Student Voices: What They Are Saying About Distance Learning
Before COVID-19, many students were stressed out and overworked, racing to complete assignments. A typical day might have started before 7 a.m. and ended after 11 p.m. because of sports, other extracurriculars, paid work, commuting, family obligations, and homework.
We are all eagerly awaiting the moment when school resumes in person, but as co-founder of an organization that works with schools, families, and communities to promote student health and well-being, I strongly caution against reverting back to overscheduling. Over the years at Challenge Success, I’ve heard from students—the stakeholders I listen to first—that it’s just not working.
And as schools shifted to distance learning this past spring, we wanted to find out how our students were doing—what was working and not working—and what they would like school leaders to know about their experiences. We conducted over a dozen structured interviews and focus groups with a small, ethnically diverse sample of students in high schools from across the country. Our findings related to distance learning are likely not new ideas to most educators—educational research has validated these points—but hearing them directly from students serves as an important opportunity for reflection.
Students experienced challenges with the new learning environment—less support for time management/focusing, technology issues, and missing in-person interactions—but students also reported benefits and insights that can help educators best support students’ well-being, equity, and engagement with learning during this school year and beyond.
Making human connections. Students appreciated daily check-ins from teachers via video, text, phone, and even hand-delivered letters. They liked hanging out in Zoom rooms before or after class to chat, and they enjoyed peeking into the home lives of their teachers, seeing their pets or children on occasion. Matt, a 10th grader from Texas, reflected, “Our teachers have been doing a great job of checking in with us to see how we’re doing. I like how they are really caring about our well-being and our stress levels right now, but I don’t think a crisis should be necessary to do this.”
Finding the time. Reduced schedules allowed students to get more sleep. Nate, an 11th grader from Massachusetts, shared, “Since getting more sleep, I found I was much more efficient with my schoolwork. I could do an English essay in two hours that would have taken me six hours when I was tired.”
Some teens used the extra time to read for pleasure, play guitar, paint, or simply “do nothing.” Others worked extra hours at their jobs or babysat siblings. Breaking up the day with exercise or other activities helped to clear their minds and prepare for more learning. Zack, an 11th grader from Massachusetts, shared, “One of my big takeaways…is that I need time to relax. Before this, I was always going and going. I’m so used to being ‘on’ all the time, [but now] I’ve realized I need some time to relax. I picked up fishing, and now I love going fishing. I think that a lot of students will find that they actually need time to relax.”
Building in more flexibility. In a pre-COVID world, some students got homework assignments the day before they were due. Now, many students know what they need to do a week or two in advance, allowing them to balance homework, jobs, and other responsibilities. Soren, an 11th grader from California, appreciated the flexibility: “With distance learning, whatever you need to do for yourself, you have that freedom to do. The slower pace of life has allowed me to learn on my own terms, which definitely has had benefits in terms of mental health and general well-being.”
Students also liked flexible approaches to instruction. During a Zoom class one student attended, the teacher dismissed students as soon as they demonstrated that they understood the concepts. The teacher then worked with a smaller group using alternative approaches for students still working toward mastery.
Getting to the heart of lessons. With remote learning, teachers stripped lesson plans down to essential elements. Gabe, a 10th grader from Texas, said, “In chemistry, we didn’t cover as many topics each week during remote learning as we did during the normal school year, but I feel like I got a fuller understanding of the concepts that were being taught. My teacher used a ‘flipped classroom’ approach where we independently watched 20-minute videos he created on a specific topic and answered homework questions. We then used class time to ask the teacher questions. The whole process felt much more efficient.”
Offering more student-selected, authentic learning experiences. When Lauren, a 10th grader from Virginia, described how she learned to code by developing a website for a nonprofit during remote learning, her face lit up with joy. “I have learned so much in these last two months that I never would have been able to learn in the classroom. …I’ve loved connecting with real-world groups and actually doing an assignment that is contributing to something.” Allowing students to create products or address real problems motivates them to do higher-quality work. Eliot, a 10th grader from Texas, described an assignment to investigate how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses mathematical models to chart the spread of COVID-19. “When work feels meaningful and relevant, I am more engaged.”
The fall semester is in full swing now, and educators should be considering ways to check in directly with students to see how distance learning is going. Some ideas to connect with all grade levels include:
Once schools have checked in with the students, they can use the information to develop immediate action plans, such as adjusting the length of the lunch break. They can also think about what changes should take place when we all get back together. For example, schools are realizing the benefits of block schedules during remote learning and are planning to keep this schedule (or a version of it) even after the pandemic; other schools are recognizing the need for advisories and are building time for them into their permanent schedules.
- conducting a student survey to discover what’s working/what’s not working during remote learning. Some examples: What are your teachers doing to stay connected to you? Can you describe your workload before and after remote learning? What remote learning strategies work best for you? What doesn’t seem to work? How engaged are you during remote learning—and what helps you to stay engaged? What would be an ideal schedule?
- gathering a small group of students and diving deeper into their reflections about last semester and this one. We call this a fishbowl and have a protocol for doing it in our book Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. A group of eight to 10 students are prepped to work with a facilitator to answer questions similar to those above while faculty members listen in. This can be done via Zoom or in person once it’s safe to return to campus. Aim to get diversity in terms of grade levels, ethnicities, interests, etc., for best results. Individual teachers can also do a version of this in their advisories.
- shadowing students by following their synchronous and asynchronous learning schedules. We offer this protocol in our Overloaded book as well. Teachers or administrators shadow a student for a full day of learning to better understand what the student experiences throughout the day. How exhausting is the school day? How many transitions are there? Is there time for connecting with friends? Meeting up with a teacher? How much homework is the student given? How are the classes being structured (lecture versus different kinds of activities)?
- conducting a campaign asking students to share what they wish teachers knew about this school experience.
School communities can embrace what they learn and use it to redesign and reimagine what they can offer students that best supports the journey to become balanced, healthy, and engaged learners—wherever that learning happens.