Lessons Learned From the 2020 Summer Student Survey

Earlier this Fall, the Trinity Office of Assessment conducted a survey with Summer 2020 students about their remote learning experience. Jennifer Hill, Director of Assessment, shared some of the data with us, highlighting the findings most relevant for instructors.

The Overall Experience

When the pandemic altered their plans, many Duke students opted to take a class online. Over 1,000 Duke students enrolled in at least one summer session course, a significant increase over any prior year.

Their reasons for taking summer courses were mostly strategic; some students wanted to fulfill a graduation requirement or get ahead in their major. Others used it as a chance to take a course they anticipated would be difficult, knowing they would be able to devote more time and focus on it during the summer rather than a Fall or Spring term. Almost all students were successful in accomplishing this; 97% of surveyed students felt that their goals had been mostly or fully met. 

A few students were dissatisfied with their summer school experience, generally because they found the asynchronous experience more difficult than expected. They often cited low levels of engagement with their peers or their instructor as the cause of their frustration. Fortunately, there are ways to increase engagement in asynchronous online courses. Duke’s Flex Teaching website offers a course design guide that walks instructors through how to create engaging online learning experiences. You can also watch our recorded workshop on encouraging interaction and building community in online courses. 

For the most part, students reported far fewer challenges learning remotely in the Summer compared to during the Spring when they had to leave campus abruptly mid-semester. In spite of the fact that they personally felt more anxious about the pandemic and social turmoil, most students said that their summer learning experience went better than expected. 

Lessons Learned

When asked what students would like to see improved in future terms, three items are especially relevant to instructors: communication, clearer expectations of student work and authentic assessment.


As students and instructors adjusted to the “new normal” of intentional online teaching and learning, communication practices improved. In general, students reported sufficient communication with their instructors and a decrease in the amount of communication from the Spring (when they reported being overwhelmed by too much messaging). 

One strategy that students reported worked well was when their instructor made a point to put all of their class announcements in one place, such as Sakai or Piazza, and did so consistently. Important messages can get lost in email but if students know where to go to find recent communications, they are more likely to be able to keep up with any changes made in the course plans.

Clearer Expectations

Students desired clearer expectations of their work at multiple levels, from individual coursework to group assignments to grading schemes. Some strategies you can employ to more clearly communicate course expectations:

  • When assigning student groups, keep timezones in mind. If you are having students self-organize into groups, collect and make available timezone information so they can more easily identify others in their same timezone to partner with.
  • Defining and structuring the course around clear objectives communicates to students why your course and assignments are important. 
  • Clarify what resources students are and are not allowed to use to complete their assignments. For example, students might be able to work together in small groups within the class but may not consult outside help forums.
  • Providing students with a model example of course work, such as a sample forum response, and a rubric for assignments will give them a clear idea of instructor expectations.

Authentic Assessment

Assessment was a source of frustration for students learning remotely. When asked to evaluate their preferred assessment formats, students rated exams and quizzes the lowest, citing them as anxiety-inducing and problematic due to potential technical problems. 

Certain grading schemes — especially curved grades, high-stakes and timed exams — were the single biggest stressor for students this summer. For example, technology errors (such as a poor WiFi signal) could prevent a student from successfully completing an assessment in the given timeframe, and students reported that curved grades encourage cheating.

Students suggested these adjustments to course assessments: 

  • Abolish curves 
  • Use authentic or performative assessments to make cheating more difficult
  • Use more open book exams
  • Allow more collaborative work
  • Rely on exams less and projects more 

The most highly rated forms of assessment were blogs, journals and reflections because students felt they required a deeper engagement with the material and discouraged cheating. However, writing assignments are not always appropriate; this table can help you figure out what types of assignments best align with your learning objectives. 

Support For Spring Planning

Learning Innovation is here to support you as you plan for Spring 2021. We have multiple avenues for support:

  • The Flexible Teaching website is a comprehensive resource that can help you design your course so that your students can learn and succeed in any mode – face to face, online or hybrid. The Blueprints can give you an idea of what flexible teaching may look like for your course, and the Course Design Planner can help you work through the three guides (alone or with a group) and design your flexible course in about four weeks.
  • We will host a series of course design workshops and instructor discussions to help instructors get started on integrating these and other strategies into Spring courses. The Workshops page on the Flexible Teaching website is regularly updated with new, upcoming events hosted by both Learning Innovation and our University partners.
  • Email us anytime at learninginnovation@duke.edu; we typically respond within one business day.
  • Drop into our open office hours for live, one-on-one assistance from a Learning Innovation expert from 1 to 3 pm EST every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at duke.zoom.us/my/dukelearninginnovation.

The fact that so many students were satisfied despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and social unrest throughout the summer is a great reflection on Duke instructors. You have done incredible work and we are proud of what the Duke community has accomplished; we know you will succeed again this Spring.

The Trinity Office of Assessment is grateful to Kim Price, Director of Student Services for Continuing Studies & Summer Session, for her input and assistance with this work.