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Table of Contents
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 99-109

Impact of online courses and grading framework on student learning and motivation

1 Department of Population Health and Pathobiology, NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, Raleigh, NC, USA
2 Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences, NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, Raleigh, NC, USA
3 Department of Clinical Sciences, NCSU College of Education, Research and Instructional Support Specialist, NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, Raleigh, NC, USA
4 Office of Academic Affairs, NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, Raleigh, NC, USA

Date of Submission07-Sep-2021
Date of Acceptance20-Oct-2021
Date of Web Publication01-Feb-2022

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Devorah M Stowe
Department of Population Health and Pathobiology, NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, Raleigh, NC 27607.
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/EHP.EHP_27_21

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Background: At our institution, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an abrupt change from traditional in-person instruction to remote teaching along with a concurrent change from letter grades to satisfactory/marginal/unsatisfactory grading. Objectives: The aims of this study were to explore the effects of changes in instructional delivery on students’ learning and retention of the material and to assess students’ motivation to learn. Methods: The study consisted of two phases. Phase 1 involved the administration of an academic motivation survey and a clinical pathology exam using online platforms. Phase 2 involved conducting a focus group to further explore student experiences during the change in course instruction. Results: The academic motivation survey revealed that both prior to and during the pandemic, the main drivers for student achievement were an interest in learning the content due to anticipated relevance in clinical practice, as well as a desire to master course goals. While the students predicted feeling more confident in their data interpretation ability in the traditionally taught topics vs. topics modified due to social distancing, the data from the content exam suggests that students showed better retention of topics taught in a modified manner. Lastly, the focus group revealed that participants perceived online learning to be more challenging due to the lack of in-person contact and increased frustration with technical issues. Conclusion: While moving courses online may make it more difficult to engage with the materials, peers, and instructors, there did not appear to be adverse effects on the overall student learning or content retention.

Keywords: Clinical pathology, goal orientation theory, motivation survey, retention, virtual learning experience

How to cite this article:
Stowe DM, Schoenfeld-Tacher RM, Hammond S, Hedgpeth MW, Neel JA. Impact of online courses and grading framework on student learning and motivation. Educ Health Prof 2021;4:99-109

How to cite this URL:
Stowe DM, Schoenfeld-Tacher RM, Hammond S, Hedgpeth MW, Neel JA. Impact of online courses and grading framework on student learning and motivation. Educ Health Prof [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Dec 6];4:99-109. Available from: https://www.ehpjournal.com/text.asp?2021/4/3/99/336971

  Background Top

Modern goal orientation theory looks to delineate whether motivation derives from a desire for development and growth (mastery) vs. self-enhancement and validation of worth (performance).[1],[2],[3] Although both orientations can be associated with high academic performance, this relationship is not as strong in a mastery orientation approach. A major benefit of a mastery orientation approach is the highly desirable positive outcomes it is associated with, which include high self-efficacy, deep learning, self-regulated learning, and learning to cope with failure, as well as more positive emotions and overall better well-being, all traits we want to foster in veterinary students. Students with high mastery orientation are willing to try new problem-solving strategies, seek help, and their effort enhances ability.[4] Therefore, this approach would also align well with a competency-based professional curriculum where the focus is on learning and competency, not necessarily on high academic achievement or competition. However, much of the veterinary educational system appears designed to encourage or reward students with a performance goal orientation, or at least aspects thereof. While some of the attributes of achievement/performance goal orientation can be quite positive (e.g., high self-efficacy, high grades, and positive emotions), they can also be maladaptive, particularly for avoidance goals in which students avoid situations in which they fear they cannot learn (mastery avoidance) or will perform poorly (performance avoidance).[4] Students with avoidance motives may avoid studying challenging materials or focus on easier problems (mastery avoidance) or avoid asking for help or placing themselves in situations where their low ability may be observed (performance avoidance).[3]

