How to Tell Whether Your Online Class Was Actually Awful

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You’ve probably had one of two thoughts about taking online classes to become a dietitian as a mature student. 

“I can’t remember what it’s like to be a student. Now, I’m going to be an online student. WHAT AM I DOING????”

Or

“School will be a breeze, I’ve done it once before AND I have a successful career. How hard can it be?

After a class or two, you realize that you’re doing better than you thought, or this is way more work than you expected, but you keep trekking on. Nothing is going to stop you from becoming a dietitian, after all. 

At least once though, you’ve said to yourself, “Ugh this online class sucks!” Then at the end of the term, your student survey comes out and you ask yourself, “Was it really that bad or was it just me?”

Mature students are in a great position to give feedback because we know how we learn, what’s effective for learning, and we readily take responsibility for our own short-comings.

But, we might also second guess ourselves when we think a class is bad because maybe it was just us who struggled. 

A lot of us are taking classes online, so it’s hard to separate fact from feelings when we assess a class. I have certainly done this as an online student.

This article breaks down what separates good online classes from awful ones.

What criteria makes a good online class?

When I was a student the first time around, I had an idea of what made a class good because I was studying to be a teacher. I at least knew there was more to it than whether I liked my teacher or not. 

Then when I was a teacher, I was assessed yearly on my performance using set criteria. You start to see patterns over the years. 

Student Surveys

Have you ever noticed that student survey questions tend to ask the same things? There is a reason for that. 

A lot of research goes into education and specifically how people learn. This informs pedagogical techniques and practices because the goal of education is for learning to happen.

Believe it or not, a lot of work goes into writing quality and objective surveys. Good questions aim to capture your experience, with as little bias as possible, in order to produce reliable and valid results. 

Subjectivity vs Objectivity

Asking students “is your teacher nice, or friendly” is subjective. My definition of these adjectives will not be the same as someone else’s. 

“Is your teacher available to answer questions?” is a much better question because they either were or weren’t. And if they aren’t that indicates that a teacher isn’t fulfilling their role as a teacher. 

I have mixed feelings about student surveys because I think a lot of first time students don’t really know how to properly assess their class and the focus really is on the teacher, rather than themselves. 

Well-written survey questions can help institutions get a better picture of what happened in the class, but the free written responses tend to be unhelpful. 

“Class was boring!” is one comment that I think is useless because it implies that learning should be fun all of the time. 

In my opinion, “fun” really means engaging and practical lessons. There is a difference. Now, engaging and practical activities can make a class fun, but that’s subjective. 

There is always the impulse to decide whether a class is good or not based on our feelings, but there are criteria we can use. 

I personally use the following when I determine whether my online class was good or not:

  • Student-centeredness
  • Activities and resources
  • Feedback
  • Teacher availability

Let’s dive into it!

Student-centeredness

Isometric computer and learners online learning

Was the class focused on the student experience or was it teacher-centered (like a lecture)?

Classes don’t need to be 60+ minutes of a teacher simply talking to (or at) students. Or, in the case of online learning, a recorded hour of a teacher lecturing.

Lectures have their time and place. 

But it would be difficult to convince me that an entire lesson should be a lecture, when statistics show only about 5% of information is retained.  

Warm-up Activities

The goal of education is for the student to learn, so at the very least, a lecture should start with asking students about prior knowledge with a warm-up activity. 

Let’s say I’m in a chemistry class and the topic is molecular geometry. A great warm up question could be, “Why do you think some molecules have different shapes?”

And hopefully, this will prompt a student to think about the number of electrons each atom has. 

Even if it doesn’t, we’re still thinking about what could cause this and that makes us more interested in the lessons to come. 

Reviews

Other components in effective lessons are some kind of review at the end, so students can apply what they’ve learned. 

Again, this can be as simple as just asking some questions at the end of a lesson and letting students discuss it. If the lesson ends abruptly with no recap, that’s not a good class. 

It’s not hard to do this in an online course, especially if it is asynchronous.

Most non-traditional dietetic students find themselves in this type of class when they study online. Basically, you don’t meet as a class at a specific time which gives students more flexibility. 

But, just because someone isn’t talking at me doesn’t mean that assigning me an entire textbook worth of readings and a few pre-recorded lectures constitutes a “good class”. 

Comprehension-Checking Questions

I also expect there to be questions throughout my online lesson so I can check my own comprehension. And a module should still end with some kind of re-cap I can do to check my own comprehension.

