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A survey of physics students reveals strategies for improving the online teaching experience.

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Distance learning requires adjustments from both teachers and students.

Students around the world are being forced to adapt to new teaching methods that have been developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A new study asked physics class students how they used distance learning [1] . The results show that self-organization is an essential part of adapting to the new teaching environment. For students who have difficulty, the researchers have several suggestions, e.g. B. Conducting live problem solving sessions and prioritizing freshmen for class on campus. To better motivate students, they also recommend highlighting some of the positive aspects of distance learning, such as being able to be more creative with laboratory work.

In spring 2020, many universities around the world closed their doors and switched to online courses. A group of teachers in Europe immediately began coordinating to find the best teaching methods. “We all gave lectures or courses and had to prepare for the new situation,” says Pascal Klein from the University of Göttingen. He and his colleagues exchanged ideas on how to organize experiments at home and what video conferencing software should be used. But it was hard to tell what worked. “We often had the feeling that we were talking to a wall, as very few students turned on their cameras,” says Ana Susac from the University of Zagreb in Croatia.

Susac, Klein and their colleagues decided to conduct a study to measure the effectiveness of online teaching. They developed an online questionnaire in which students were asked to rate their own learning behavior and to rate learning performance during the lockdown. The advantage of self-assessment over objective assessments or exams is that it is less time-consuming for students, says Klein. “In addition, the students feel less of being tested and their opinion is valued more.” Almost 600 physics students at five European universities completed the questionnaire. Since the survey is based on subjective perceptions, the researchers could not quantitatively assess the effectiveness of the teaching, but gained insights by correlating the responses of individual students.

They found that students who found themselves well organized were most comfortable with distance learning. “Self-organization is always an important factor in learning,” says Klein. “But in the online environment it seems to be even more important to organize the day, set routines and motivate yourself.” The students who rated themselves poorly were the ones who felt least comfortable in online classes . The main reason seems to be the decline in interactions with professors and other students. “While the excellent students may not care too much about it, this reduced communication certainly has an impact on the medium- to low-performing students who fall further behind,” says Klein.

Bethany Wilcox of the University of Colorado, Boulder – who was not involved in the study – believes the results are consistent with the situation at many American universities during COVID-19. “Distance learning is a big challenge for students and requires a level of motivation and self-direction that many adults don’t have,” she says. She and her colleagues conducted a similar study of student experiences in the United States and found the same trends as those of Klein and Staff in Europe. However, she found that compared to European students, a greater proportion of American students reported having difficulty finding reliable internet connections and a quiet study space.

Klein and his colleagues have several recommendations for improving student performance during the pandemic. For example, they emphasize the need to have online problem-solving sessions “live” so that students can provide and receive feedback. For universities that are partially open (using what is known as the “hybrid” approach), the researchers recommend that freshmen be given preference for face-to-face teaching, as the data suggests that they suffer most from reduced interaction. And because student attitudes towards teaching correlate with performance, the team suggests highlighting the positive aspects of distance learning. One benefit, says Susac, is that conducting experiments at home – as opposed to a controlled lab environment – has given students the opportunity to be more creative in putting equipment together and collecting data. “We were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful setups and the good questions the students came up with,” she says.

Many of the students surveyed said they were satisfied with the level of online teaching, but co-author Lana Ivanjek from TU Dresden in Germany wonders whether this is mainly due to low expectations. “In the beginning, in my opinion, the students were very happy with how it worked because they were happy that it worked at all,” says Ivanjek. But now everyone is more used to distance learning. “We teachers are better prepared, but the students also have higher expectations of the quality of the teaching,” she says.

–Michael Schirber

Michael Schirber is the corresponding editor for physics based in Lyon, France.


  1. P. Klein, “Physics Studies During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Student Ratings of Learning Success, Perceived Effectiveness of Online Recitations and Online Laboratories”, Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res.17th, 010117 (2021).

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