Some work has been done looking at achievement goal orientation in medical students. A study by So found premedical students had a slight predominance of performance approach orientation, while first-year medical students had a slight predominance of a mastery approach.[5] Interestingly, by third year, performance approach, again, slightly predominated, and increased levels of work avoidance orientation were noted. So also noted that performance approach orientation was the best predictor of academic achievement.[5] Chen et al. found a strong mastery approach in students entering early clerkships.[6] Although this was not associated with better clerkship evaluations or standardized patient exam scores, they did find that mastery-oriented students who perceived their preceptorships as mastery-structured and inviting did have stronger evaluations and exam scores. Artino et al. found higher mastery goal orientation in the first- and third-year medical students and postulated the timing of the USMLE might be associated with these changes.[7] The Step-1 exam in year two may account for lower mastery-goal orientation in year two students. They also found performance avoidance tended to increase over the first three years but dropped in the fourth year. The sharpest increase was in third year, and they hypothesized that it may relate to the marked increase in assessment by direct observation. Hall et al. found a similar rise in performance avoidance in pharmacy students completing the last two years of their program.[8]

We previously explored student long-term retention of clinical pathology content, by examining changes in performance on exams given at the end of second year and during fourth year clinical rotations.[9] With the advent of COVID-19, all instruction at our university changed from traditional, face-to-face delivery to modified, mainly online instruction in March 2020. In recognition of the consequences of such an abrupt change to emergency remote teaching, the University also instituted a concurrent change from letter grades to a satisfactory/marginal/unsatisfactory (S/M/U) grading framework. Additionally, course assessments moved from a proctored, closed-resources format to an online, open-resources format. This study was designed to explore the impact of these external factors on students’ learning and retention of the material. After reviewing the initial data, we realized that motivation and other personal factors likely played a large role in students’ ability to learn and retain the information. Thus, we broadened the aims of this study to explore the effects of changes in instructional delivery and assessment on students’ motivation to learn.

The goals of this study were to examine students’ performance on course exams and an end of summer cumulative exam to see if there were differences in the retention of material taught/assessed in a traditional format vs. material presented/assessed under emergency remote learning conditions. Additionally, a survey was administered, and a focus group was conducted to explore the internal and external factors affecting students’ motivation and ability to learn.

  Methods Top

The present study consisted of two phases [Figure 1]. Phase 1 involved the administration of a clinical pathology exam, using ExamSoft Worldwide, Inc, an online assessment program, as well as a survey regarding academic motivation administered using The Research Electronic Data Capture (RedCap), an electronic data management tool during the Summer semester of 2020. This survey contained both retrospective (pre-COVID) questions as well as questions about current perspectives. Phase 2 occurred during the Fall semester of 2020 and involved conducting a focus group to further explore student experiences. Initial data collection took place online, during the summer of 2020. An email invitation was sent to all members of the class of 2022, inviting them to complete an academic motivation survey, as well as a comprehensive clinical pathology exam, to test their retention of content information. Due to social distancing restrictions in place at the time of the study, students completed the comprehensive exam at home. They were asked to refrain from using any external resources and encouraged to view the exam as an opportunity to prepare for the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE). In return for completing the exam, students were provided a score analysis, documenting their strengths and weaknesses. Following completion of this phase, the researchers reviewed participants’ responses and determined that additional, qualitative data collection was needed to further explore the relationship between motivation, impact of COVID-19 concerns, and academic outcomes. The researchers felt that a focus group discussion was appropriate for fully exploring the evaluation of modified, online learning in the second year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) clinical pathology course. The data collected served as a direct source of information on the perceptions of online learning for the clinical pathology course. Both phases of the project were approved by the North Carolina State University IRB Board, approval 21072.
Figure 1: This original figure illustrates the timeline and design of the study

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Participants in this study were selected based on their recent completion of a required second year clinical pathology course, which involves learning to diagnose disease using results of laboratory testing of blood, body fluids, and tissues. The second year DVM students were recruited by email to participate in a comprehensive exam and then later to take part in a focus group. Twenty-two participants from a class of 102 completed the academic motivation survey, for an initial response rate of 21.6%. Among this group, 10 students (45%) completed the content exam. The 10 students who completed both the survey and exam were invited to take part in the focus group, and six (60%) agreed. The final focus group sample consisted of six participants (five females and one male); and one focus group, with all six participants, was conducted. All participants provided their informed consent for both the survey and exam portion and for the focus group portion, including having their response recorded. As an incentive, participants in the focus group were emailed a $5.00 Starbucks gift card.

