Interaction, Structure, Creativity: Students Weigh in On Improving School During a Pandemic

Interaction, Structure, Creativity: Students Weigh in On Improving School During a Pandemic
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When it comes to distance learning, one key question is often relegated to the background: What do students think?

Fortunately, a new survey from Phi Delta Kappa International offers insight into how students are faring with distance learning and what could be done to improve their experience.

PDK International, as it is better known, is a long-standing professional organization that aims to provide research and support to educators. It has around 200,000 members, including a group dedicated to high-school students interested in becoming teachers.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis and its challenges, PDK International surveyed its members about what they regard to be the most pressing issues during this unprecedented time. As the organization's website explained, one survey was sent to students while another was sent to educators and administrators. In addition, a brief was produced that collated the two sets of responses to provide what was described as a “dive into the intersection between student and teacher voice,” with the results discussed during a recent webinar hosted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

In keeping with its focus on social-emotional learning (SEL), the CASEL webinar more closely examined the survey results through the eyes of the student participants. According to PDK International Director Joshua Starr, the organization “really wanted to get a sense from our kids so that we could inform the conversation” about how students are coping with the current pandemic without having to rely on adult perspectives.

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Next, we'll take a look at some of the main points uncovered by Starr and his team, along with how these connect to the broader conversations currently occurring around online learning.


A majority of students who responded to the PDK International survey indicated that opportunities to interact with their classmates and instructors—perhaps through group activities—would help them adapt to online learning. Interestingly, a desire for increased interaction ranked higher for students than it did for surveyed educators and administrators.

In a March Edutopia piece penned at a time when widespread school closures were imminent, teacher and online learning advocate Kareem Farah predicted that “what students will miss most is the human connection” forged through personal interactions at school. Although Farah acknowledged that replicating exchanges between teacher and student is far from easy in an online format, he emphasized the value of trying to connect with students via phone calls, emails, or other interactions that allow for “personalized touchpoints” and the demonstration of care and concern for students’ well-being. 

Perhaps in response to their peer connections suddenly being disrupted, students also expressed support for more group projects and other interpersonal interactions during remote learning. Tips for implementing such strategies can be found in this article from the online teaching resource Faculty Focus.


An overwhelming number of students who took part in the PDK International poll pointed to structure as something that would help them succeed with online learning—a finding that is perhaps unsurprising given the widespread uncertainty of the current climate.

Indeed, when The New York Times asked students to share their experiences adjusting to school shutdowns, many respondents mourned the loss of their routines. Without their familiar daily schedules, some learners reported struggling to find the motivation they needed to complete their assignments.

Teachers may choose to impose structure during online learning by setting up regularly scheduled check-ins with students, both one-on-one and with the whole class. In addition, providing clear assignments (the simpler the better) and upholding even clearer communication protocols can help students know what to expect on a daily and weekly basis. This type of structure may allow students to feel more in control of not only their schoolwork but their daily lives in general, which might improve productivity. 

This idea was underscored by a March article in Marin Magazine that emphasized the importance of structures and routines, especially for younger students who feel more secure when they know what to expect from the adults in their lives. One tip: Parents and caregivers can use visual cues or timers to help students transition between tasks and daily activities in lieu of a school bell or in-person prompting from a teacher.


In a recent piece for Education Dive, Linda Jacobson presented findings from interviews with students that included ideas for how teachers can incorporate creativity into online work. According to Jacobson, taking a more creative approach could allow teachers to meet students where they are and make the remote learning experience more enjoyable.

For instance, high-schooler Merrit Jones suggested that teachers look to the popular app TikTok as an unexpected engagement tool. According to Jones, TikTok is “short and digestible and entertaining and creative”—and, thus, could be a powerful way to deliver lessons.

Rachel Roderick noted in a February article on the Learning Liftoff website that teachers may previously have tried to restrict students’ use of TikTok, deeming it a distraction. However, during this break in normal routines and expectations, the app might be a good way for teachers and students to connect. Indeed, Roderick’s article included several tips for using TikTok as a teaching tool, including “teacher-made videos that students can watch again and again.”

Of course, TikTok is far from the only way to facilitate creative engagement with students. For some teachers, a creative approach may simply consist of allowing students to lead the way by sharing what they have been doing and learning while at home.

The bottom line

With students and educators alike going through an unprecedented and historic experience, the incorporation of interaction, structure, and creativity may significantly improve distance learning as everyone works to forge a new path. 


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