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Survey: Interactive, In-Class Engagement Makes a Difference to Students

Even though first-year college students are more likely than students in later years to say they intended to return to school in the spring (73 percent versus 68 percent), they're less confident they'll see the value of the investment in higher education (45 percent compared to 51 percent), according to a recent survey done by education technology company Top Hat. The students in higher grades reported that they're having a tougher time adjusting to online learning: Sixty-eight percent said they missed engaging in-class experiences, compared to 63 percent of first-year students; 47 percent said they missed having "regular reliable access to study spaces," versus 35 percent of newbie students; and the older students were more likely than freshmen to say they needed to find a balance between coursework and caregiving (38 percent compared to 28 percent).

For the survey, Top Hat polled 3,412 undergraduate students in the United States and Canada Oct. 2-11. First-year students made up 47 percent of respondents. Top Hat provides a platform that works alongside an institution's learning management system to make learning more engaging and interactive, through polls and quizzes, video streaming, chats and discussions, labs and other components.

Across all grade levels, two-thirds of survey respondents (69 percent) said they considered online learning less effective than in-person instruction. And most (53 percent) said they were unable to "stay motivated and engaged" with their education and coursework outside of class time. Three-quarters of students blamed a lack of engaging in-class experiences (77 percent) and a lack of face time with faculty and students (75 percent) for their general sense of lethargy. A slim 8 percent of respondents said they had experienced no difficulties in adjusting to online learning.

The use of video connections has helped "somewhat" or "significantly" to create a better online learning environment, according to 79 percent of students. And more than half (57 percent) said they might or would continue to use video to engage with other students or their instructors post-pandemic.

The survey found that the use of active learning techniques such as promoting discussion and interaction among students, getting students to work and collaborate together and pushing students to apply what they're learning, is having a positive impact on how students feel about their learning experiences. Students who agreed that their instructors make regular use of activities to promote discussion and get students working together found the online learning experience more engaging (66 percent compared to 43 percent of positive ratings on average). The same respondents were also more likely to see value in their college investment (61 percent versus 49 percent) and to have a higher opinion of their schools (56 percent versus 20 percent).

Also important to students: when faculty do what they can to foster "a sense of community and belonging." That includes understanding students' academic goals, interests inside and outside of the classroom and issues that might prevent them from participating fully in the course. When that happens, students feel more motivated in class (66 percent versus 43 percent on average) and outside of class (70 percent versus 33 percent).

While instructors may not be able to "replicate the bonding that happens during sporting events or late-night study sessions," the report noted, "creating a sense of belonging in the virtual classroom has far-reaching effects: Students are more engaged and have a higher opinion of their school. Creating community in the virtual classroom may be one of the best means available, not only to keep students engaged but enrolled as well."

"Top Hat Field Report: Higher Ed Students Grade the Fall 2020 Semester" is openly available on the Top Hat website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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