is no way to engage with classmates or ask the professor questions for clarification in real-time. For those in the classroom, it can feel empty with far fewer students in person. And while having a library of videos to watch, rewatch and review can be a pro when complimenting other learning methods, it tends to be less effective as the sole learning method. And for some students — including our own Aaron the intern — attending full classes and doing extra homework can feel like double the coursework. It also adds strain to the student’s scheduling, as they have to account for extra time outside of class to watch (and take notes on) videos at home. This can contribute to a common feeling on campuses using the hybrid system of a constant grind to complete work.

NOTES FROM OUR COACH: Hybrid learning can be confusing and cumbersome for students. Time management becomes a crucial component as scheduling can feel hectic. This is a time to proactively reach out to students who may need additional guidance and support as they find their way through this new modality. It’s important for student supporters to assess thoroughly to determine what aspects of this style are the most challenging. Is it difficult to ask questions to the instructor or collaborate with other students while in person? Or are the biggest challenges the combination of the two, with the extra work required to fulfill the needs of both in-person and online? A personalized approach for support is the best way to connect with the needs of students facing this challenge.

Learning to expect the unexpected

For most people, making the decision to attend college is a milestone event — including specifically selecting an on-campus or online experience. Once a student has settled into their new environment and is used to the routine, shifting directions mid-stream can be a big ask. Going from remote to in person, for example, can be overstimulating, anxiety-producing and possibly bring forth social distractions. Conversely, shifting from in-person to remote can feel isolating, depressing and difficult to stay engaged. Colleges have the technology to be agile in unprecedented times, but this agility should come with many layers of support. From time management to crisis management, institutions need to be prepared to stay connected to their student population and provide individualized support. At the end of the day, it’s all about making sure you make the necessary changes to provide increased student support to help students adapt to their new world.

When COVID-19 hit and students were facing unprecedented challenges, InsideTrack helped create the Emergency Coaching Network for students in crisis. Learn how we supported students in real-time as their worlds (and modalities!) were rapidly changing throughout the pandemic.

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