Motivation survey

The survey was developed based on the short Approaches and Study Skills Inventory for Students (ASSIST) format and focused on the impact that an abrupt change from in-person to modified online learning and letter to S/M/U grading had on the student’s experience with the course, study effort and time, perceived assessment performance, and confidence and mastery in data interpretation.[10] After submitting the survey, students were given an access code to the exam. See appendix A for the motivation survey.

Content exam

The clinical pathology exam is a cumulative test covering information from the entire semester. The number of questions per topic is proportional to the amount of time dedicated to the topic during lecture and laboratory sessions. This was the same exam that had been administered to prior classes who were taught in a traditional, in-person format. This exam is normally taken at the end of the semester. Item performance can be found in Stowe et al., 2020.[9]

Focus group and question development

The focus group included a set of questions designed, by the authors, to evaluate the online learning environment in greater detail, delivered by a moderator experienced in interviewing. This focus group was conducted through Zoom, a cloud-based video conferencing software (Zoom Video Communications, Inc., 2016). The interview duration was 57 min. A transcript of the focus group was created automatically in Zoom and used for analysis in  Atlas More Details.ti 9 for Mac, a qualitative software package. To protect the confidentiality of participants and reduce bias, all identifying information was removed from the transcript by the focus group moderator (MWH) who was not involved in teaching the course or the data analysis process.

Fourteen focus group questions were created. The purpose of the questions was to guide participants in a discussion about online learning in the clinical pathology course in an informal setting. The content of the questions was developed by the researchers and presented in an open-ended format. See Appendix B for the focus group questions.

Data analysis

For the first phase of coding, the focus group transcript was independently coded by four researchers (S.H., J.N., D.S., and R.S.). This phase can be categorized as inductive thematic analysis.[11] Each coder analyzed the transcript sentence by sentence to identify patterns, which were grouped into themes.[12] The majority of the identified themes fell into categories alongside the questions asked while some themes emerged from additional probing questions and elaborations provided by the participants. For the second phase of coding, all coders participated in a session of negotiated agreement where the interpretation of each individual coder was extended by discussing, presenting, and debating presented interpretations of the data until a 100% agreement was reached.[13] Based on the full majority agreement, themes were developed using Atlas.ti.

  Results Top

Quantitative results/student survey and content exam

Academic motivation survey

Twenty-two students completed the online academic motivation survey [Table 1][Table 2][Table 3]. Prior to COVID-19, the main drivers for student achievement were an interest in learning the content due to anticipated relevance in clinical practice, as well as a desire to master course goals. After the format changes, these drivers remained the same, although more students endorsed the need to master the content due to anticipated clinical relevance. Students agreed more strongly (agree + strongly agree = 21, 95.4%) that prior to COVID-19 the amount of effort they invested in studying clinical pathology would result in a course grade that accurately reflected their mastery of the material, than they did after the grade change (agree + strongly agree = 13, 59.1%). Students were then asked to predict their grade on the comprehensive exam questions for material taught in a traditional format vs. modified online. When presented with the option of similar performance on both types of materials, only seven (31.8%) students endorsed or strongly endorsed this statement. Most students (15, 68.2%) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement predicting greater mastery/retention of material taught in a traditional manner. Only one student predicted they would achieve a higher grade for the exam sections corresponding to material taught online. While the students reported feeling more confident in their data interpretation ability in the traditionally taught topics vs. topics taught online, the students who completed the content exam scored higher on the topics that were taught online [Table 4].
Table 1: Reasons for studying clinical pathology

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Table 2: Perceived relationship between effort and achievement

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Table 3: Confidence in data interpretation ability by topic

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Table 4: Average performance on content exam by topic

