What do Students [Really] Want in an Online Course?

girl laptop and bookAfter analyzing student feedback from over twenty courses in our college’s online program, a dominant theme emerged—students appear to want to interact with their peers online, to engage in stimulating discussions, and look for constructive feedback from their instructor. Students not only want to learn, but are looking to establish a personal connection, a sense of presence. In this post I include a synopsis of anonymous, end-of-course student feedback, and several of the students [unedited] comments.

I look forward to the task of reading and analyzing student feedback. My goal is to determine if we can improve the instructional design and delivery of our courses. Course instructors also look forward to reviewing their course surveys; they look for strengths and opportunities. Though when looking at the student feedback collectively, rather than individually by course, we are able to identify patterns and even trends. What I share in this post is not a scientific study by any means, but I hope that the insights may be helpful to educators when reading how students are expressing their needs; sharing how they want to learn in an 100% online format.

I’ve compiled the survey into ‘trends’ and ‘themes’ [below]. The trends are compiled after examining the college’s sessions’ feedback from the past twelve months.


  • The number of students using the mobile format of our video lectures [which are included in each course] is increasing. We expect this trend to continue. We introduced the mobile format (which augmented the formats of online streaming, and DVD options) over 12 months ago.
  • Student involvement in forum discussions appears to be increasing [as indicated by number of postings]. Likely factors are the instructors’ use and adherence to the grading rubric for discussion posts, and instructor involvement within discussion forums.

iStock_000019623568XSmallTheme: Peer Interaction
The comments below supports the theme that students want peer interaction and to engage in discussions. The comments are in response to the survey question, ‘What I [the student] liked most about the course’… [my observations are in blue].

  • The positive and encouraging feedback from other students”.
  • I enjoyed the feedback from my professor and other students. It is what helped me the most”.
  • I would have liked more interaction with other students”.
  • “I enjoyed the whole course very much! I really like the interaction with other students through the forum posts. It was constructive reading what others had written and replying to each other.”
  • I enjoyed the intellectual conversations occurring during the weekly discussions and also Dr. [—–] lectures!”
  • “I truly liked the nature of the debates. Even when we disagreed, we voiced our opinions in a cordial and respectful manner.” [Controversial issues can be a great way to stimulate conversation, but need an instructor to moderate].
  • It may be beneficial to have a live discussion instead of a forum. It seemed like towards the end of the course people aren’t posting as much and the discussion wasn’t as interesting or helpful. And that way the professor could kind of guide the discussion a little more.[Interesting that students are almost anticipating what is possible given the advances in accessible technology].

Theme: Students and Instructor Feedback

  • I also liked that the professor didn’t just grade down for something, but made it clear when I was doing something wrong.” [Students appear open to constructive feedback].
  • “I wish I would get more feedback on my homework. Most times all I receive is the grade with a comment (good work, etc). I would like some specific critique to help me improve.”
  • He posted in the professor news board, and did a couple of extra things every now and then, but I would’ve liked it if he had posted in the discussion forums more often. [Instructor involvement is not only appreciated by students, but establishes the instructor’s presence].

Closing Thoughts
What is encouraging from the analysis of the feedback, is that students appear to want to learn, and the technology, the learning platform has disappeared—has become transparent. Students are not focusing on the technology but on the learning experience. Students view learning as learning, it is becoming less about the delivery format.

16 thoughts on “What do Students [Really] Want in an Online Course?

  1. Pingback: What Do Online Students Want? – Online Collegess

  2. Steve Simons

    I have just read and enjoyed your article “What do Students [Really] Want in an Online Course?” and would like to quote from it in a report I am writing. Obviously I will give full credit and include a link to the full article. Is that acceptable to you?


