Virtual Learning In Unprecedented Times: The Student Experience

2020 is truly becoming a year for the history books, and students at Swampscott High School are living through history right now. Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, half of quarter three and all of quarter four was moved to what the school calls “distance learning”, an unexpected transition during an unprecedented time. A small sample of juniors at the school opted to fill out a survey regarding their feelings about this new virtual learning experience, and their feelings about online learning seem to be mixed. 

As all students and teachers are aware, online learning is not ideal; however, this may turn out to be a new reality for students everywhere for a short length of time, and could continue into the fall, which is something we won’t know until the state of Massachusetts notifies schools of the plan for returning in the fall.  This announcement is supposed to take place sometime before July. So that begs the question, what is the student experience with online learning? What are the positives and the negatives? How can it be improved upon? I went to the students to uncover these truths.

Out of the 22 surveyed students, almost 75% claim they prefer regular schooling to virtual learning, with the remainder preferring online schooling or being undecided. This is an overwhelming majority that seems to favor regular schooling and makes me hope for the sake of these students that we can transfer back to in-person schooling soon. However, despite this overwhelming majority of students who prefer regular schooling, almost all of the surveyed students were able to find positive aspects of virtual learning. 

In response to the question: “What is your favorite part about the transition to virtual learning?” Many students stated that they are now able to get more sleep than they would be getting during regular schooling. Many students also noted that they enjoy being able to work at their own pace and set their own schedules due to the flexibility that comes with online learning, and some students also noted this caused them to be less stressed and anxious. These positives are some benefits of virtual learning that are extremely important to note.

Unfortunately, students were also able to find many negative aspects of online learning. When prompted with the question: “What do you dislike about virtual learning?” and the question “What is your main struggle with virtual learning?”  Many of the responses were similar, many students disliked that they had less time with their teachers or stated that getting questions answered in a timely fashion was difficult, and many others cited the workload as their biggest dislike. Others felt as though their learning environment wasn’t as ideal as a school building. However, the most common answer seems to be that students feel a lack of motivation and have difficulty in maintaining a structure and focus. These issues are important to note because finding ways to improve them could assist in improving online learning should it have to continue into the fall.

Students were also asked if they have experienced a lack of motivation due to online learning, and in response to this question, a whopping 90.9% answered yes. It is clear from the responses in the last question and this survey question that lack of motivation is a serious problem with online learning, and should be addressed somehow if online learning is to continue this fall.

In the survey, students were also asked whether they felt as though their workload has increased, decreased, or remained the same during this transition. 59.1% of students stated they felt as though it has increased, 27.3% of students stated they believe it has decreased, and 13.6% of students stated they’ve felt as though the workload has remained the same. This statistic is surprising and important to note because ensuring that students have a manageable workload during such unprecedented times is of the utmost importance.  It is also important to note, however, that those students may just feel as though there is more work due to the above-mentioned lack of motivation or the lack of in-classroom learning.

Students were also asked to rate their performance with online learning compared to their performance with in-person learning. An equal number of students stated they felt as though they’ve performed “worse” and  “about the same” (40.9%), while 18.2% of students stated they feel as though their performance was “better”. This statistic gives an interesting insight about how students have adapted to online learning, with some faring better than others. Considering the sizable amount of students who felt they have performed worse it may be beneficial to find ways to better help students adapt to virtual learning.

Students were also asked to compare the stress of virtual learning to that of regular schooling, and the jury is still out on this one. 36.4% of students found online learning to be more stressful, 31.8% of students found virtual learning to be less stressful, and 27.3% of students found the two forms of learning to be equal in terms of stress, and only 4.5% of the surveyed students were undecided about this matter. It is difficult to draw conclusions from these statistics, but finding ways to decrease the stresses of virtual learning would probably be beneficial to both the health of the students and their performance in class. 

The surveyed students were also given the option to input ideas on how Swampscott High School could improve virtual learning. Many students stated that they feel as though less work would be beneficial and a few others mentioned they enjoyed having more flexible due dates. One student also noted they would like to keep the four day school week. Students also seemed to disagree a lot when it came to zooms, some students don’t want any mandatory zooms while many hoped for actual classes to occur on the zoom calls. Many also felt as though more communication and organization needed to exist when it came to how grading works and the format in which teachers assigned assignments.

Students were also asked what they missed about the school, and the majority stated that they missed the social aspects of school, such as seeing friends and teachers, the most. Teenagers by nature are generally very social, and school is an important part of the social aspect of students’ lives, so finding a way to give some social time amongst students may be beneficial to them if distance learning must continue this fall. 


Despite the many drawbacks that have come with online learning, there have also been many positive aspects to the quarantine. I personally have noticed students discovering and revealing hobbies and skills that I never knew they had before, from art, to fishing, to aiding the environment. I have really noticed how talented of a student body we are, and I believe that a lot of this has occurred because of the extra flexibility that virtual learning has allowed, which I think is a major positive to distance learning. Students were also prompted with the optional question: “What have you been doing to stay busy during quarantine?” and many students stated that they’ve been creating art or partaking in healthy activities like exercise or indulging in their hobbies. Students having extra time on their hands and being able to enjoy these activities is certainly a major benefit to distance learning that can not be overlooked.

After analysis of this student survey, I think there are certainly both positive and negative aspects to the student experience with online learning. However, if this situation is to continue into the fall, I believe the school administration should take student’s experiences and ideas into account to make for a better student experience with online learning, something that would be beneficial to both students and teachers both performance-wise and health-wise.