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Content exam

A total of 10 students completed the online content exam. The average exam score was 88.8% (min = 74.5, max = 95.8, SD = 6.2). As shown in [Table 4], mean scores by topic ranged from 52% to 90% correct (mean = 66.76%, SD = 26.83). Due to the small sample size, descriptive data are presented. Retention of knowledge was examined for each of the 12 major topic categories covered in the course: acid-base, calcium/phosphorus (Ca/P), coagulation, cytology, endocrine, exocrine pancreas, hematology, liver, muscle, protein, renal, urinalysis. Coagulation, endocrine, hematology, renal, and urinalysis were taught in-person, and the remaining topics were taught remotely. Students’ mean scores for topics taught in a traditional manner varied from 52% to 62% correct. Within this delivery method, students performed best on the hematology section (mean = 62.1% correct, min = 34.2%, max = 75.4%, SD = 14.28) and worst on renal (mean = 52% correct, min = 20%, max = 100%, SD = 28.6). For topics taught in a modified manner, students had mean scores of 61–90%. Within this delivery method, students performed best on the muscle section (mean = 90% correct, min = 0%, max = 91.7%, SD = 31.6) and worst on Ca/P (61.3% correct, min = 33.3%, max = 100%, SD = 23.8). The topic with the highest retention overall was muscle and lowest was renal. These data suggest that students showed better retention of topics taught in a modified manner (M = 75.24) than in a traditional manner (M = 58.28). See Appendix C for select student statements from the focus group discussion.

Qualitative results/focus group

Participants identified several perceived changes related to the online learning format. Most participants found online learning to be more challenging due to the lack of in-person contact and increased frustration with technical issues. One participant found the shift to be less difficult because they felt that the materials presented were less challenging and because the administrative change to S/M/U grading reduced stress. Two participants were unable to identify if their perceptions changed due to the online shift or due to the move to pass-fail grading. Major themes are discussed below.

Lack of interaction

Three out of six participants specifically identified the lack of in-person interaction as a reason behind their changes in perception. The course was perceived as more difficult largely due to two factors: (1) participants were unable to participate in in-person lab sessions and (2) participants felt uncomfortable asking instructors questions in the online format.

Increased frustrations

Participants experienced frustration related to the shift to online learning. Several participants experienced the COVID-19 situation as an additional layer of stress that impacted their online learning experience. The majority of participants also found the shift to be stressful because they experienced technical difficulties, such as connectivity issues.

Student experience of online learning

Participants shared both positive and negative experiences of the online cytology section. Table one provides a thematic framework of those experiences. The content of the course was experienced positively by most participants. Participants expressed that the content was scaffolded appropriately and presented in various ways that increased learners’ confidence and allowed them to make greater connections to the materials presented. Major themes are discussed below.

Reinforcement of material

Five of the six participants praised the content and delivery in which the course was presented. Not just were the materials themselves repeated for presented in multiple ways, which was experienced positively by students. The students also found this to be helpful for their learning process and something they could carry forward.

Clinical cases and hands-on learning opportunities

All six participants identified the clinical cases and pre-COVID-19 hands-on experiences as positive aspects of the course that increased learning. Hands-on experiences included hematology and urinalysis wet labs and microscopy sessions. Many of the laboratory sessions consisted of clinical case evaluation, interpretation, and discussion. The clinical cases presented along with the hands-on learning opportunities were a major theme identified as being helpful and useful.

Overwhelmed by the amount of content

Many participants felt overwhelmed by the amount of content presented in the cytology section. This portion of the course included two lectures and one lab session that utilized virtual microscopy. They often expressed the materials presented as “dense” and “heavy.” Pre-lecture materials were designed to orient students to the lecture’s content ahead of time but were often experienced as difficult and time consuming.

Online learning obstacles

Participants identified many obstacles to online learning, as presented in [Table 1]. The technology involved in the online learning environment often presented obstacles in the form of internet and software technical problems that made it difficult to learn. There are also more distractions present for students learning at home that are inherent to their individual environments. Participants found it difficult to separate their school and home responsibilities and it was hard for them to get into a productive mindset that allowed them to focus from home.

The lack of in-person interactions was also presented as an obstacle. This was expressed from both a peer and instructor perspective. Participants found it easier to ask questions to instructors in person. They also found it easier and more motivating to study and learn alongside their peers in a classroom setting. Participants felt that the online learning environment lacked the perceived social support that was present in the classroom and credited it with lower knowledge retention and decreased attention spans.

