bioCEED news

Student experience with the sudden shift to digital teaching

The 13th of March universities across Norway closed their campuses to prevent the spread of Covid-19. All teaching was moved online, and the aim was to secure learning outcomes and support students through the semester. This was a massive shift for students and teachers alike, and we had to start using new teaching, learning and assessment methods – and new technology overnight.

After 3-4 weeks with digital teaching only, many of us were wondering how things were going. What forms of teaching methods and learning activities were students involved in, and did they receive the information and support that they needed. The Department of Biological Sciences (UiB) decided to conduct a survey among all students to learn more about how the situation affected their learning and learning environment, and to find out if we needed to put concrete measures in place. There is a need to document and report what happened in higher education during this extraordinary situation, to learn from this large scale experiment of digitalization of teaching and learning.

Building on a similar survey done at SFU CELL among law students at the University of Oslo, we made a survey relevant for biology education – including lab work, field work and assessment. A large part of the survey was open text fields, where we asked students to give feedback in their own words about challenges, benefits and their experience of the situation.

The survey was conducted between 3rd and 17th April 2020, and the overall response rate was 34% (however on single items varied between 25-34%).  The comments were many and proved to be an important source for information and feedback. The full report of the results can be found here (in Norwegian).

Main findings

Ragnhild teaching digital botany lab in zoom. Photo: Ragnhild Gya

Digital teaching

More than half of the respondents had participated in interactive teaching (Zoom or similar) and had used recorded lectures made specifically for their course this semester. Between 30-40% of students had teaching in the form of shorter tutorials, streamed lectures and digital group discussions. March and April are lab-intensive periods for several of the large bachelor courses in biology, and 36% of students had participated in digital lab courses.
Of Of the forms of digital teaching activities students engaged in, they preferred real time interactive teaching. According to the students, this form of teaching gave the best learning outcome because it encouraged discussions, contact and helped structure the workday. Student also liked recorded lectures, ideally in combination with real-time interactive teaching activities. Scheduled interactive teaching sessions gave students a reason to “show up”, and increased their motivation.

A clear majority of our students disagree when asked if they prefer digital teaching, and 80% report that they had less contact and cooperation with other students compared to before.

Our students gave recommendations on how to increase student activity and improve the learning environment:

  • Groups – organize groups for discussion, preferably with relevant questions and small assignments provided by the teacher. Groups lower the threshold for active participation (compared to large full class) and increase contact between students.
  • Expectations – having something to prepare for a teaching session increase motivation, help with structure, and learning. Provide feedback (from peers, TAs or teacher). Expecting students to prepare and do assignments is a positive thing.
  • Communication – provide good and timely information for students. It is easier to prepare when you have information, and it is easier to participate when you are prepared.

Being a digital student

Master student Sondre analysing data for his master thesis at the home office. Photo: Sondre Olai Spjeld

The situation is challenging for our students. Many struggle to structure their studies and workdays. There is a great need for continuous and relevant information. Low motivation and difficulty focusing on studies are major challenges. In addition to having a far from ideal place to work, most of our students miss interaction and contact with their peers and teachers. A commonly reported benefit of digital teaching is flexibility and freedom to control pace and timing of learning activities.

About half the students report that they participate in informal digital student forums, and several respondents express worry that fellow students might be lonely and left out. Therefor there should be ways of meeting within the courses.

A majority of the students experience a reduction in organised teaching, but still think that their teachers have done their best to organize and adapt digital teaching activities. Only very few of our students have considered dropping out because of the current situation.

Our students report that they have learned to use new (to them) digital tools, and they hope and expect that the best parts of digital teaching will be continued as part of normal teaching practice at BIO.

Assessment was a source of worry for some students, and when asked if grading should be changed from the usual A-F scale to Approved/Not approved they were divided. The main message they sent was the need for clear and early information on how and when they would be assessed. It is worth noting here that the survey was done before students had much information about assessment and grading, and the department was awaiting the University/Faculty policy on assessment and grading. The information teachers and students had at this point was that all assessment was to be digital, and that grading scale possibly or in some cases could be changed to from A-F to Approved/Not approved.

Overall comments

In summary, the comments from the students indicate that the transition to only digital teaching in some way has gone quite well – for quite a lot of students, teachers and courses. However, there are also considerable challenges with the current situation. Students struggle with motivation and report that they feel isolated from other students and their teachers. Many students receive less organized teaching – both in terms of quantity and quality. Communication is essential to ease worry and to maintain progression and motivation. Organized teaching is important to ensure a structure and encourage contact.  Our students want digital teaching to continue after opening of campus – as a supplement to campus teaching.

Bachelor student Pernille`s work station. Photo: Pernille Eyde Nerlie.

Results from the survey were presented to students and staff at the Department of Biological Sciences at the weekly (digital) Teaching meeting. Students were encouraged to attend, along with all teaching staff at the department. The students that participated in the meeting confirmed the findings, and student organisations got similar feedback from students. The survey results were also presented on a meeting for all teaching staff at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.

As a response to the survey results, bioCEED organized an online motivation seminar with associate professor and motivation researcher Lucas Jeno, which was well attended. You can read more about this seminar, including all of Lucas` recommendations for a well-structured workday and how to keep motivation up,  here.