Reflections on the Term That Was…Not So Great

I love teaching, in part, because I love students.

I teach first-year university students, so their adjustment to and comfort with the culture of the institution matters. Their first-year experiences often determine whether they continue with their academic studies now – or sometime in the future – or not at all.

As university administrators spin the positive aspects of online learning – and there are positives for certain students in certain disciplines in certain locations – you won’t likely hear them elaborate on the negative aspects. And it is early days to consider the retention statistics that will not be public knowledge.

My hunch is that attrition this year will be higher than normal.

I’m going to be honest. As an instructor, I found the autumn term difficult, in part, because it was so different than my experience last spring when we ended the term online.

In March of 2020, I knew my students by name and had established connections with them. Hence, when we shifted online, I continued to teach during our regular class time, and many of them joined me online. Half to three quarters of the students kept attending the online classes. I also stayed in regular touch by email providing information and encouragement. In the final teaching evaluation, many students summed up what they needed to complete the course: structure and connection.

Fast forward to September 2020. The university moved to asynchronous teaching. Instructors were encouraged to not schedule regular class times due to technological inequities within the student body. In other words–the digital divide.

The digital divide has affected students’ learning and engagement for years, but the pandemic highlighted the inequity.

Some students do not have internet access where they live, some have access but share it with other people in the household, and some who live on acreages, farms, or reserves either have limited and very slow access or no access at all. When students could access the internet on campus or in other public spaces, the effects of the divide were less obvious. The pandemic revealed how extensive the digital divide is, and how governments need to address this going forward.

As instructors, we were encouraged to deliver our learning materials in narrated PowerPoint slides. The advantage to the students was ready access to materials. The trade-off in many cases was less human contact and connection. 

Knowing first year students and their need for structure and connection, I offered a regular class on Wednesday evenings (synchronous learning in university jargon) throughout the term. I invited students to attend, but I could not make such attendance mandatory. 

I really missed the connection with students that is developed over a term as you meet in a physical classroom. That connection begins when I send a welcome note with questions for students to reply to and send a photograph, so I can learn their names. I took pride in knowing each student’s name within the first two weeks of class. And then our relationship – in many cases – only grew over the term. Students were not numbers in my class; they were known by name. That mattered—to them and to me.

Teaching online changed the relationships I had previously enjoyed with students. Remember that I was teaching predominantly first-year students, so they had no previous experience of university classes or the culture of the university.

Fewer students replied to my welcome note, and some never really connected with me at all during the term. When I submitted final grades, there were a number of students whom I could not have identified. They were not known. In fact, anyone could have submitted their work.

When I met the class on Wednesday evenings, a number of students did not attend. At the beginning of the term, I had less than 60% of students attend, and that dropped to 25% near the end of the term. I won’t speculate on the myriad of circumstances that negatively impacted student engagement. I know some had jobs that interfered with their attending our Wednesday evening Zoom classes.

Of those who joined the class, only a small number put their cameras on. Sometimes, I had one or two faces on the screen, so I taught to a mostly blank screen. That was hard. It was like playing racquetball with no back court.

I’m used to “reading the room” when I teach. Silence or chatter can mean a variety of things. However, online, there was no chatter, and there was no way to read the silence. Had students read the assigned material? Did students understand my questions? Were they shy? What did the silence mean? I often had no idea.  And there was a lot of silence.

The final grades validated my concern about the students’ engagement and learning. I’ve never submitted a grade sheet with more failing grades or a class average lower by twenty percent compared to my previous classes. 

Teaching evaluations are also a barometer of engagement. Students can evaluate an instructor’s teaching and the course in October and at the end of term. I strongly encouraged my students to complete the evaluations. The results are completely anonymous, and I wanted to understand how I could improve, especially now that we had moved online. Out of 32 students, one submitted a midterm evaluation, and five submitted evaluations at the end of term.

In English courses, students develop their critical reading, thinking, and writing. Such skills are important far beyond the classroom. We need critically engaged citizens to have a healthy society. I really question the degree to which most of my students developed in each skill area. Students’ lack of engagement was evident in their work and then in their grades.

I am not against online learning. I agree with faculty member Rahim Rezaie’s article published December 27, 2020 in The Globe and Mail when he argues that large classrooms offer less-than-ideal learning and that, in fact, students’ online learning might be better than what they experience in large lecture halls. That’s true.  

I also agree that as class size has grown, there has been little acknowledgement of what is lost.

Rezaie observes that “Unfortunately, our higher education system has seemed indifferent to the fact that meaningful interactions simply do not take place in classes with hundreds of students.” He is right.

However, I hope we do not assume that online learning can address the shortcomings of large classes.  There are certain fields of academic study that come alive with interaction. We shouldn’t be surprised that literature is one such field. Monthly book club meetings attest to the desire of people to read and discuss what they have read.

Rezaie argues for a hybrid model of education going forward where both online and in-person classes are offered. I agree that students need choice in their learning modalities, but they also need optimum learning experiences. Let’s make sure they have both. 


Rezaie, R. (2020, December 27). Universities shouldn’t abandon online learning after the pandemic. The Globe and Mail.


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