  Conclusion Top

This study highlights that both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic, students subscribed to mastery goal orientation with the main drivers for achievement being an interest in learning the content due to anticipated relevance in clinical practice, as well as a desire to master course goals. Prior to the change in grading framework (from traditional to S/M/U) and learning methods (from traditional in-class to entirely online), students felt more strongly that their efforts would result in a course grade that accurately reflected their mastery of the material. The fact that students did not feel the same way once S/M/U grading and online learning were in place may be due to the removal of letter grades, thus interfering with performance orientation. In addition, this change could be facilitated by students feeling less able to engage with the online materials, which suggests that there were personal barriers to learning. Interestingly, while students felt that they had a better understanding and retention of the material taught in the traditional format, on the cumulative exam, participants displayed better retention of the material from the modified sections. Possible explanations include the difficulty level of material and the more recent timing of instruction. While moving courses online may make it more difficult to engage with the materials and each other, based on our small sample size (n = 10), there did not appear to be adverse effects on the overall learning or content retention.

A possible explanation for the better performance on more recently taught materials is the concept of desirable difficulty. Desirable difficulty occurs when conditions of learning vary rather than keeping them constant and predictable, which will change the degree of cognitive demand during the learning acquisition phase.[14],[15] This occurred during the shift from in-person learning to online learning due to a change in the learning and studying environments. Desirable difficulties trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support learning, comprehension, and remembering, which can enhance recall on later tests.[14] The theory of desirable difficulties can be used to explain why some learning strategies do not necessarily improve learning in the short-term but do so in the long-term.[15] Cognitively demanding situations or strategies can produce more errors during initial learning, causing learners to struggle and perhaps engage in more elaborative processing, but this additional effort typically leads to stronger memories when tested after a delay.[15] Desirable difficulties can lead to deeper learning and mastery of the material.

The strength of this study is the mixed methods and in-depth investigation of student perspectives on emergency remote teaching. However, study limitations include the small sample size and the comprehensive content exam not being proctored. While we asked students to refrain from using any external resources, this cannot be verified. Another limitation was imposed by the context. Since all the changes—move to online instruction, change in grading framework and assessment format—occurred concurrently, the downstream effects cannot be conclusively attributed to a specific causal factor.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and are beginning to explore what the post-COVID curriculum will look like, this study will help in future course design for online, hybrid, and in-person courses. Reflecting on virtual courses through both the student and instructor lens is important for adequate course evaluation. The additional time required for students to independently master material delivered online, along with the accompanying effect on work-life balance must be considered when deciding whether to continue with virtual courses in the long-term. Future directions include using data from the Spring 2021 clinical pathology course, where the entire course was online, and administration of a comprehensive exam at a later date to see if there are differences in student performance and retention of material.

In conclusion, this study evaluates the effects of the abrupt change to online learning and S/M/U grading students’ learning experience, motivation, and retention. While the motivation for learning the material and the retention of material seems unaffected, online learning was associated with a poorer learning experience due to the lack of in-person interactions with peers and instructors and increased frustrations, particularly with technology. Information on the student learning experience should be considered, as course design is reevaluated post the COVID-19 pandemic.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

Appendix A: Motivation survey that focused on the impact of online learning on the course experience. Questions 10–17 were open-ended.

Q1 Participation Information

Q2 Consent To Participate By clicking an answer choice below, I am electronically signing this consent form and affirming that I have read and understand the above information. All of the questions that I had about this research have been answered. I have chosen to participate in this study with the understanding that I may stop participating at any time without penalty or loss of benefits to which I am otherwise entitled. I am aware that I may revoke my consent at any time. Do you consent to participate in the research project?

  • Yes (1)

  • No (2)

  • Skip To: End of survey if consent to participate by clicking an answer choice below, I am electronically signing this consent... = No

    Q3 Thinking back to the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester please rate your experiences of the Clinical Pathology course in each of the following domains as best as possible. Select only one response for each domain. Rate your responses based on your behaviors as related to the clinical pathology course prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (i.e., traditional format: you were attending classes on the CVM campus; taking closed book exams; anticipated having a letter grade assigned that would reflect your mastery of the course objectives). Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (attended class in person, closed book exams, overall letter grade assigned A–F) I studied for the clinical pathology because…

    Q4 I feel that the amount of effort I put into studying for the clinical pathology course prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (traditional learning format) would result in an overall course grade commensurate with my mastery of the course content.

