Online students ask more questions in ‘HyFlex’ lectures

Online students "asked plenty of questions in their chats, unlike physical attendees, who asked very few questions to lecturers," says Helle Mathiasen. (Credit: Good Faces/Unsplash)

Students attending large lectures online ask significantly more questions than do students who attend in person, research finds.

During COVID-19, many instructors have learned to teach via Zoom and Teams. In the fall of 2020, students returned to the University of Copenhagen in limited numbers. They were welcomed by “HyFlex Learning” in which half received remote instruction while the other half were physically present.

HyFlex is a contraction of “hybrid” and “flexible,” and refers to a form of instruction where students may choose to attend remotely or physically.

In HyFlex instruction, course instructors are filmed, allowing students to follow along remotely. The camera is controlled by an e-moderator, who simultaneously ensures that students’ chat questions are addressed by the instructor on an ongoing basis.

The e-moderator is crucial to giving online students the opportunity to participate and feel included, says Helle Mathiasen, professor in the University of Copenhagen’s science education department.

“Something that surprised us was how active online students were in terms of asking questions about their instruction. They asked plenty of questions in their chats, unlike physical attendees, who asked very few questions to lecturers,” explains Mathiasen, whose findings appear in the Danish journal Læring og Medier (Learning and Media).

Fear of asking a stupid question

With e-learning consultant Henrik Bregnhøj of the university’s Centre for Online and Blended Learning (COBL), she studied 282 lectures in pharmaceutical, medical, and veterinary faculties and analyzed the chat records of three lectures. In addition, Mathiasen conducted 15 group interviews with students about their instructional experiences.

“The students express that it is easier to ask questions like, ‘how exactly does it affect the molecule?’ in a chat than in a physical space, where students don’t want to be pegged as the ‘he or she that asked the dumb question.’ Another possible explanation for why online students were more active in chats may be that they are used to communicating with one another in writing on social media,” suggests Mathiasen.

Differences in participation between online and physical attendees may also be due to students’ expectations of lectures.

“Some students have an expectation that large lectures involve mostly one-way communication by the instructor. Hence, they don’t feel that it makes sense to ask questions during that time. The same students may be more active in other situations, such as in smaller discussion groups,” says Mathiasen.

However, several research projects demonstrate that students learn most when they actively engage with material by, for example, addressing uncertainty or seeking confirmation on the material.

According to Mathiasen, it can be “problematic” when students who have shown up on campus for lectures are not prompted and engaged.

“If we don’t actively use what we learn in instruction, it is quickly erased from our memory. Therefore, chats provide a fertile ground for deeper understanding, because there is greater communication between students, as well as with the lecturer,” she says.

Chat has its limits

While a chat can be a useful learning tool, certain aspects can’t replace physical attendance, where students experience gestures, eye contact, and body language as part of the teaching.

“Online education cannot stand alone. However, blends like HyFlex could serve as teaching formats that are more widely deployed in the future. And in particular, if there is an e-moderator who includes questions from the chat and controls the camera in a dynamic way that allows remote students to see when the lecturer is writing on the board or pointing to slides, which as a whole makes them feel seen,” she says, concluding:

“However, we must combat our own tendencies to censor ourselves or be shy about asking important questions. Here, an instructor can play a major role in telling their students that it is okay to make mistakes and that mistakes can be learned from.”

Source: University of Copenhagen