I’d also like to clarify that quizzes, while a way to check comprehension, aren’t what I’m talking about. You need a chance to check what you’ve learned, before you are graded on it. 

So, if your teacher is asking you “Does Vitamin D support bone health?” After they talk about vitamin D, that’s good teaching.

In my online classes, I’ve used textbooks published by Cengage, and they have these kinds of questions built into the chapter readings. I love this because I can instantly see whether I understood the content. 

The resources and activities used in these asynchronous online courses really make or break the quality, in my opinion. 

What kind of feedback can you give?

If you spent an entire term with no ungraded questions asked to you, I’d say something like:

“It would be great to have chances to check my own comprehension before quizzes. For example, more comprehension-checking questions throughout the lesson.”

I personally believe there is a lot of pressure on teachers to undertake technical skills in online learning and asking someone to go learn a bunch of high end video editing software isn’t reasonable. 

If you’re in an asynchronous class, a teacher can ask comprehension-checking questions in their pre-recorded videos or just write out some questions to display in the video or in their notes below. 

There are programs like Camtasia that let people embed quiz questions into their videos, I think it’s unreasonable to ask teachers to undertake this kind of video-editing.  

Pausing for a few seconds is perfectly fine in my book and I’d consider that part of a good online class.

Activities and Resources in Online Classes

“I always start by asking, were there activities?” And not just the textbook activities either. 

Then I ask,

“Did these activities help me apply my knowledge in a real context?”

Multiple Choice Quizzes

Multiple choice questions are great for checking comprehension quickly because there is only one right answer. 

You’ll find these usually as quizzes. 

I like these questions to an extent. They help me assess my progress and generally they give me instant feedback. I don’t have to wait for my teacher or a TA to comment on my work. 

I hate multiple choice questions when I don’t understand the purpose

When I was a poli-sci undergrad (a few moons ago), I took a comparative politics class. I vividly remember a question about a car that was stolen out of Miami and it ended up in Panama. 

This was completely useless information; the sole purpose in asking this was to make sure we read the text. What else do I remember from that course? Nothing.

Now, when I see questions asking “which organization made this,” or “what year..”.  I get feisty. Why is it relevant?

I also personally don’t like questions about measurement. Although they aren’t useless, I find them annoying. 

Like “how much of this food equals a serving of quality protein?” There are so many numbers just swimming around in my head. The most annoying part about these measurement questions though is that they use the imperial system. 

I live in a country that uses the metric system. So it goes. 

practice activities graphic

Case Studies

I love case studies. LOVE THEM.

For online nutrition classes, I think they are incredibly valuable and they’re easy to implement. They can be presented as short answer, multiple choice questions or even as a matching activity.

I’d expect a good online course to use these because they’re all about applying knowledge. 

And that’s the real value of taking a class–having the environment and support to apply concepts. 

Written Assignments

Unpopular opinion, but I also like writing. If essay writing were a sport, I’d have a medal. 

Written assignments are another great way to apply knowledge, so I enjoy them. Sure, they can be a lot of work. 

However, it’s meaningful work when the written assignment is well-designed. 

Poorly designed writing tasks on the other hand; I could write 4000 words on how they negatively impact learning AND are a massive waste of everyone’s time. 

Bad assignments are a waste of everyone’s time

When I was doing my MA, I had a class on diversity. 

This type of class, at a graduate level, had so much potential to address important diversity issues. And the cohort was a mix of students from the College of Education and from Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language (TESOL) program. 

Some great conversations could have happened because the college of Ed students worked with local students and we from the TESOL program taught international students.

So much potential. What did we do with that potential?

We wrote book reports. Not research papers. Book reports, like the ones you do in middle school. 

And the kicker? The books were young adult pieces, like the Kite Runner.  

It gets better. We then had to partner up and make a PPT about our book report. 

Oh, and we didn’t get any of our grades until the end of the course.

My classmates and I, all at the graduate level, were not impressed and we flagged it with the department. 

Activities and assignments need to be meaningful. I don’t mind doing a lot of work when it helps me achieve the learning objectives. 

If the work isn’t meaningful, it’s a waste of time and it’s wasting time you don’t have. 

Discussions

Discussions are hit or miss, in my opinion. I don’t think good online classes need to have these, but they can add interaction.

