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Student Perspectives on the Shift to Remote Learning

Student Perspectives on the Shift to Remote Learning
Reported by
Arianne Papa

Posted October 05, 2020

Arianne Papa is a PhD candidate in physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia University.

Presented By

The New York Academy of Sciences

Educational leaders, policymakers, teachers, and parents have deliberated over the return to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But few conversations include the voices of those at the center of it all—the students. As many schools have transitioned to virtual classrooms, students have adapted to their continuously changing learning environments. On August 25, 2020, the New York Academy of Sciences hosted a panel of high school and college students from GSA programs to discuss the transition to online learning, obstacles with adjusting to new technology, and suggestions for improving the virtual classroom experience.


  • To adjust to online learning and avoid low motivation, students should establish a new routine by creating schedules.
  • Virtual learning in small groups, such as breakout rooms or during professor office hours, can encourage more participation and discussion among students.
  • Plans for successful distance learning must address the digital divide that prevents some students from accessing online classes and assignments and ensure that teachers have the resources they need to create engaging new lesson plans.


Athena Yao
Athena Yao

Duke University

Tina Sindwani
Tina Sindwani

Arizona State University

Sthuthi Satish
Sthuthi Satish

Bangalore International School

Student Perspectives on Back to School


Tina Sindwani

Arizona State University

Sthuthi Satish

Bangalore International School

Athena Yao

Duke University

Transition to Online Learning

Tina Sindwani, a first-year student at Arizona State University (ASU), had a relatively easy transition to online learning when the university switched to virtual classes in the spring. ASU used Canvas, an online learning platform, for courses before the pandemic, and students were already using iPads in class. She praised the university for being organized—all course links are in one place—and hosting programs to help people shift to online courses. However, full-time virtual courses still required Sindwani to stay motivated and organize her virtual commitments on a calendar.  While at home, she shared her class schedule with her family and set reminders to take breaks, exercise, and eat meals.

Sthuthi Satish, a high school senior at the Bangalore International School in India, also had a fluid transition to online learning because the school already used Google Classroom. After a few months of online learning, she now feels well-equipped to manage her classes. It took a bit of trial and error to figure out what worked for her, but a calendar and a to-do list have helped.

Athena Yao, a high school senior at the start of school shut-downs, could not participate in end-of-the-year activities like prom or graduation. Instead, like so many of her peers, she ended her senior year using Google Classroom and taking quizzes online. However, when she matriculated at Duke University this fall, Yao found the start of the online learning process—with multiple platforms, logins, and websites—a bit difficult. “I have had some confusion. The university expected me to know how to use the online programs,” said Yao. “So eventually, I started to get it, but I had to explore the website on my own and look for the resources.” Clear, streamlined instructions can lessen the learning curve with new platforms needed to access materials for virtual classes. Yao is one of the limited number of first and second-year students in campus housing this semester, as all juniors and seniors are off campus. To ensure safety, the university tested all students returning to campus and is performing randomized COVID-19 testing each week.

The panelists compared how much time they previously spent in school to how many hours they were expected to allocate per day for distance learning. For Sindwani, this meant attending online lectures and assemblies, averaging out to about 4-5 hours per day. Satish estimated that she spends 5-6 hours a day in online classes, but with homework assignments and studying, school takes up 8-9 hours of her day. Yao averaged a similar number of hours per day, although she felt preparation for lectures and labs added additional time to her school day. However, now, she doesn't have to rush out of bed to get to school and has more flexibility throughout her day.

Challenges with Distance Learning

The panelists adamantly stated that they have all experienced “Zoom burnout.” Students have had to adjust to a full day in front of the computer screen, where Zoom meetings blend together one after the other. A virtual school day involves attending live sessions, completing homework, and studying for exams. The long hours are tiring and repetitive, which can wear on personal motivation.

One subject area that has been particularly difficult to teach virtually is science labs. Most students are completing simulations online. In some cases, labs are opening back up with half the class at a time. In other schools, teachers are handing out kits so students can do the labs at home.

Motivation from Teachers

The panelists shed light on what teachers have done to engage students and help them avoid “Zoom burnout.” Some classes can be up to three hours, so designating breaks is essential to maintaining student focus. Additionally, using breakout rooms to talk in smaller groups has been extremely helpful. In fact, Sindwani said she has gotten more out of the small breakout room discussions than being in class in-person. Students are more likely to turn on their video feed and converse with other students in these smaller settings.  “The discussions in a smaller group are more conducive to learning than being in a room with 100 people and not being able to talk to everyone.”

