Graphic by Anna Lee. 

After the transition to online classes earlier this semester, NC State students had to adjust to a virtual learning environment — many for the first time. As the semester comes to an end, students report their experiences with online classes, and the struggles and benefits of learning from home. 

Diminished Motivation

Ali Ahmed, a second-year studying computer engineering, said he feels like online classes have decreased his drive and willingness to put in the same amount of work he used to.

“I think, without being in the classroom setting, the motivation kind of goes away, especially when pass/fail options are introduced,” Ahmed said.

John Nolan, a third-year studying biology, said online classes allow for students to get by without learning the material because they can have access to the material during quizzes, tests and assignments.

“There’s no incentive to actually spend the time to memorize it and learn,” Nolan said.

Both Nolan and Ahmed believe they are not learning the material as well online in their major-specific classes, and Ahmed has seen a dip in his grades since transitioning to online classes.

“I saw a noticeable difference in my major-specific classes,” Ahmed said. “My general classes were fine, but my major-specific classes, I think I stopped looking for As and Bs and focused on pass/fails.”

“Especially with STEM classes, it’s really difficult to learn the material, like in chemistry or anatomy,” Nolan said. “The labs are really difficult to process and understand because you don’t have that hands-on time to manipulate models and to go through the experiments. It makes it so much more difficult to learn an already difficult topic.”

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

While online classes have been challenging in many ways, many students are grateful for the flexible schedule that comes with online classes. 

Madison Young, a second-year studying political science and sociology, said synchronous classes have interfered with her job and other responsibilities.

“It gives me less flexibility because I’ve got a remote job now,” Young said. “I like taking asynchronous classes because if I need to do all my homework in the first few days of the week, I can do that and then work for the rest of the week.”

Zhuowei Li, a graduate student studying computer science, said he has found advantages and disadvantages  to both synchronous and asynchronous online classes.

“I like to interact with the lecturer in the synchronous style, but sometimes I find that asynchronous style can let me be more flexible,” Li said.

Retention and Real-World Applications

Students, like Young, have found that doing well in a class does not mean they have sufficiently retained the material. 

“I took WGS 200, an introductory women's studies course,” Young said. “It’s one topic; you have a textbook that basically follows along with everything online. Am I getting a good grade in that class? Yes. Am I confident that I can draw on that knowledge after I graduate? No.”

Zakaria Selwaeh, a fourth-year student studying business administration, said he feels like he has been robbed of the important real-world applications college is supposed to offer. 

“I feel like now, with the material that we’re learning, I’m just not seeing connections to the real world, which is what college education is about,” Selwaeh said. “It feels like I’m just really pushing through and trying to pass to get the degree, so I can just move on with my life. It just feels like I’m waking up everyday and submitting assignments. I’m not really taking anything in.”

Social Implications

Students like Li, an international student, and Ahmed, a transfer student, said they have had to adjust to the new type of socialization online classes provide.

“If I take an in-person class, I can interact with the professors and students around me,” Li said. “I can get to know and make friends with people. In the online form, I’ve lost the opportunity to do that, and I think it’s one of the great losses of the online courses.”

Ahmed has found that some online classes provide a new way to be more connected to his peers, which he might not have had in the past.

“All my classes, every time they start, everyone’s like, ‘Hey, do you want to make a group chat and stay connected?’” Ahmed said. “In person, I’d just meet one or two people and that’d be it.”

Selwaeh reflected on his experiences in his earlier years at NC State and recognizes how important the social interactions are.

“Think of someone like a freshman,” Selwaeh said. “They need those in-person classes for socialization. They need that experience of walking from building to building. I think it’s more vitally important for the individuals that are younger than I am to have that chance to be in person and to experience the full college experience. A Zoom call is not the same as being in person and working in the library and stuff like that.”

Increased Workload

Besides not actually being in person, the workload that comes with online classes this semester can negatively impact students’ social life as well. Alyssa Jarrett, a second-year studying business administration, said she feels like this semester has been more assignment heavy than before.

“I think it’s been a lot harder than last semester because the professors kind of pile up the work, and there’s a bunch of random due dates, and it’s hard to keep track of them,” Jarrett said.

Selwaeh said he feels like there has not been a sufficient amount of time off from schoolwork this semester.

“In general, just because it’s been online, there hasn’t really been a specific day off or a time period off,” Selwaeh said. “A lot of assignments just jump on top of each other and it’s kind of been a little more stressful than a normal semester would be.”

Would Students Take Online Classes In the Future?

There are many differing opinions about various aspects of online classes, including whether or not students would choose to take online classes in the future. Nolan said he would choose in-person classes over online if given the option.

“I’m still signed up for classes for next semester hoping that maybe they’ll switch back to in person,” Nolan said. “I need to stay on track to graduate, but I definitely, given the opportunity, would choose in person over online.

Jarrett said she feels more inclined to take online classes because now she has experience with how they function.

“I was scared to take online classes last year because I didn’t know what it would be like, or if it would be harder to get a good grade, but I think I’m more comfortable with it now,” Jarrett said. “I probably will take more online classes.”

Young does not know whether she prefers online or in-person classes.

“For some things I will, but for other things, I won’t,” Young said. “I’m not sure I want to take my core classes — that I’m actually going to need to be able to do the job I want to do after college — I’m not sure I want to take those online. Not because I feel like they are unteachable as an online course, but because I’m not confident that my professors know how to teach online.”

This semester has been a tough adjustment for many students, and online courses have aided some students in the transition and hurt others. As the University prepares for another semester of online and hybrid learning, students and faculty will continue to adjust to the unusual circumstances they are presented with.