March 22nd, 2012

Understanding the Online Learning Experience


Barbara Zuck, assistant professor of business at Montana State University–Northern, was teaching a 100-level online course in business leadership and wanted to understand her students’ experiences in the course. So at the end of the course she asked students three open-ended questions:

  • What are the two greatest difficulties you had taking this course in an online environment?
  • What three things surprised you most by taking this course in an online learning environment?
  • What three things would you change about this course, assuming it were also taught in an online learning environment?

Despite the small sample size (19), Zuck has gleaned some useful information that has influenced how she teaches the course. (She continues to ask students these questions to get a larger sample and more useful insights.)

Many of the students were first-time online learners, and their comments reflected this. The following themes emerged from the students’ comments:

  • Time management is important.
  • The course required more work than expected.
  • Some students missed being in the classroom.
  • Some students wanted more peer interaction.
  • Some students felt disconnected.
  • The course required commitment and motivation.
  • Some students wanted more input from the instructor.
  • Some found the course interesting and easy to navigate.

“I was somewhat surprised by their responses. One of the comments that came out pretty strongly was, ‘This is so much more work that I thought it would be,’” Zuck says.

This surprise at the amount of work involved in the course came despite expectations clearly delineated in the syllabus, which included details about threaded discussions and weekly exercises, as well as an explanatory paragraph for each assignment.

Students were very positive about a community-service assignment, but they did struggle to find the time to spend the required 20 hours working with a community partner. Given the frequency of this concern, Zuck has reduced the number of hours students spend in the field to 15.

To help students manage their time better, Zuck has changed the ways she manages assignments. For example, rather than establishing Sunday night assignment deadlines, which are typical in other online courses and can create workload/time management issues for students, Zuck sets deadlines throughout the week to avoid the “Sunday night crunch.”

On larger assignments, Zuck has implemented several milestone deadlines to help keep students on track and provide feedback. “I have found that sometimes my communication or how my students are reading my instructions can create some confusion. The milestones help keep me making sure I give good feedback to students on their work, and it gives them the opportunity to turn in a better paper at the end,” Zuck says.

To improve clarity, Zuck provides a rubric and examples for each assignment and sends each student three feedback emails per week. “I found that with online learning, students really like the rubrics because it’s a way for me to communicate my expectations. It’s in a little bit different format, and when the students get their grades they can very easily see where I mark the points off in each category. Rubrics have really helped me in my communication with the students,” Zuck says.

Self-confidence and motivation were issues for some students in the study. Zuck decided to send weekly inspirational/motivational quotes to the class. “I have had some students email me back and say, ‘Wow! That really made my day!’ It’s a small thing, but at least the students who took this course realize that they may need some positive influence in their world,” Zuck says.

Zuck also asks permission to post exemplary work to serve as examples for others as a way to improve morale and motivate students, and has established an open student forum for students to post and request assistance from other students, as a way to create connections among students. The forum also provides a space for students to share their projects with each other.

Zuck will continue to ask these three questions in future sections of the course and will use the feedback to shape the course. She also will look at other ways to solicit student feedback. “We, as instructors, should look for opportunities throughout the semester to get feedback from students. From an assessment point of view, it can be very valuable,” she says.

Reprinted from Online Classroom (February 2011): 3.

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  • Hello Rob:

    Thank you for sharing this information. It was a good refresher for students and instructors.

    What Barbara Zuck has done is to utilize a non-graded summative assessment that provided her with an opportunity to critically reflect upon her facilitation of the class. This is something I recommend all instructors do on occasion – especially throughout the class so the instructor can adapt their teaching methods along the way as needed.

    In addition to a need for commitment and motivation, students also need a strong sense of self-discipline. I wrote about this in a post: Learning the Art of Self-Discipline for Online Students. (

    Would it be helpful to ask the questions Zuck did at the start of class, to assess what students believe before they begin?
    Dr. J


    I truly enjoyed reading the article by Barbara Zuck. I am preparing to teach online and I continue to read and get suggestions for ways to improve student learning online. I see that it is a good amount of work for students and online faculty, but organization and clear expectations with continued feedback appear to be very necessary.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Lonia Cook-Cogborn

  • Leitha Delves

    I am interested in the quality of the questions asked, and the responses received, from the point of view of evaluation of online teaching and learning. I like these questions a lot for that reason. But I am puzzled y the intent (or meaning?) of the third question listed in this article. It is the part about "assuming it were also taught in an online environment". Isn't the whole article about how these questions were posed to students in an online course? The phrasing suggests something different. Can anyone clarify?

    Leitha Delves

    • Leitha,
      I can't be certain, but the way I read the "assuming it were also taught in an online environment" was the instructor didn't want students to say that one of the things they'd like to change about the course was for it to be a face-to-face course. She was looking for ways to improve the course in its current online format.

      That's my interpretation anyway.



  • Jacqualyn Simmons

    Helpful tools for new online instructors!