Satish’s average class size is only five people, so she thrives on a lot of interactions. The teachers are also very open to feedback and learning about new ways to teach. Yao utilizes office hours to ask questions, because it is easier for her to talk one-on-one with a professor or teaching assistant. Having access to online meetings with an advisor or guidance counselor can also be helpful. Large recorded lecture videos are also useful, since the viewer can easily speed up, replay, or pause videos if needed.

Fostering collaboration between students has also been a component of successful online learning. For example, Kami has been a highlight of remote learning for Yao. With this online tool, students can all write on the board at the same time. Some of Yao’s memorable moments from her senior year of high school included teachers showing their pets on their videos and personally dropping off goodie bags for students before AP exams. Satish’s teachers have been very understanding about how monotonous this process can be for students. Kahoot has been a great game-based platform for multiple-choice quizzes. In her Spanish class, Satish and her classmates recorded themselves on Google Docs and made presentations together. They also talked about their favorite songs and played them during class. Incorporating games, breaks, and creative ways to facilitate participation and collaboration into the virtual classroom can be very effective. Incentives, such as bonus points, are highly motivating as well.

Updated Technology Platforms

Although all three panelists are fortunate to have personal laptops for distance learning, they mentioned that many colleges offer laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots, and internet for students who don’t have their own. Access, or lack thereof, has been a common issue for many families, especially those with multiple children at home, where there are not enough devices for everyone to work at the same time.

Sindwani mentioned a novel idea recently implemented in Mexico where students were able to use the television instead of laptops for their online learning. Many people have TVs in their homes, but may not have access to Wi-Fi or laptops. So using the television may help ensure that more children have access to education while at home. Students can tune in for live broadcasts on their televisions, however families with multiple children will still have the problem of not having enough screens.

When asked about the government’s involvement in education during the pandemic, the panelists all agreed that the government could be more involved. They believe the government should work to bridge the disparities between different socioeconomic groups so that everyone has access to the same online platforms and teachers have the necessary supplies for teaching. The students were aware of charitable organizations and nonprofits working to provide meals to students who usually get them from school.

Virtual Social Connections

While the COVID-19 pandemic may mean spending more time at home, some students have come up with creative ways to interact with their peers. Sindwani has widened her social circle using Slack, a communication platform. Yao has been doing workout videos with her friends and meeting her incoming Duke classmates over social media platforms. She also emphasized the importance of virtual connections around the globe. Now that most internships and non-profit work is online, students can connect with people all around the world, a unique opportunity that didn’t exist before the pandemic.

Safely Reopening Schools

The panelists shared optimistic visions for when students return to in-person classes after the pandemic. “The information hasn’t necessarily been different, but the way I learn it and my satisfaction with how I’ve learned it is definitely very different,” said Sindwani. “I would prefer to have in-person classes because that allows for more interaction with the professor and my peers.”

Yao also prefers in-person learning. She sees the pandemic as an opportunity to learn more about our society and take note that some of our current teaching methods might be outdated.

Satish agreed that one takeaway from the pandemic is that many meetings that would have been held in-person before the pandemic can be done virtually. Online education is an opportunity for her to look at different learning techniques and find what works best. However, she too prefers being in a physical environmental with her peers. “School is a lot more holistic than just the education itself,” said Satish. “The experience of living in a dorm room and [enjoying] take-away food from dining halls. Those are experiences I want to be able to have.”

Another important aspect of reinstituting in-person classes involves students feeling comfortable with returning to school. At the college level, many schools are requiring all students to get tested upon arrival on campus. After that, randomized testing will occur. While on campus, students are required to wear masks inside the buildings and to maintain social distancing at all times. Universities have put many additional provisions in place, including hand sanitizer stations throughout campus, a daily symptom self-check on an app, and take-out dining options. However, all these measures will only work if the students agree to and follow the guidelines. Schools are also are performing a great deal of contact tracing. Any student who tests positive or has come into contact with someone who tested positive, may be asked to self-quarantine. . The panelists agree that students have a responsibility to follow the rules that schools put in place to ensure a safe and comfortable learning environment. If at any point you don’t feel comfortable in an in-person situation with other students, the panelists suggest politely reminding people of the social distancing rules, and being open about why you’re concerned. Sometimes it’s necessary to share a bit of your personal situation for others to understand your concerns.

GSA - Student Perspectives On Back To School

Further Readings


Jackson, Drew, and Kate Murphy

The News & Observer. July 26, 2020.

Linthicum, Kate

Los Angeles Times. August 4, 2020