As electronic communication becomes increasingly common, and as students juggle study, work, and family life, many universities are offering their students more flexible learning opportunities. Classes once delivered face-to-face are often replaced by online activities and discussions. However, there is little research comparing students’ experience and learning in these two modalities. The aim of this study was to compare undergraduates’ preference for, and academic performance on, class material and assessment presented online vs. in traditional classrooms. Psychology students (N = 67) at an Australian university completed written exercises, a class discussion, and a written test on two academic topics. The activities for one topic were conducted face-to-face, and the other online, with topics counterbalanced across two groups. The results showed that students preferred to complete activities face-to-face rather than online, but there was no significant difference in their test performance in the two modalities. In their written responses, students expressed a strong preference for class discussions to be conducted face-to-face, reporting that they felt more engaged, and received more immediate feedback, than in online discussion. A follow-up study with a separate group (N = 37) confirmed that although students appreciated the convenience of completing written activities online in their own time, they also strongly preferred to discuss course content with peers in the classroom rather than online. It is concluded that online and face-to-face activities can lead to similar levels of academic performance, but that students would rather do written activities online but engage in discussion in person. Course developers could aim to structure classes so that students can benefit from both the flexibility of online learning, and the greater engagement experienced in face-to-face discussion.
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Nikolai Bogdanov Belsky