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  4. Nina

    Excellent points about learning – it is always based on interaction (between the student and the material/teacher/mentor/grader/etc) regardless the mode of education (online/face-to-face/phone). Students who are interested in learning (instead of just wanting to pass assessments/get certificates i.e. externally motivated) are usually the ones who want more feedback about their work, and they are also the ones who wish to have the personal connection. And I have noticed this to be equally true in classroom settings, too, which leads me to wonder if online learning actually is as different as it often is claimed to be. 🙂


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Nina, Thanks for your comment, and your last sentence is brilliant, “which leads me to wonder if online learning actually is as different as it often is claimed to be”. Is it that different? And if so why? Good questions. One study I read suggested that students really don’t see it as all that different (when online learning is also treated as the same by the instructors, and not inferior). The study was done at University of Central Florida, a progressive school that offers students several modalities of learning: “The Postmodality Era: How “Online Learning” Is Becoming “Learning”, by Thomas Cavanaugh I included the link to the article in this post. 🙂


  5. Marsha Orr

    Re: Instructor feedback in an online format: This semester, I discovered that voice feedback is available for papers submitted to Turnitin in the “Grademark” feature. I had used it for written comments, but the reaction to a verbal summary (with enthusiasm, warmth, and gentle guidance) caused an entirely different reaction from students. They loved it and found it very helpful. One student commented, “I felt like you were sitting right there talking to me.” I’ll be looking for other ways to incorporate verbal feedback in online courses.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Marsha. So nice to hear from you again. Happy New Year to you!

      What a tremendous tool available for giving audio feedback, and how valuable given the students reaction. Thanks for sharing this Marsha, and I really like the student comment about feeling as if you were ‘right there giving feedback’.

      I have heard from another reader through her Twitter feed that she also gives audio feedback by using the Evernote application, which has an audio feature. I have just started working with Evernote, and haven’t tried this yet. If anyone out there has experience with this, please share!

      Thanks again Marsha for taking the time to comment. Debbie


      1. Debi Ash, PhD (@docdebiash)

        Just to add to this thread on verbal feedback; several of the CMS/LMS systems now include an audio component in their text editors. Bb added a webcam feature that students really love! All it takes is a Youtube account. Feedback then becomes a conversation with visual support. This leads to there being even more engagement and starts to close any “gap” between traditional classrooms and online ones.


  6. Robert Connolly

    I am curious as to how the desire for more interaction will be (can be) addressed in online technology. To the comment “I wish I would get more feedback on my homework” would the naysayers of online education say “See, online depersonalizes, blah, blah, blah. . .” although I am confident students will and often do have the identical critiques for bricks and mortar educational experiences. Can you point to studies or even more informal surveys such as the above where students are directly responding to the online education vs. the bricks and mortar experience? or the same questions are put to online and bricks and mortar coursework?


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Robert.
      Good questions! I agree with you, there are similar types of feedback for brick and mortar as well – and as in online, the instructor makes all the difference for the students learning experience (and thus feedback). There are several vehicles that instructors do and can use for interaction. In one of my graduate classes which was online, we used Skype quite frequently. The group I was working in had two meetings during the semester with our professor using Skype. It was a public policy class and we were struggling with an assignment. It took two meetings to get us on track. Our group also used Skype to communicate synchronously and Google Docs for asynchronous collaboration. There was frequent interaction, however, there was one group member who did not respond to emails, or group communication in a timely manner, and would miss the meetings. He dropped out half way through the class.

      In another class, we had weekly lectures (usually 2 hours), live using Blackboard Collaborate. The lectures were an hour long, were interactive as we had a white board and could ask questions, then every two weeks or so would break up into groups and discuss our project and/or the lecture. These lectures were recorded, allowing students who couldn’t attend to view the lecture later in the week. It wasn’t perfect, as it was audio based only, but worked.

      I will find some studies and post them here later that addresses the online vs. classroom experience. A very valid and interesting point to discuss and examine.

      Thank you Robert for your thought provoking response and questions :). This helps advance the [needed] discussions about higher education. Stay tuned. Debbie


  7. Pingback: What do Students [Really] Want in an Online Course? | Halina's Blog

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