What makes in-person instruction unique? York students identify seven elements

What are the elements of in-person instruction that make it unique? A group of York University undergraduate students, whose studies shifted to an online format due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have conducted an informal research study on this line of inquiry and identified seven distinct aspects that set the in-person experience apart.

Cary Wu

The students, who connected with each other through Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Professor Cary Wu’s Research Methods sociology courses, pursued the question “What makes in-person classes unique and different from online learning?”

“I learn so much from listening to my students,” says Wu. “I get to know better about their experiences, and understand their struggles better. This also helps with my online teaching.”

Through discussion, the 14 students identified seven main themes that outline why students prefer in-person instruction. A summary of the seven elements are outlined below.

Community and friendship

Students determined the physicality of in-person classes presents a sense of community that can be lost online. Personal connections are more easily made in the classroom, and more difficult to replicate online, for instance most students reported they rarely converse with each other during and after an online class. Further, in-person classes are more likely to spark organic discussions and brainstorming opportunities.

Peer support is also lacking limited in online classes, students report.

Presence of social cues

Social cues are often missed in online classes, leading to misunderstandings of people, situations and contexts.

In addition, students reported they may turn off their cameras during an online class and, without these visual cues, they may not feel safe during classroom discussions and find it difficult to “develop a sense of trust and familiarity” toward their peers who, against the backdrop of faceless learning, feel more like “strangers.”

Sense of motivation

In the absence of shared study spaces, like libraries, students reported feeling less motivation to complete assignments and tasks. The report outlines that when students observe other students studying, they feel a sense of camaraderie which drives them to do their best.

Graduate students reported that staying after classes to meet with their professors allows them to connect with their professors in ways that benefit their learning. This finding theorizes that in-person instruction provides better opportunities for students to ask questions and seek answers.

Staying focused

Engagement and focus are vital to the learning process but are often compromised during online learning, the report finds. Students are more likely to struggle with focus during class and refrain from asking questions due to increased distractions during online instruction (for example, online notifications and chat functions during Zoom lectures, or household/neighbourhood distractions).

As well, the belief that students would do better in-person may subliminally drive a self-fulfilling prophecy among students. The act of going into a physical space can also be linked to higher levels of focus, according to the students interviewed.


Virtual meetings in one’s home does not afford the same level of privacy that in-person and closed-door meetings do. Students reported they are more likely to forgo making educational-related appointments due to a lack of privacy.

Some students reported a lack of privacy meant less transparency with academic advisory, and also that they tend to feel more supported and comfortable discussing issues with academic advisors and counselors in person.

Sense of routine

Students reported feeling that online schooling lacks structure, which in turn can affect a student’s grade and experience of the course. Asynchronous classes lead to increased opportunity to procrastinate. The lack of scheduled class times, in-person reminders from the professor and regular in-person conversations with classmates, students report increased likelihood to fall behind on course readings, content and lecture material.

The lack of structure also leads to a blurring of boundaries between home and school, and can mean unconventional study times for students living in busy homes (i.e., students may only have quiet times to study when the household is quiet).

Being on campus

The simple act of being on campus makes for a positive educational and social postsecondary experience, students report. Campus provides a sharp distinction between work and home, and a common ground for students to meet and connect, as well as an environment conducive to learning.

The report, titled “7 missing pieces: why students prefer in-person over online classes,” outlines students’ struggle to remain focused, motivated, committed, and there is no longer a sense of familiarity and community among students and professors.

“This is not to say that online learning can only produce negative outcomes, but rather, to acknowledge the difficult challenges it poses for all students,” reads the report.

The authors of the report are students Joanne Ong, Rebecca De Santo, Jagdeep Heir, Edmund Siu, Nirosa Nirmalan, Martin B. Ofori, Abiola Awotide, Okeida Hassan, Raquel Ramos, Taha Badaoui, Victoria Ogley, Christian Saad, Esteban Sabbatasso and Susan Morrissey Wyse, as well as Wu (carywu@yorku.ca).

The full report will be published in University Affairs on Nov. 30.