A Check-In with Classics Students about Remote Learning

Photo: Claudia Cohen Hall. Credit: Penn Facilities

A Check-In with Classics Students about Remote Learning

By Cecelia Heintzelman


With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, life has looked different for most people. For Penn students, it meant online classes and learning from home. Remote learning meant adjusting to online meetings, online clubs, and distance from friends. We, at Discentes, were curious about how our fellow students were fairing this year, so we surveyed our Classics undergraduate students about their experiences with online learning in the Fall 2020 semester. 

Online learning meant students were no longer allowed to attend classes in-person and students and professors were forced to conduct classes from their homes. Nearly 60 percent of undergraduate Classics students were living in off-campus housing in Philadelphia. These students lived in rented apartments or homes as they completed their first fully-online semester; however, some students returned home (14.3 percent), learning from their family home. Under Penn’s new guidelines for the first (and now second) semester, some students were allowed to return to campus under extenuating circumstances. 14.3 percent of surveyed students lived on campus.

Adjusting to online classes was difficult, but many students still opted to take as many (or more) classes as they would have had the semester been in-person. The typical class load is between 4 and 5, depending on the preference of students. Like in a normal semester, about 86 percent of students took between 4 and 5 courses. 14.3 percent of students opted to take 6 classes, one more than the normal course load. Students reported spending upwards of 7 hours a day online, either in class or doing homework, with 71 percent of students saying they spent 7 or more hours on their computer. One student responded saying that, “3 hours of instruction per class per week was too much screen time.”

Of the classes offered, Penn professors had the option to structure their classes synchronously or asynchronously (or a mix of both). Synchronous classes involved virtual meetings where the professor lectured or hosted a seminar. Asynchronous meetings were pre-recorded lectures that the professor uploaded for students to watch. Some professors chose to combine them. 71 percent of students surveyed said that all or more than half of their classes were synchronous, whereas 14.3 percent of students said that less than half of their class meetings were synchronous. Students generally preferred synchronous classes over asynchronous classes, with 71.4 percent of Classics students reporting that they prefer physical class. Students that were surveyed similarly reported that professors were somewhat responsive to students suggestions about class meetings, with 85.7 percent of students indicating their professors were receptive to criticism about class structure.

A large portion of adjusting to classes was adjusting to the changing workload. Professors and students alike were concerned about the onus of work being placed on students: from watching lectures to doing homework, and even attending class. Some professors reduced the amount of work, while some students felt that the amount of work had increased because of online classes. 42.9 percent of students reported that the workload had increased as a result of online classes. Although students felt the workload had increased, nearly 71.4 percent of students said that they felt as though they were learning less than in previous semesters.

The surveyed students were also asked about their Classics courses. 71.4 percent of students surveyed reported that they were taking at least one class in the Classics department. Unlike the other classes on their course load, the students felt that their classes were equally or less difficult than in previous semesters, with 42.9 percent of surveyed students reporting that their classes were equally as difficult and 28.6 percent of students reporting that they were less difficult.

Unfortunately, as the pandemic continues to worsen, Penn’s spring semester is online as well, with limited on-campus operations. Students will continue to adjust to virtual learning, as they did in the previous semester. The results of this survey are being published to help inform department faculty and administration and to improve the operation of Classics courses in a virtual environment.


Cecelia Heintzelman (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Ancient History and History of Art, with a minor in Global Medieval Studies.


Comments? Join the conversation on our TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn!