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7 missing pieces: why students prefer in-person over online classes

A group of York University students got together to discuss what aspects of in-person classes they miss most while studying remotely.
DEC 02 2020

7 missing pieces: why students prefer in-person over online classes

A group of York University students got together to discuss what aspects of in-person classes they miss most while studying remotely.


We are a group of undergraduate and graduate students from York University connected with each other through sociology professor Cary Wu’s research methods courses. Led by Dr. Wu, we recently came together as a virtual group to discuss what makes in-person classes unique and different from online-learning. Through this productive discussion, we were able to determine what it is about in-person classes that we long for. Here, we share with you seven main themes that emerged in our conversations.

 1. Community and friendship

The physicality of in-person classes presents a sense of community that can easily be lost online. Students note that in the classroom they can make personal connections with like-minded peers who share their scholarly interests. This kind of bonding experience is not easily replicated online, as most students rarely converse with each other during and after an online class.

When you are all in the same physical setting, making connections feels natural and it is unquestionably easier to reach out to classmates and professors alike. In-person classes lead to organic discussions where students can bounce ideas off of one another. For remote classes, by contrast, the on-screen dynamic we have been thrown into is impersonal and largely anonymous. “There is no sense of friendship or relationship between the students that would usually be built in traditional in-person classes,” says one student. “I feel like it is a missed networking opportunity.”

“There is no sense of friendship or relationship between the students that would usually be built in traditional in-person classes.”

With regard to peer support, options are especially limited for students in online classes. Generally, when students have questions about course directions, university processes, Moodle, and so on, they will reach out to their peers. However, now that virtual classes have deprived students of the opportunity to build rapport with others, some of them do “not feel comfortable emailing a stranger.”

Graduate students are hit especially hard. One such student indicates that, “As a graduate student, we often don’t have much spare time for hobbies and seeing friends. Class time, group meetings, etc., provide us with what is often our only social interaction during a given week. The loss of this, I believe, is causing a lot of loneliness and grief that should not be understated.”

2. Presence of social cues

Social cues are often missed in online classes, and when we fail to pick up on these cues, we misunderstand people and situations. Students observe a missing “human aspect” in online interactions. “It feels as if I’m speaking to myself or filming myself rather than engaging in a conversation.”

Exacerbating the issue, students may turn off their cameras during an online class and, without these visual cues, they may not feel safe during classroom discussions and find it difficult to “develop a sense of trust and familiarity” toward their peers who, against the backdrop of faceless learning, feel more like “strangers.”

“Without in-person interactions with professors and classmates, some students can struggle to focus during class and refrain from asking questions.” Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash.

3. Sense of motivation

I like seeing other people studying in the library because it gives me a sense of motivation and comfort,” observes one student. Without the option of studying in the library or other shared study space, students feel their motivation to complete their assignments and prepare for tests ebbing away. Indeed, the library seems to be a place that nurtures resilience and provides a sense of comfort and solidarity among students. Another student observes that seeing other students study makes them realize that they are not the only one struggling, and this drives them to do their best.

Graduate students also mention that staying after classes to meet with their professors allows them to connect with their professors in ways that additionally benefit their learning. “Sometimes it’s not only about learning the material. Establishing a good relationship with a professor allows me to connect with them in ways that makes me more eager to ask more questions and seek more answers.”

4. Staying focused

Engagement and focus are vital to the learning process, but are in poor supply under the regime of online learning. “Without in-person interactions with professors and classmates, some students can struggle to focus during class and refrain from asking questions.” More directly, online classes are rife with ready distractions, including “online notifications, chat functions on Zoom and other household or neighbourhood distractions that cannot be controlled.”

Just the belief that they would do better if schooling were done in-person may subliminally drive a self-fulfilling prophecy among students in which they feel that they are not well-equipped to study online and subsequently, care and work less. “Obviously, students have lectures, tutorials, assignments, tests, quizzes and exams they must do. However, there are more chances for you to push it off to another day because you do not have to be at the location personally.”

