Temple first-year student Brianna Boone's home learning setup

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

Brianna Boone has never experienced college with classes that aren’t remote. But to her surprise, the first-year Temple student discovered she didn’t mind online learning. She made the dean’s list in her first semester, and offered praise for her professors’ ability to pivot their teaching style.

“I’m impressed by how they were able to replicate an in-person experience as much as possible,” Boone told Billy Penn. “I’m just surprised by online learning overall.”

Temple junior Hailey Palmer had a different experience. Her fall semester ended with a slew of B grades, instead of her usual A/B average, she said. Going all-virtual was more of a factor than she’d counted on.

“I was no stranger to online classes,” Palmer said. She’d taken some virtual lessons before, she said, “but I was surprised at how much of a mental toll ALL online classes can take from you.”

Students at Temple have now had a full year of remote learning stretching across three semesters. The North Philadelphia university first moved classes online March 11, 2020. On short notice, thousands of students living on and off-campus packed their belongings and returned home. Hundreds of faculty members scrambled to rewrite their syllabus so it would work online.

Temple did attempt to bring students back for in-person lectures for the fall 2020 semester. But within the first week, a COVID outbreak occurred, with over 350 students testing positive. The university quickly retreated, and returned to all virtual.

Nearly three-quarters of students across the U.S. thought their school did a good job with the transition to online learning, according to a June 2020 College Pulse survey of 5,000 students at 200 colleges and universities. But fewer than half of students felt their professors efficiently adjusted.

“It really comes down to classes that are engaging, and for the professor — that they’re excited to be there,” said Saleem Ahmed, who teaches audio and production to hundreds of Temple students.

Ahmed said he has tried multiple ways to maintain engagement. In a 2015 analysis, researchers found that “higher levels of [teacher] clarity are associated with higher levels of student learning.” Having professors who made that kind of effort really made a difference, students said.

“I know there’s definitely not a ‘right’ way to teach right now,” said Palmer, the Temple junior, “but there’s definitely a wrong way to teach.”

First-year student Boone found a positive example in her Spanish classes. The professor made it mandatory for students to keep their cameras on, and used what’s become known as the “popcorn method,” where each speaker names another person on the virtual meeting to go next.

“He made everyone participate,” Boone said. “We all got to actively learn the language. People were excited to have discussions in Spanish.”

Outside of that class, however, Boone found interaction with other students was the hardest thing to keep up. Peer-to-peer discussions and group work typically happen in Zoom breakout rooms,where students are away from the professor’s watchful eye.

“I feel like we didn’t get the same out of a good organic discussion,” she explained, “because [students] just hide behind screens, don’t turn on their cameras, or stay on mute.”

Developing a community is vital for student engagement with online learning, studies show. According to a 2016 Stanford report, students are five times more likely to engage and 16 times more likely to finish a virtual course if there’s a community component.

“I think the main thing everyone struggles with about halfway through the semester is Zoom exhaustion,” said Ahmed, the journalism professor.

According to mental health experts, connecting with other students likely helps ward off the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with overusing virtual communication platforms. Fatigue can happen when our brains have no reward to look forward to, Psychiatric Times reports, but that reward can be as simple as social interaction.

Palmer schedules all her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, exceeding the usual 9-to-5 schedule. Her Zoom exhaustion hits when she finishes classes. “You’re like, ‘Crap, I have to do a bunch of work online for the class,” Palmer said. “I think that’s where my student exhaustion hits the hardest is homework.”

Looking back at the year, both Palmer and Boone agree that establishing a manageable routine and staying organized helped them through the long year of online learning.

“At least having specific things that I know I have to do,” Palmer said. “Working out with my mom in the morning has given me a reason to get out of bed before 10.”

“I like to stay organized and take it day-by-day,” Boone said. “I like to reward myself, give myself breaks, and allow myself to relax. Which I call ‘rest and recharge.’”