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Analysis of Students’ Transition Back to Face-to-Face Instruction

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Anne Kelly Hoel, University of Wisconsin-Stout

Laura Schmidt, University of Wisconsin-Stout

Min DeGruson, University of Wisconsin-Stout

Keywords: Classroom Culture, Learning Modality Transition, Students’ Experiences

Key Statement: Learn about student academic experiences across multiple disciplines as the pandemic abated and students transitioned from online/hybrid modalities back to face-to-face instruction.


This research investigated student academic experiences as the pandemic abated and students transitioned from online/hybrid modalities back to face-to-face instruction. The collaborative research, with IRB exemption, was conducted from the vantage point of three distinct disciplines: Business Management, Packaging Engineering, and Mathematics. Pre- and post-survey results, along with focus group interviews on the students’ return to face-to-face classes, are discussed. Reflection on how COVID-19 teaching and learning adaptations affected and continue to affect students and instructors is shared, along with lessons learned on strategies to foster student success during a transition.

Image courtesy of Wes Lewis, Unsplash


The research was conducted beginning in summer 2021 with a literature review and survey design. Data was collected in the fall 2021 semester, followed by data analysis in spring 2022. Before fall 2021, masks, face shields, classroom/lab cleaning and seating arrangements with 6-foot distance settings were all required at the authors’ institution. Beginning in fall 2021, only the mask requirement remained. With the transition back to face-to-face learning, the university required 80% of the course offerings to be face-to-face, not hybrid or online. The students in this study were enrolled in one of three courses: linear algebra (mathematics), management ethics, or packaging materials. They were sophomores with some juniors and came from majors such as Applied Math, Computer Science, Packaging, and Business.

Data collection was done through pre- and post-surveys and focus group interviews. At the start of the fall 2021 semester, a pre-survey collected data on students' past modality experiences, current expectations, and demographics. At the end of the semester, a post-survey collected data on students' experiences with the recent course modality transition. The post-survey questions mirrored the pre-survey questions, so that students’ expectations and actual experience could be compared. Focus group interviews were conducted at the end of the semester with three students from each of the three disciplines. Students who had taken the most online/hybrid courses in the past semesters were selected as participants.


Course Modality Ranking

A combined total of 75 students were enrolled in the three classes, and 49 (65.3%) responded to both the pre- and post-surveys. Students were asked on the pre- and post-survey to rank the following modalities in terms of preference: face-to-face, hybrid, online synchronous, and online asynchronous (1 being the most preferred, and 4 the least preferred). Among all students in both surveys, face-to-face was the most preferred, followed by hybrid, online synchronous, and online asynchronous as the least preferred. These ranking results were as the researchers expected; however, online synchronous and online asynchronous ranked very close to each other. There were also unexpected notable differences between disciplines: packaging students followed the overall averaged ranking pattern, business students preferred online asynchronous over online synchronous delivery, and mathematics students preferred online synchronous over hybrid delivery (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Course modality ranking results

Expectation and Experience of Transitioning

As expected, students viewed the overall experiences of transitioning from online/hybrid to face-to-face positively (Figure 2). Engagement with the instructor was also viewed positively in both surveys (Figure 3). However, students' views on the difficulty of transitioning to face-to-face delivery were more varied (Figure 4). Thirty-four percent of students expected very easy transitioning in the pre-survey; 39% reported experiencing a very easy transition in the post survey. Thirty-four percent of students expected an easy transition, but only 27% reported experiencing an easy transition in the post survey. An equal percentage of students (23%) reported expecting and experiencing neither a difficult nor an easy transition, and 9% expected and experienced a somewhat difficult transition. Although no students expected a very difficult transition, 2% of students reported a very difficult transition in the post survey.

Figure 2. Students’ overall experience of transitioning from online/hybrid to face-to-face

Figure 3. Students’ engagement with the instructor

Figure 4. Difficulty of transitioning.

Prior Experiences of Non-Face-to-Face Modalities

In the pre-survey, students shared their prior experiences with the three modalities of online synchronous, online asynchronous, and hybrid. The three most-reported results are shared for each modality in Table 1.