It can be pretty lonely as an online student, so discussions are a nice way to “connect” with others. This can only happen when the questions support conversation though. 

I just finished a class that had required discussion posts. Fair. 

There were about 10 questions we needed to answer per post. Ok. 

A lot of those questions were comprehension checking questions. Hmm. 

Those aren’t conducive to a discussion now are they? No. 

So, what are good discussion questions?

question marks

Good discussion questions will prompt discussion and there won’t be one right answer. 

For example, “What role does vitamin E play in the body?”. While a valid question, it’s checking my comprehension because there is only one right answer. Well, set of right answers. 

You can’t have an opinion about it’s role. 

When these types of questions are used in a discussion, it stops conversation dead in its tracks.

What am I supposed to say to my classmates when I reply to them? “Nice job getting these questions correct; I got the same answers because there is only one right answer!”

Now, what if the question was, “How would you introduce an action plan to a patient who needs to make dietary changes?” 

That I can host a discussion around. 

Questions with opinion words or phrases like “Do you think..” “What’s your opinion” or “How would you” will always spark a conversation. 

Resources in Online Classes

“Were the resources provided in the class useful?” 

I look at the textbook, any videos used and PPT slides shared. 

If they helped me learn by clarifying concepts, giving me practice or more in depth knowledge, I consider the resources useful. 

People think great teaching is about what someone does in the classroom. I disagree. 


It’s about what a teacher does in preparation. In a really great lesson, you won’t even notice what the teacher is doing because the activities are connected seamlessly. 

What about asynchronous online classes?

In an asynchronous class, this can be a bit tricky to see. I myself struggle when the class uses an interactive textbook. 

My two nutrition classes have used this type of book and I don’t know what to say when the student survey forms ask about my teacher’s teaching style. 

The material in the book is useful and it helps me learn. But I can’t assess my teacher’s style of teaching from that.

The hardships of online learning. And teaching.  

I generally look at the organization of the modules and the activities and resources used outside of the book to determine whether I’m in a good class or not.

I’d like to emphasize that I look at the activities outside of the book because no matter how great a book is, a textbook shouldn’t be the only resource.

Otherwise, why would we pay higher education institutions thousands of dollars to learn? We’d just pay textbook publishers for their material. 

Feedback

This is a big indicator of whether I’m in a good online class or not. I’d say this is the most important aspect of a class after providing chances to apply knowledge. 

I break this criteria down into subcategories.  Is feedback given and is it given in a timely manner?

Is feedback given?

No one wants to be shooting in the dark only to find out they’re failing at the end of the term. 

Also is quality feedback given? Receiving just a score doesn’t tell students where they need to focus their attention. 

Is feedback given in a timely manner? 

This includes in-class feedback  (if you’re in a synchronous setting) or answering messages. I consider a response within 48 hours to be timely for messages. 

Teachers usually have multiple classes at a time, prep work and a life. My question doesn’t need a 24 hour turn around most times.

Grading is a complex issue for me. It takes a while to do well yet it needs to be done quickly. 

This is why it was always my least favorite task while I was teaching. 

It’s also just really boring to read the same thing over and over. And students do write about the same things. ALL OF THE TIME. 

Teacher Availability 

This one is obvious. Teachers need to be available and accessible otherwise, why are they teaching the class?

Before we decide a teacher is unavailable and we give them scathing feedback, we should check that they are in fact un-reachable. 

We have all missed an email in our lives, so if you’ve only sent one to your teacher, that’s not grounds for a poor review. 

Two, three and more–that’s concerning. 

Takeaway

My criteria is pretty standard, you’ll find the same on your student surveys. 

 You, as a student, need to do the work. This means you need to read the material and do the activities. 

That being said,

Your online class is bad when:

  • They don’t focus on your learning as a student
  • You’re not doing meaningful work
  • They lack feedback and support
  • Your teacher is nowhere to be found

If your class matches that description, your online class was indeed awful. And you should say something on your survey, or to the department head. 

Classes should make learning easier, not an uphill battle.

If this doesn’t sound like your class though, you might just be frustrated. Whenever I’m stressed out (which is more than I’d like to admit), I think everything sucks.

Usually, I take a step back, let those feelings of frustration and anger wash over me, and then ask myself again, “does my online class really suck?”.

Sometimes, it is just me.

Next time you’re asking yourself the same question, use these criteria to help you decide whether your online class is good or truly terrible.

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