Online versus traditional classrooms: an undergraduate’s take


I’m an undergraduate student currently studying two degrees: chemical engineering in a traditional classroom setting and business administration online. The experiences have shown me what works (and what doesn’t) in both settings when it comes to peer interaction, student participation and engagement.

I’ve found peer interaction is far easier in a classroom than it is online simply because it happens in real-time. Students can say something and be answered instantly. This kind of back-and-forth is impossible in an online setting that does not require students to be in attendance on a set schedule.

Most online interactions happen asynchronously; students might not be able to further interact with their peers and instructors for hours, or even days. Students in online classrooms have limited interaction with their peers as it is, so maximising their opportunities to interact with and learn from each other is crucial.

Student participation is also something that I’ve found different in the classroom and online. In online settings students participate by reading learning materials and completing assignments. Students have the incentive to participate because their grade depends on it. They do only what they are being graded on.

In the classroom, however, student participation usually takes the form of instructors asking their students questions. It can also be participating in instructor-led, hands-on activities. Students may participate in more than they are being evaluated on, such as in-class discussions. In this way students participate because they want to, not because they have to.

Student engagement both with the material and with each other, meanwhile, works better online because of grade incentives. For example, I post weekly in a discussion forum with my business administration peers. The instructor posts a prompt about a particular topic and every student must respond to it as well as respond to three of their peers’ posts.

Meanwhile in a crowded lecture hall, it is harder to encourage each student to engage. Lectures are a difficult enough way to keep students’ attention, but they can be a one-way ticket to disengagement if the lecturer has a monotonous delivery, say, or a lack of enthusiasm themselves. Or they read word-for-word what’s on a slide.

But teaching like you’re talking with students rather than just at them and showing enthusiasm are good ways to keep them involved and attentive. Students generally want to learn and have the opportunity to ask questions.

Because of the differences in the two programmes I’m studying, I’ve seen how certain subjects lend themselves to one way of learning over another. Anything that requires a lot of hands-on learning and real-time peer interaction, such as engineering or medicine, works better in a traditional classroom setting. While subjects that require more self-study, such as business or philosophy, are more suited to online learning.

What works best for me when learning online is ensuring that I can interact with my peers in things like discussion forums and opportunities to learn that aren’t just reading. Meanwhile, switching up the learning process in a traditional classroom, such as by showing videos or encouraging collaboration through short group assignments, is a good way to keep students engaged because peer-to-peer interaction is essential to a student’s learning.

It’s important to be mindful of the differences between in-classroom and online learning. What works in one setting might not work in another. Your students will be grateful if you put in the effort to understand the strengths of each and they will be all the better for your having done so.

Author Bio: Matthew Taylor is an undergraduate studying a chemical engineering degree at the University of Saskatchewan and a business administration degree online at the University of the People.