Graduate students are in the same boat. “The act of going into a specific space to study, with a group of people who can also be interacted with before and after, or during breaks, helps [them] to remain focused and interested in the topic of the class.”

5. Privacy

At home, but no privacy? Yes, this has become the reality for many students. Virtual meetings in one’s home does not afford the same level of privacy that in-person and closed-door meetings do. More likely than not, family members will be home due to the pandemic, and hence, students may forgo making appointments due to privacy concerns, depriving them of human interaction.

Similarly, some students cannot talk about their issues from home because they do not wish to have anyone else listen in on what they have to say to their academic advisors. Students also tend to feel more supported and comfortable when they talk to their academic advisors and counselors in person.

“Being at home has taken away this sense of routine because there is no necessity to wake early to commute or be somewhere at a given time.” Photo by Catherine Heath on Unsplash.

6. Sense of routine

Perhaps the cornerstone of high achievement is discipline. Online schooling, however, lacks structure, and this can affect a student’s grade and experience of the course as a whole. One student says, “Being at home has taken away this sense of routine because there is no necessity to wake early to commute or be somewhere at a given time.”

More troubling are the opportunities for procrastination that asynchronous classes afford. Indeed, without scheduled times, reminders by the professor and regular conversations with classmates in the lecture hall, it is almost guaranteed that students will fall behind on course readings, content and lecture material.

This lack of structure can also cause a blurring of boundaries between home and schoolwork. “I work hard at school so I can relax at home,” but “being home, there are a lot of things that can distract you from starting work whether it be family who are also staying home, or other things.”

Staying focused is especially hard for students who do not have their own proper learning space to study at home. “It is hard to focus because I have no space in my room to put a table to study and in the living room there is so much noise going on. My only solution is to do my work and study at night when my family goes to bed.”

7. Just being on campus

The simple act of being on campus makes for a positive educational and social postsecondary experience. Campus provides a sharp distinction between work and home, rather than the nebulous space students are finding themselves in at present. “I envision my home to be a safe place, a place that I don’t have to stress in, where I simply relax and forget about the day.”

Campus also provides a necessary common ground for students who live far away from each other to meet and connect. Perhaps most importantly, campus provides the right kind of learning atmosphere to study, concentrate and complete assignments. One student notes, “I go to York every day, even when I don’t have class. I’d arrive at York every day at 7:00 in the morning and just study till my class started – most of my classes were in the afternoon and I would stay at York even after all my lectures and tutorials were done till around 5:00. York was the place where work got done.”

“Even thinking about how long we are going to have to put up with online schooling is scary … Is this going to be the new reality of learning for university students?”

Thus, for undergraduate and graduate students alike, online schooling seems to hinder both educational outcomes and social experiences. “Even thinking about how long we are going to have to put up with online schooling is scary … Is this going to be the new reality of learning for university students?”

Students struggle to remain focused, motivated, committed, and there is no longer a sense of familiarity and community among students and professors. This is not to say that online learning can only produce negative outcomes, but rather, to acknowledge the difficult challenges it poses for all students.

Yes, the global pandemic has given students the opportunity to contemplate their educational experience and truly appreciate the physical space and face-to-face interactions they have had with their peers and professors on campus. In the midst of the global pandemic, we are experiencing what it is like to be left to our own devices both figuratively and literally, and the consensus view among students is that meaningful social interaction stems from campus.

Joanne Ong et al
Joanne Ong, Rebecca De Santo, Jagdeep Heir, Edmund Siu, Nirosa Nirmalan, Martin B. Ofori, Abiola Awotide, Okeida Hassan, Raquel Ramos, Taha Badaoui, Victoria Ogley, Christian Saad, Esteban Sabbatasso and Susan Morrissey Wyse are all students at York University. Cary Wu is a professor of sociology at York.
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  1. Carron Thomas / December 3, 2020 at 09:08

    None of the challenges faced by mature students or students who were parents were mentioned

    • Whitney / December 9, 2020 at 17:32

      With respect, these seem to be problems faced by student who prefer in-person classes. It’s not that classes move online and suddenly students realize they prefer to be in person, but rather students who enjoy going to class in person do not like online classes for the reasons listed in this article.