  • Strongly disagree (1)

  • Disagree (2)

  • Agree (3)

  • Strongly agree (4)

  • Do not remember (5)

  • Q5 After the CVM Spring Break holiday, March 23, 2020, the clinical pathology course was moved to an online format due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the overall course grade was changed from being a letter grade to a grade of Satisfactory (S), Marginal (M), or Unsatisfactory (U). After the change(online format: zoom lectures, open book exams, overall grade of S/M/U) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I studied for the clinical pathology course because....

    Q6 I feel that the amount of effort I put into studying for the clinical pathology course after the COVID-19 pandemic (online learning format) would result in an overall course grade commensurate with my mastery of the course content.

  • Strongly disagree (1)

  • Disagree (2)

  • Agree (3)

  • Strongly agree (4)

  • Do not remember (5)

  • Q7 I feel that the amount of effort I put into studying for the clinical pathology course was the same regardless of the course format (traditional learning format pre-COVID-19 and online learning format post-COVID-19).

  • Strongly disagree (1)

  • Disagree (2)

  • Agree (3)

  • Strongly agree (4)

  • Don’t know (5)

  • Q8 We are interested in learning about how you think you will perform on the upcoming comprehensive clinical pathology exam that you are about to take. How do you predict the percentage of points that you could achieve for each section (e.g., hematology, cytology, etc.) of the upcoming comprehensive exam will compare to your previous percentage of points achieved for the corresponding sections?

    Q9 How confident are you in your ability to successfully interpret clinical data related to each of the following topics?

    Q10 How did the change in the structure/format of the clinical pathology course due to the COVID-19 pandemic affect the amount of time you devoted to studying for the course?


    Q11 How did the change in the structure/format of the clinical pathology course due to the COVID-19 pandemic affect the amount of effort you invested to master the course content?


    Q12 How did the change in the structure/format of the clinical pathology course due to the COVID-19 pandemic affect your ability to sufficiently master the course content?


    Q13 Please reflect on your overall experience (not just for the clinical pathology course) during the second half (post-COVID-19) of the Spring 2020 semester. {note: this was a free-text question}


    Q14 What barriers to academic success did you encounter as a result of the switch from the traditional learning format to the online learning format due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Please give specific examples if possible.


    Q15 In addition to the items that you listed in the above question, what challenges did you encounter with online learning in general during the second half of the Spring 2020 semester?


    Q16 How do you feel about the switch from letter grades (A–F) to the grades of Satisfactory/Marginal/Unsatisfactory?


    Appendix B: Focus Group Question List for the Impact of Online Learning on Retention of Veterinary Clinical Pathology

    Introductory Questions regarding General Perceptions of the Course, Establishing a Context

    1. From a student perspective, what were the best parts of your learning experience in the second-year clinical pathology course?

    2. What was least appealing and why?

    3. How did the change to online learning impact your perception of the course?

    Key Questions regarding Online Learning

    1. Describe your study habits before and after the change to online learning?

    2. Did your motivation to study change with the move to online learning?

    3. What did you like best about the online part of the course?

    4. What did you like least about the online part of the course?

    5. What was easiest to learn online?

    6. What was most difficult to learn online?

    7. Which course topics/course sections are you most likely to remember in the long-term?

    Key Questions regarding Barriers to Online Learning

    1. How did the move to Satisfactory-Marginal-Unsatisfactory grades affect your motivation to study and learn course material?

    2. What were your online learning obstacles?

    3. What challenges did you experience as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Ending Question

    1. Is there anything else we have not talked about that you would like to mention before we finish?

    Appendix C: Selected Student Statements from Focus Group Discussion on the Impact of Online Learning on Retention of Veterinary Clinical Pathology

      References Top

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      [Figure 1]

      [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3], [Table 4]


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