Students Want Better Organization, Clearer Explanations, and More Time to Concentrate on Learning

By Brian Bergen-Aurand

The Survey

Over the past year, the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) has surveyed four sets of students and faculty from around Washington, asking them to describe their encounters with digital learning.

Specifically, SBCTC asked participants about their past experiences (what worked, didn’t work, was confusing or missing, and what helped or didn’t help) and their future expectations (what suggestions they might have to improve online education delivery and design.)

Additionally, the state board asked how students and faculty feel about course standards and what a Washington Course Design Checklist might do for or to the digital learning experience. Then, they asked them for suggestions on what that checklist might look like and how it might be implemented.

On March 28th, Alissa Sells—SBCTC Educational Technology and Open Education Administrator—presented a summary of those surveys at the Washington Annual Canvas Conference (WACC). (Below is a summary of student responses. We’ll discuss faculty reactions in a later post.)

The Findings

Overall, students said they enjoyed engaging in well-organized courses that came with clear explanations and specific expectations. As well, they described their less-than-positive experiences in courses that left them feeling isolated, abandoned, and sent in search of an array of links and resources far outside their course sites.

Students asked for consistency, structure, and engagement. They want more consistency within courses and more consistency from course to course. And, they feel a checklist could help promote consistency in course design. Furthermore, they want access to the course syllabus as early as possible and to know up front what costs they will encounter, what tasks they need to complete, and how the course is structured from start to finish. They want due dates added to all assignments, and they want those dates put on the Canvas calendar to help them stay organized. (Of course, Canvas automatically adds everything with a due date to the calendar.)

In addition, students reported seeing a difference between their work and class interactions and said they want to focus on completing their assignments and not on forced class interactions. They want more autonomy and asynchronous design so they can move through a course at their own pace without waiting for content to open. They pointed out that they often can only devote time to homework on certain days of the week because of work, family, or other obligations.

Like teachers, students also believe that good communication is critical to their success. They want instructors to outline their policies and procedures with regard to feedback, and they asked that faculty follow those guidelines. (They emphasized this point in their responses.) They like rubrics and want timely feedback geared toward improving their work.

Students are aware of the benefits of accessible and flexible courses and materials, and they asked for resources to meet a variety of learning needs and styles, especially searchable PDFs and videos with closed captioning.

And, they want teachers to know how to use the tools built into the learning management system (LMS), to use those tools correctly and consistently, and to build as much of the course inside the LMS as possible because they dislike having to log in to multiple external resources.

In the end, students said they thought a standard course checklist could save everyone involved a lot of time and cut down on teacher and student frustration. (They emphasized this point.) They thought students would have fewer navigation questions and be able to get on with the work of learning, and teachers wouldn’t have to answer so many policy emails and could get on with the work of teaching.

They also said that if they were given the choice of enrolling in courses that were clearly identified as having been reviewed according to the checklist, they would be 100% more likely to register for those sections.

The Next Step

It should be noted that this report and my summary of the report are simplifications of some complex data and that there are some contradictory and confusing answers in the mix. However, the consensus of the responses suggests students are watching how we design our courses, and they are invested in rubrics for creating clearer and more consistent course structures and flows.

We’ll post a link to the complete SBCTC presentation when it becomes available. As well, we are continuing to work with SBCTC to review the proposed checklist, process, and responses to the past, present, and future surveys.


Brian Bergen-Aurand is an Instructional Designer in eLearning and Faculty in Arts & Humanities. He specialized in questions of Quality Standards (QOI, QM) and peer course review.

Last Updated May 23, 2019