Course Activities and Assignments

While the blended environment is a generalized preference for an overarching teaching and learning modality, faculty and students expressed an equally clear preference for the sorts of assignments and activities they prefer to perform in different environments.

In 2017, we asked both faculty and students what sorts of assignments and activities they preferred to do in online and in face-to-face environments. When we compared the responses of students and faculty across these items, we found considerable overlap and agreement on the preferred environment in which to carry out various tasks related to their courses, especially for face-to-face learning environments. However, the reasons given by each group for their respective preferences are quite different.

Face-to-Face Environments

In face-to-face learning environments, students' most preferred activity is to attend lectures, an activity that appeared in student comments nearly twice as frequently as their second favorite face-to-face activity, discussion. Taking exam, quizzes, and tests was the third most preferred face-to-face activity, followed closely by collaboration with other students (see table 1).

Table 1. Faculty and student preferences for face-to-face assignments and activities1 

Rank Students Faculty
1 Lecture Discussion
2 Discussion Collaboration
3 Exams/quizzes/tests Lecture
4 Collaboration In-class activities
5 Exams/quizzes/tests
6 Instruction
7 All

Students told us that face-to-face lectures offer the opportunity for their instructors to provide more depth on course content, expand on course materials, and answer questions they have about the course materials and content. One student told us baldly that lectures are simply easier to follow in a face-to-face environment. Another averred that "there is no better [way] to learn new material than for a teacher to explain the concepts face-to-face. This allows the instructor's in-depth knowledge to be seen and also lets them transfer their enthusiasm for the subject to me." Students' reasons for their preference of discussion in a face-to-face environment were slightly less instrumental than those given for lectures, focusing instead on the importance of human interaction. As one student told us, "I like to have discussions face-to-face; it keeps the discussion interesting and more personal." Some students, however, stated their preferences for face-to-face discussion in terms of the limits of online discussions, suggesting that "it is difficult to judge tone in typed discussions" and that "discussion board posts are pointless—I have yet to meet a student that reads them."

Very few students provided reasons for why they prefer to take their quizzes and examinations in face-to-face environments, but reduced opportunities for academic dishonesty was one of the main reasons given. For example, one student told us, "I strongly believe that testing should be done in a classroom setting to avoid academic dishonesty problems." When citing their reasons for preferring collaboration in a face-to-face environment, students emphasized both the limits of online collaborations (e.g., "Group projects are very difficult online"; "online group projects never work") and the benefits of human interaction with their peers (e.g., "I enjoy to do [sic] group work with other students with the oversight of the instructor").

Instructors' preferences for student activities and assignments in a face-to-face environment are the same as four of those identified by students, although they are ranked somewhat differently. Having students engage in discussion was the face-to-face activity most frequently named by faculty, citing the importance of dialogue to deeper learning. Instructors mentioned discussion nearly twice as often as either collaboration or lecture. Faculty emphasized the importance of synchronous interactions between instructors and students, and both synchronous and asynchronous interaction among students. Representative examples of faculty's emphasizing the importance of discussion include:

  • "Can get immediate feedback from students and they can get immediate feedback from each other."
  • "There simply is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with an instructor and one's peers. Lectures can be stopped and started to accommodate questions and intervening discussions."
  • "Large group discussions are important to do in person to make sure voices are being heard and/or represented."

When it comes to student collaboration, faculty prefer face-to-face environments to online ones because of the benefits of the former and the limitations of the latter. According to some faculty, face-to-face collaboration that engages students in "higher-level thinking" allows instructors "to float between groups," "to facilitate learning and provide feedback," "to mediate and to keep them focused," and "to see that everyone is contributing equally." When this happens, one instructor suggested, students "seem to work better and generate more motivation and fun than when done online." Indeed, one instructor proclaimed, "Group activities do not work online. Invariably there are a few students who do not participate. It leads to frustration to the students who are dedicated."

Finally, faculty cited the personal interactions with students that facilitate an understanding of topics, provide opportunities for questions, and enable peer interactions as their justification for preferring to conduct lectures in a face-to-face environment. Quotes from instructors illustrate this point:

  • "Lecture and discussion…make the best use of their time and…facilitate personal interaction that leads to better understanding of the topics."
  • "In general, [lecture] allows me to get to know my students and engage with THEM instead of my computer."
  • "Lecture/discussion [makes] it easier for me to read students' comprehension and dialogue, and allows me to clarify confusion immediately so that students don't get lost in the material."

Online Environments

Although taking exams, quizzes, and tests was the third most preferred activity in a face-to-face environment by students, it was the overwhelmingly number one choice for both students and faculty among all online activities (see table 2).2  From the student perspective, online exams, quizzes, and tests are low-stress experiences through which they obtain immediate feedback on how well they know the material. A couple of students told us that, in addition to actual assessments, online practice quizzes and study guides are "extremely helpful for studying" and that doing so helps to "learn from choosing the wrong answer." Students prefer online testing conditions because they "are far less stressful" than face-to-face: The student's home or a testing facility has fewer distractions and allows for flexibility in terms of when they take the exam.

Faculty also agree that the testing conditions in an online environment are more conducive to formative assessments, with the goal of improving student performance. One instructor told us, "I think there are fewer distractions with online exams versus the classroom, and students retain information better when they can go at their own pace." Issues of efficiency in terms of grading exams were often cited by faculty. Another instructor embraced online exams explicitly for the automaticity with which exams and quizzes are graded as justification for preferring them; yet another embraced the more pedagogically grounded function of having students complete chapter quizzes "to prompt reading of the text before we discuss it in class"; still others gestured to the flipped classroom model when they suggested that taking exams online "reserves class time for things better done face-to-face."

Table 2. Faculty and student preferences for online assignments and activities3 

Rank Students Faculty
1 Exams/quizzes/tests Exams/quizzes/tests
2 Homework Discussion
3 Writing/essays Reading
4 Video
5 Homework
6 Research
7 Submissions
8 Papers

Homework is another activity preferred in an online environment, ranked second by students and fifth by faculty. For students, completing homework online is seen as beneficial for its pedagogical value: Not only does it serve as a convenient method by which to complete coursework, but it also provides the opportunity for immediate feedback. Learning from mistakes in an online environment was cited by one student as "very useful to practicing a concept." Some students did suggest that online homework for some subjects for which there are "definite problems and answers" (e.g., mathematics) was preferable to online homework for other courses. For faculty, the value is less pedagogical and more operational: The convenience and efficiency associated with collecting and grading student assignments were cited as the most important reasons for preferring online homework. Additionally, faculty identified the proliferation of plagiarism software as a tool that also makes the completion and submission of online homework more attractive.


  1. Rank is determined by response frequency; responses with frequencies below n = 100 not reported.

  2. Subsamples of 1,100 student responses and 1,100 faculty responses were randomly chosen for qualitative coding. Four hundred and thirty-three students expressed a preference for online exams/quizzes, 164 more than the next most commonly listed preference, homework. Three hundred and seventy-two faculty said that they prefer online exams/quizzes; the next most frequently cited preference was online discussion, with 268 mentions.

  3. Rank is determined by response frequency; responses with frequencies below n = 100 not reported.