In addition, the pre-survey expectation question, “How will the transition back face-to-face impact you?” showed that 63% of students anticipated more/better learning; 37% of students felt happy to be back/had a positive outlook; and 31% of students anticipated better focus/less distractions.

Student Lessons Learned Prior and Transferred

On the pre-survey, students were asked what lessons they had learned from their online/hybrid experiences. On the post-survey, students were asked if the lessons learned prior had transferred to the face-to-face modality. Time management /organizational skills were identified as the primary lesson learned in the pre-survey (57%) and was the primary lesson transferred post-survey (22%). Learning how to be self-motivated was ranked second (14% lessons learned pre-; 20% transferred post-). The third most important lesson that students learned in the online/hybrid experience was improved handling of emotional issues (10%). The third most important lesson learned that was transferred was better comprehension skills/retention/focus (14%). Although not the same lesson learned and lesson transferred, the third category are related skills.

Experiences of Face-to-Face Modality Prior and After

Students then shared their top three impressions of face-to-face instruction before the pandemic. Prior to the shift to online teaching, 47% of students believed that face-to-face instruction was the “best” modality; 33% reported it to promote engagement/be less distracting; and 14% reported traveling to class was more difficult. After the return to face-to-face instruction, the top three positive impressions were the connection with the professor and fellow students reported by 76% of students; 37% reported face-to-face as more engaging and less distracting; and thirdly, 6% reported that the face-to-face modality made learning feel easier (such as note taking, assignment clarity). The top three negative impressions were traveling to class was more difficult (47%); working more for class and team projects (33%); and thirdly, experiencing anxiety due to transitioning back to face-to-face (29%).

Finally, students were asked for one word to describe their transition back to face-to-face. A word cloud in the shape of Wisconsin (where the research was conducted) illustrates the variety of responses with some common themes (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Word cloud of students’ one-word for the transition

Focus Group Revelations

During focus group interviews, a significant difference was noted between lower- and upper-level students. If students were upper-level and had face-to-face classes before COVID, they were more eager to return to a face-to-face modality. If the students were lower-level and had not had a college course in a face-to-face modality, they were more anxious about the return to face-to-face, since it was a new experience. Surprising differences between the three disciplines were also uncovered in terms of the face-to-face modality. Students in the packaging/engineering class had an increased appreciation of more in-person lab work; students in the mathematics class appreciated the ability to ask questions and get immediate feedback; and students in the business class appreciated richer discussions, with facial expressions and tone of voice impacting those discussions.

Study Thoughts

Students navigated a large variety of course modalities during COVID. It is clear that these experiences had an impact on their transition back to the face-to-face modality. In an online setting, students valued flexible course design and the convenience of learning from home, but commented that their learning was not as strong. In a face-to-face modality, students valued open discussions, student engagement activities, and immediate feedback, but had to work harder. The added difficulty for students may be due to increased expectations as instructors continuously strive to find the balance of effective teaching strategies.

Suggested Ongoing Strategies to Support Student Transition Back to Face-to-Face Classes

Our experiences while gathering and analyzing data for this project resulted in several strategies that we have since implemented in our courses to help foster student success. Our interpersonal strategies include getting to know students faster and building a stronger rapport with them; validating their opinions and thoughts; and supporting students to be their authentic selves. Additional support and guidance are provided to lower-level students in the hopes that as upper-level students they have the experience of being creative critical thinkers and independent learners. On day one of class, students need clear expectations about the course and outside-of-class responsibilities such as homework, studying, etc. Within our disciplines, we’ve learned to highlight different positive experiences and leverage them by conducting engaging lab work (packaging), providing more opportunity for students to ask questions and get immediate feedback (math); and facilitating richer class discussions (business). Overall, we aim to reinforce the value of face-to-face instruction while adding more flexibility within course design.

Discussion Questions

  1. What was your experience with students as they transitioned back to face-to-face modality?

  2. Reflect on specific ideas/activities to use with your students to foster student success during transitions between course modalities. Feel free to use those suggested here as starting points.

  3. How do you believe the students’ year in college (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior) affects their learning experiences? How might you vary instruction when enrolled together?


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About the Authors

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