Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

Summary of a new report on undergraduate education during COVID-19

Julie Remold, Director of Evaluation for the Stanford's Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, summarizes findings from a new report on a national survey about undergraduate students' experiences during the pandemic.

Summary of results reported in Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A recent report on a national survey of undergraduate students conducted during the pandemic has findings that may be relevant to planning at Stanford. The authors, researchers at Digital Promise, in collaboration with Langer Research Associates administered a survey to a random national sample of 1,008 undergraduate students in the last two weeks of May 2020. 

Read the full report here.

Students invited to participate in the survey were enrolled in at least one course that began in person and transitioned to online instruction because of the pandemic. Survey participants were asked to choose one course to report on. Those who were taking at least one STEM course were asked to report on a STEM course. The survey asked students to characterize their experiences with the course before and after the transition to online instruction.

The survey identified the following common features of the online portions of the course: 

  • 67% had “live” (synchronous) sessions;
  • 65% had recorded lectures; 
  • 64% had frequent quizzes and assessments.

Course satisfaction

Though there was a decline in students reporting that they were “very satisfied” with their course after moving to online instruction (51% before and 19% after), the majority of students (59%) reported that they were at least “somewhat satisfied” with their course after it moved online. Smaller classes had higher proportions of “very satisfied” students from the start but after the transition to online instruction, smaller class sizes became a better predictor of satisfaction.


Students were asked about technology challenges and other challenges they faced with their courses. Many reported technology issues impacting their ability to attend or participate with their course at least occasionally:

  • 23% had hardware or software problems 
  • 44% had Internet connectivity problems (16% often or very often) 

Several other challenges were at least a minor problem for many students

  • 79% Staying motivated to do well (42% said it was a major problem)
  • 55% Finding a quiet place to work 
  • 54% Fitting the course in with family/home responsibilities
  • 45% feeling too unwell (physically or emotionally) to participate
  • 31% fitting the course in with a work schedule

The number of challenges that students reported was associated with the results for course satisfaction. The challenges most related to course satisfaction were:

  • difficulty maintaining motivation 
  • not knowing where to find help with the course, and 
  • feeling too unwell physically or emotionally to participate 

Low-income, underrepresented, and rural students reported a greater number of challenges. 

Students were asked to report their perceptions of the causes of challenges with their courses.

  • 45% of students attributed challenges to the unplanned move to online instruction 
  • 37% of students attributed challenges to inherent limitations of online learning 
  • 16% didn’t experience challenges

Eight Instructional Practices

The survey asked which of eight instructional practices identified in prior research was a feature of the courses. Students who reported that their courses included more of the practices also reported greater satisfaction with the course. The practices included in the survey are listed below. Those with the largest individual effects on course satisfaction are marked in bold.

  1. Assignments that ask students to express what they have learned and what they still need to learn
  2. Breaking up class activities into shorter pieces than in an in-person course
  3. Frequent quizzes or other assessments
  4. Live sessions in which students can ask questions and participate in discussions
  5. Meeting in “breakout groups” during a live class
  6. Personal messages to individual students about how they are doing in the course or to make sure they can access course materials
  7. Using real-world examples to illustrate course content
  8. Work on group projects separately from the course meetings

Report details

Means, B., and Neisler, J., with Langer Research Associates. (2020). Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic. San Mateo, CA: Digital Promise.

Advice for Stanford

The list of instructional practices included in the survey may be relevant for those who are planning instruction for the coming year. IR&DS fielded a student survey early in the Spring quarter and is currently leading a focus group study to better understand student experiences and instructional needs during remote learning. Though the focus group data are still being analyzed, Stanford student preferences appear to align well with the recommended practices outlined in the report.  The eight instructional practices also overlap with Stanford instructor reports of successful practices during spring quarter

Initial results from the IR&DS's COVID survey are available to Stanford community members with login.