      Some of my students are absolutely thriving. A few students with severe social anxiety, for example, are doing better than they ever have before. Some others find that the written discussion space gives them a chance to revise, rewrite, and change the tone of what they’re trying to ask. In person, the social cues for them are that they should be quiet. Absent those cues, they are able to take more time shaping how they participate.

      Online education is awful for some students but, for others, they’re finally getting what they have wanted and need (actually wrote about it in the link below). I hope there are options for both in the future.

  2. J. Paul Grayson / December 4, 2020 at 09:59


    It is very important to understand the experiences of students and faculty who have been pushed into web-based learning as a result of the pandemic; however, they are a particular group of students and faculty. I dare say, for example, that characterizations of military life would differ between volunteers and conscripts in a time of war. By implication, it is reasonable to expect that the experiences of students who voluntarily enrol in web-based courses would be different from those who are given no option. The same holds for faculty.

    It is also important that we don’t stereotype all in-class and all web-based courses. A great deal of empirical evidence shows that the ‘community’ that many students and faculty associate with in-class courses only exists for a small minority. Other evidence shows that when designed properly, web-based courses can be more inclusive, and promote more learning, than their in-class equivalents.

    • Charles Yorkson / January 1, 2021 at 15:14

      Maybe, though, one could say the same for in-person classes: maybe if they were designed well, and maybe if universities were not such alienating places in general, they would generate greater community and so on.

      I think one thing we see in discussions of the benefits of online learning is that their supposed “advantages” are advantages only in the context of a higher education system that has degenerated.

      And instead of asking “what do students prefer” we should ask “what type of university do we want to create? Just like we should ask “what kind of world do we want?” Do we want one where more and more of our experience is mediated digitally or actually constituted digitally? Or do we value sensuous human interaction?

      Do we want a university where there are 2 IT people for every 3 faculty (like an external review of SFU’s IT services showed a few years back)? Or do we want more people directly involved in education, teaching, mentoring, and so on?

  3. Marilyn Peterson / December 7, 2020 at 13:23

    While I don’t disagree that something is missing from online learning that may be present during in-person classes, I believe we, as professors, can mitigate some of these by providing more discussion, more small-group exercises, and more hands-on learning and discovery. Technology allows us more opportunity for interaction with colleagues around the world and how many of us take advantage of that?
    If we devolve, as professors, to ‘talking heads’ that do not encourage/require participation by learners, we are to blame, not the ‘distance learing’ model.

  4. Gena Chambers / December 14, 2020 at 14:26


    I would like to point out how difficult online learning is for students in the arts. I am a Vocal Performance major so there are several aspects of my degree that are impossible for me to accomplish under online-only schooling. The cornerstone of my degree is my voice lessons with my studio professor. Between the limitations of technology and a tiny screen, much of what my professor can observe and correct is lost. The guided practice of an in-person, one-on-one teacher in regards to music is priceless, and I find myself at a loss for how to compensate.

    • Paul Harrison / December 31, 2020 at 13:31

      Yes, and for sciences too! I taught a large science course last semester, and the on-line teaching went OK, but the students most appreciated the two in-person labs that we were able to offer. That was a course with a small lab component, but this term we are going to try to run a laboratory course in which the lab activity is the major component. We will offer a video recording of staff doing the lab, but that cannot be the same as going in person. Year 2 students in particular have had their practical experience decimated, and it is challenging to see how to replace it.

  5. ashlie d ferguson / April 7, 2021 at 10:45

    i don’t think this is very reliable