Interview series part 1: student learning experiences in digital vs. in-person classes

*In April 2021, The Tartan began conducting interviews with fellow students to get a better idea of how the switch to online learning was affecting all of us. We followed up with all of the interviewees this semester so they could compare their experiences online and in person.

This is the first in a series based on these interviews. This article is focused on the general learning experience during the different semesters, and the next will discuss the pandemic’s effect on mental health and navigating isolation and burnout.*

The academic year of 2020-2021 was an unprecedented one at Carnegie Mellon, with a hybrid mode of instruction that saw half the student population return to campus but almost everyone taking classes online through Zoom. The Tartan spoke with some students back in April, a month before the Spring 2021 semester was due to end, and again a month after this in-person semester started about their experiences with virtual and in-person learning, navigating the pandemic, and mental health.

“It’s a controlled shitshow,” said Ezra Blank, a senior studying fine arts with a concentration in printmaking, about the Spring 2021 semester. “But it’s not as bad as it could have been.” Blank had taken a leave of absence for the Fall 2020 semester. He had struggled with online classes when CMU transitioned to remote learning when the pandemic first hit in March 2020, and had not been certain whether the hybrid option that CMU offered for its students would work for him. As a printmaker, he would need access to facilities with thousands of dollars of equipment which he could not DIY for himself. He decided to come back for the Spring 2021 semester after having talked to friends from the School of Art who assured him that the hybrid option helped students go to and work on campus.

While some of Blank’s classes that semester met in-person and he had access to studios, he was still mostly learning through Zoom. “It’s a lot harder for me to put as much effort in things because it doesn’t feel like a real class,” he said. Both teachers and students didn’t treat it with the same gravity as in-person classes and art students have had to change a lot of their practice to transition to online learning — the camaraderie and constant supervision that exists during studio classes was gone and many were switching to digital art which they didn’t have much experience with which resulted in a slightly lower quality of work than usual, leading to a sense of discouragement.

Like Blank, Cindy Weiheng Qin, a junior in physics at the time, considered taking a leave of absence until things returned to normal, but decided to continue with her education after a conversation with her parents. “I was just not used to studying at home,” she said about transitioning to remote learning in Spring 2020. Qin is an international student and has lived in Pittsburgh throughout the pandemic. She didn’t have a proper workspace at home and had to work through the summer to make it comfortable for herself. Once the hybrid Fall 2020 semester started and she had an in-person class that she had to go to campus for, she thought she would be happy, but interacting with a large group of people after months of isolation was more overwhelming than she expected it to be.

Attending classes online, however, was also challenging. “My professors specifically there are some of them [who] were older, so they just don’t do really well on Zoom. And, for example, one of my professors just shows slides. And on his slides, it’s like, five or six equations squished into one slide, and they’re really hard to read. And he just reads through the PowerPoints really slowly. And I’m just like, why can’t I just read the textbook and learn the same material? And [in] less than half the amount of time?” she pointed out. “I don’t blame anyone for the decreasing quality of teaching. I know it’s a hard transition for [the professors] as well.”

Qin’s ability to focus during online classes and the motivation to attend them also suffered. “It’s always like, I can watch a recording [but] never end up watching them,” she said. However, test-taking had been made much more comfortable for Qin. “Personally, I do have a decent amount of test anxiety,” she said. Most of her professors assigned one of two styles of take-home exam: they were either open for a 24-hour or 48-hour time window and students could take it throughout that time, or the exam had a time window with a limited time and students could take it at any time of their choosing. Explaining how this helped her performance, she said, “For the physics exam, specifically, if I have more time to work through the problems, I really tried to understand like, what’s going on? Like, between the steps, how did you get from step A to step B, instead of memorizing equations and just throwing all of them onto a time[d] exam.”

Starting in the Spring 2021 semester, CMU reduced the number of weeks in a traditional semester from 16 weeks (including the final examinations week) to 15 weeks. It was also announced that there would not be a spring break that semester and that instead there would be two “break days” on which no classes would be conducted or work be assigned. The Fall 2020 semester had a Thanksgiving break for three days (five including the weekend). “One thing about this semester is we don’t have a spring break,” said Qin, speaking about the difference between the Fall 2020 semester and Spring 2021. “So I’m noticing myself, and a lot of my friends are having a burnout really early on in the semester. So yeah, there’s one major difference – you don’t get a long break in between.”

“Professors are rushing their material. There’s no spring break. So students are working harder. They’re more burned out by the end,” said Mehar Goli, who at the time was a junior studying electrical and computer engineering with an additional major in biomedical engineering. “In a lot of cases, [professors] weren’t able to plan correctly, or they just had to rush their material in order to compensate.” The lack of spring break, she said, with professors not being able to schedule things properly overall, meant students were working harder and didn’t have enough breathing room.

Mrinmayee Mandal, then a junior studying electrical and computer engineering, echoed the sentiment. She felt that the two extra break days helped but were not enough. “If I had spring break, I would have time to kind of collect myself again, look over the stuff I’ve been struggling with, and then come back and give my best shot at the finals. But right now my mental state is more like just, you know, it is what it is right now,” she lamented.

Mandal was on campus in Pittsburgh for the Spring 2021 semester but attended classes online for the Fall 2020 semester. She talked about the difficulties of doing labs while at home for her ECE classes, some of which shipped lab kits to her home: “This one time, my kit board wasn’t working. Turns out the problem wasn’t in the board, it was a cable. The professor kind of just told me to get a new cable … I didn’t know where to get a new cable and [it] was almost the end of the semester. We only had one lab left. So I just used my lab partner’s board, and she was somewhere else. So I didn’t really get to see the last lab on my board. Just because it would be too much of a hassle to send it back to Pittsburgh and have the professor send a new kit out.”

Goli, who also attended classes online over Zoom during the Fall semester before returning to campus for Spring 2021, felt that the flexibility of online classes was the only good thing about them because she can watch recordings. Blank also echoed that sentiment — “With online school, it’s a lot easier to attend class. Like, even if you’re too tired to get out of bed, you can just bring your computer into bed with you.”

However, Goli pointed out that after a while of watching professors teach on Zoom surrounded by the blank thumbnails of students with their cameras turned off, it can also lead to Zoom burnout and can harm the learning process. “You’re just constantly staring at the screen and it just feels so monotonous, the entire experience. And after it all, rather than feeling energized or something, I just feel tired. Because it’s not like I went somewhere, sat down and tried to do something, it just feels like all I did was watch. I just watched something on my computer.”

“There are less fun things you can do on Zoom, class-wise,” pointed out Qin, talking about the things she missed about being in-person. “So say, in in-person classes … there’s always this chit-chat time and someone says something funny, the professor says something funny — like these are small moments that make your day a little better. But this part is just completely taken away when we’re on Zoom.”