Qin Liu & Leigh McNeil-Taboika

External: ISTEP

Preliminary findings from focus groups investigating engineering students’ experiences during the 2021 fall term

After a year and a half of taking classes online, most engineering students have now returned to in-person classes, tutorials, and practicals. As researchers with the Institute for Studies in Transdisciplinary Engineering Education and Practice (ISTEP), we ran focus groups during the Fall Reading Week with seven undergraduate engineering students to learn about their experiences this semester. These students are from four programs and six of them are currently in their third year of study. These students told us that most of their courses are in-person but often have some online asynchronous components. A few interesting themes emerged.


Feeling positive about being in-person

All seven students indicated that they have a much better mental health this term when compared to last year. As Betty* said, “I think my mental health [is] miles above last year… I’m a very social person, so being able to see people and talk to people is ‘thumbs up’, fantastic for my mental health.”

In-person social interactions also help students learn more efficiently. Felicia shared that “it’s so easy in online learning to get stuck on something” whereas “this year, I’ve noticed … if you’re working with a friend, [you can] bounce an idea off them right away, or talk through a problem right away. You just notice yourself finishing stuff faster.”

All students favoured the in-person environment, despite some feeling like having generally less time to study or anticipating a less satisfactory academic performance, relative to online. Emily commented: “personally, I definitely prefer being able to go to class in-person, … even though I think I definitely did better academically last year than I probably will be doing this year.” Similarly, Catharine said: “I had a lot more time when it was online, but I definitely like being back in person. I’m very appreciative of being able to see people in person again, especially since I like being around people.”


Returning to in-person is another transition

The students noted that they needed to make adjustments to adapt to returning to in-person learning. They are making efforts to improve their time management, to cope with the shortage of time for studying due to the additional time they are spending to commute, travel between classes, and socialize with their peers. George, a commuter student, shared: “I’ve learned to optimize when I commute. So, for example, if I feel productive on campus, I’ll stay a bit longer on campus and then I’ll leave when I’m tired or I need a break and I’ll treat that as my break. It feels like there’s a lot less time for everything but at the same time, when I do have the time for things, I feel a lot more productive.”

This transition has been overwhelming for some students. Alice described feeling overwhelmed as: “Sometimes, I’ll be sitting in the lecture hall, and I’ll be like, ‘What? I’m in a lecture hall. What? There’s people around me.’ It still is very weird to me. … I feel like a lot of the profs maybe have not acknowledged that.” and added “I really care about working out every day, and it’s just overwhelming that … I can’t really do that anymore, and I feel like that’s taking a toll on my mental health as well.”

Another challenge presented by the transition to in-person learning is the lack of adequate spaces on campus for students to attend online classes, tutorials, and office hours. Felicia noticed that online class activities are “easier to forget, but also even if you know that they’re happening, it’s harder to find a spot to actually go to them”. Betty similarly commented that “you’re kind of on your own to find places to watch lecture, which is usually very difficult because, especially at tea time, there’s a lot of people walking around … so it’s really loud and you can’t hear anything.”


A call for keeping a balance of in-person and online learning

The seven students reported vastly different strategies for how they prefer to learn. While some strongly preferred in-person learning, sharing that they never went to the online office hours but got their questions answered during in-person tutorials, others strongly preferred online office hours and the availability of recordings of live lectures as supplementary resources. The learning environment, amidst many other factors, also seems to have affected students’ academic performance dramatically. Some of them did much better academically in the in-person environment whereas others’ academic performance peaked last year when all courses were offered exclusively online.

Being aware of these differences, one participant made the following recommendation, which was echoed by another. This recommendation also resonated strongly with us and nicely captured the findings from our study over the past year about online learning during the pandemic:

“I guess all this [is] to say, if it’s possible to keep an open [mind] to iterating and trying to still find that good balance between the in-person and online things, recognizing that for different people, a different balance might be better. I know a lot of my friends still benefit more from having the online videos and just watching those, but then there’s the other end of the spectrum where it’s just the in-person stuff [that] is helpful. And so if profs recognize that and are flexible with it and try to work with the students to figure out what’s working best, that’s very helpful versus just being firm on the way that they want to do it.”

Now that we are finally returning to in-person learning, the question still remains: will engineering education simply return to what it looked like in 2019?  The input from these students suggests that we should instead try to find the best balance between online and in-person learning. What do you think and why? We will be conducting more focus groups and will do another student survey in May. We look forward to hearing what you have learnt about your learning preferences through this transition and how this transition may help improve teaching and learning in our Faculty moving forward. If you have comments about this article or are interested in participating in future focus groups, please feel free to contact us.


*Please note that names have been changed to protect identity of the students.


Qin Liu, Ph.D.: Senior Research Associate of ISTEP, qinql.liu@utoronto.ca

Leigh McNeil-Taboika: Master’s student of the Collaborative Specialization in Engineering Education, leigh.mcneil.taboika@mail.utoronto.ca

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