For Jeongmin Cho, a junior at Princeton University from Seoul, South Korea, the transition to remote learning this spring was a transition to an entirely new form of teaching and learning. He explains, “I have grown up in a traditional non-remote education system and aside from watching instructional online videos to supplement my in-person courses I have never taken a fully online course.” His experience this spring revealed the challenges present for students in an online learning environment, and has given him a number of ideas for how online classes in the fall might be more successfully conducted. A fellow Princeton student, Aslesha Parchure also has many ideas, recommending mixing podcasts and smaller seminars for very large humanities classes, and pre-recorded video lectures and smaller seminars for very large STEM classes. Aslesha suggests, “If the seminar or precept has more than 10 students, I would also incorporate breakout rooms into discussions so that students could get to know their classmates by directly conversing with them. Part of the design for online courses should also include increased flexibility in deadlines to account for the differing home environments and circumstances faced by students.”

Much of the advice circulating about online learning has come from experienced online instructors and scholars who research that format. Experts like Flower DarbyJesse StommelMaha Bali, and Sean Michael Morris and resources like The American Journal of Distance EducationHybrid Pedagogy, and Small Teaching Online are among countless others all worth consulting as instructors develop their newly online courses. However these scholars’ works have typically centered on online teaching for students who choose to enroll in online classes. What will happen this fall when we encounter the nexus of instructors who are new to online teaching and students who would not ordinarily seek out an online learning format? Aslesha and Jeongmin are not the only students with thoughts about what would improve their online learning. As the semester begins, and schools across the country start to step back their on-campus plans (Schwartz 2020), we recommend students’ voices be incorporated to ensure that the recommendations of faculty and experts in online teaching work for your group of students this fall. 

While studies and institution-wide surveys can tell us something about common challenges and successes for the average student, those may not be representative of the specific group of students in your courses this fall. Student feedback typically comes at the end of the course and in its most constructive form can be used to refine future iterations of the course. However, this feedback rarely has an effect on the current semester. Including your students in the design process through pre-course or early-course surveys and/or discussions as classes begin can help ensure they learn effectively this fall (Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten 2014). 

While not an exhaustive list, here are some examples of survey or discussion topics that can elicit specific and actionable feedback for online course design:

Preferred communication methods – Do your students feel comfortable reaching out over email?  Would they rather have a discussion forum, or time to ask questions after a synchronous lesson? Some faculty members have used social media platforms to drive engagement. How might your students feel about those platforms? 

Technological capabilities – What do your students have in terms of internet access and speed, computing power, availability of certain websites and apps (this can vary by country)?  Understanding how your students are able to engage online from a technical standpoint can inform your design and ensure your class is inclusive (Darby 2020). 

Methods of online teaching and learning – While many students prefer synchronous break-outs, and class discussions with content delivered in videos and readings, others prefer to learn on their own time by watching recorded lectures and emailing their instructor. Students now have experience with a variety of online learning methods and can speak to that experience. Specific questions asking for students’ suggestions for course design elements that increase their motivation, engagement, and accountability can both position the students as agents in their own learning and provide or inspire creative pedagogical methods.

Past experience with course material – Since you are reaching out to your students, why not ask about their experience with your course content? What do they remember from prerequisite courses? Why did they sign-up for your course? Are there any specific course topics that they are excited about? These questions give you a valuable understanding of a student’s experience with the content and drive students to start thinking about the course before the first class. This can be the beginning of deeper dialogue with your students so they develop a stronger relationship with you and engage more meaningfully in the course.

Research on partnerships among students and faculty support this kind of dialogue in the creation of courses and suggest both students and faculty experience more meaningful engagement in teaching and learning, deepened empathy for one another, and a stronger sense of belonging on campus (Mercer-Mapstone et al. 2017, Cook-Sather 2018) in addition to improved learning outcomes, metacognition, and self-awareness (Cook-Sather and Abbot 2016; Werder, Thibou, and Kaufer 2012). The sudden transition to remote learning caused by the global coronavirus pandemic has left many students feeling disconnected from their education and left some unable to effectively engage in their courses. Students engaging in sustained partnerships with instructors have found such relationships to be an antidote of sorts to this disconnection (Impastato and Topper 2020). Asking your students about their particular challenges, from the technical to the pedagogical, can not only help improve the course design, but also show your students that you value their voice. 

Many students miss the social aspect of college and just want “more interaction with {their} professors.” While navigating online learning and the pandemic this fall will continue to be challenging for us all, we hope this can serve as a reminder that—as isolated as we may feel while social distancing—we are not working alone. 


  • Cook-Sather, Alison. 2018. “Listening to Equity-Seeking Perspectives: How Students’ Experiences of Pedagogical Partnership Can Inform Wider Discussions of Student Success.” Higher Education Research & Development 37 (5): 923–36.
  • Cook-Sather, Alison, and Sophia Abbot. 2016. “Translating Partnerships: How Faculty-Student Collaboration in Explorations of Teaching and Learning Can Transform Perceptions, Terms, and Selves.” Teaching & Learning Inquiry 4 (2): 1–14.
  • Cook-Sather, Alison, Cathy Bovill, and Peter Felten. 2014. Engaging students as partners in teaching and learning: A guide for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Darby, Flower. “6 Quick Ways to Be More Inclusive in a Virtual Classroom.” July 23, 2020. Chronicle of Higher Education. July 23, 2020.
  • Impastato, Jillian, and Langley Topper. n.d. “Support Systems and Transgressive Hierarchies: Insights We Gained through the Transition Online While Planning for Pedagogical Partnership,” 6.
  • Mercer-Mapstone, Lucy, Sam Lucie Dvorakova, Kelly E. Matthews, Sophia Abbot, Breagh Cheng, Peter Felten, Kris Knorr, Elizabeth Marquis, Rafaella Shammas, and Kelly Swaim. 2017. “A Systematic Literature Review of Students as Partners in Higher Education.” International Journal for Students as Partners 1 (1).
  • Schwartz, Natalie. “Colleges Walk Back Their Fall Plans as Coronavirus Cases Spike.” July 16, 2020. Education Dive. Accessed September 3, 2020.
  • Werder, Carmen, Shevell Thibou, and Blair Kaufer. 2012. “Students as co-inquirers: A requisite theory in educational development.” Journal of Faculty Development 26 (3): 34–38.

Sophia Abbot has worked in the realm of student-faculty partnerships and SoTL since she was an undergrad at Bryn Mawr College. She worked as a fellow at Trinity University’s teaching center and a Graduate Apprentice at Elon University’s Center for Engaged learning before starting her Ph.D in Higher Education at George Mason University in Fall 2020. Sophia has previously published on the topic of students as partners on the CEL blog and elsewhere.

Geneva Stein is an Assistant Professor of Natural Sciences at Minerva Schools at KGI where she teaches and leads students towards a deeper understanding of their own learning and ability to act as primary agents in their learning process. She recently ran a global survey to understand the student experience with methods of emergency remote learning and is in the process of publishing the results and analysis of that survey. Prior to Minerva, she spent four years as the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Learning Programs at Princeton University and presented several times on the topic of students as partners. Stein has a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and Neuroscience from Princeton University.

How to cite this post:

Abbot, Sophia, and Geneva Stein. (2020, September 7). Ask your students: The value of student input on online course design [Blog Post]. Retrieved from