College students are now well over a month into their fall semesters, and for those whose bedrooms have become their classrooms, it’s been a tough adjustment.
But many students have proved resilient. Despite the long list of virtual learning challenges, students are quickly developing online learning strategies to help them make the most of their remote experience.
To outline some of these online learning strategies, we spoke with four college students who have found solutions to the everyday challenges of online learning.
Tory | Junior Studying Bioengineering at Lehigh University
Challenge 1: Motivation
“One challenge I’ve had during online classes is not being motivated to stay active during class. At first, it was hard to stay engaged during an hour and 15 minute-long lecture that was completely virtual. Most of my Zoom classes do not require me to turn my camera on, which makes paying attention even harder. And some classes don’t even take attendance.”
“I’ve started to overcome this challenge by turning my camera on in all of my classes. This way, I have to give my full attention to the professor. I also started asking more questions in class when I didn’t understand a concept.
“As an extra motivational measure, I told my roommates when I have classes so they can keep me accountable. I normally close my door to my room so I’m not distracted by other noise, but occasionally my roommates will knock on my door and check on me. I also keep my roommates accountable in the same way.
“This can be really helpful. For example, I once had to wake up my roommate because she fell asleep during her Zoom class. I walked into her room to ask her a question and check up on her, and her head was laying down on her desk. I called her name and completely startled her. But she woke up and continued attending her class!”
Challenge 2: Professor Disconnect
“Another challenge I faced was feeling disconnected from my professors. Since I didn’t have an in-class introduction with the professor, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask them for help.
“If I was in traditional classes, I would usually go up to the professor during the first week and introduce myself. I’d also be able to attend all my professor’s office hours. But being online has made this much more difficult.”
“To create a better relationship with my professors, I’ve been asking them to meet one-on-one over Zoom.
“I also make sure to email them if I’m ever uncertain about anything, and I’ve been attending all the virtual study sessions my professors have been holding. These study sessions are great opportunities to have your questions answered in more depth. Professors also use them to go through homework problems to help prepare students for tests.”
How to Improve Virtual Learning
“I know everyone is trying to figure out remote learning one step at a time, but I do wish the professors would stop giving us more work than usual just because we’re online.
“I don’t think extra work is an effective replacement for lectures and discussions. I learn better in an interactive environment, primarily because I can ask questions at the same time I’m receiving information. If I had to learn it on my own, I would forget to ask my questions and there would be little to no communication with my professor.
“Plus, I still have to go to practices during the week for my sport, along with many other student athletes.”
Grace | Junior Studying Communications & Psychology at Fordham
Challenge 1: Maintaining focus
“Initially, I found it extremely difficult to find the motivation to learn online. Being in my bedroom, with numerous distractions around me, I struggled to focus on class. For many of my roommates, staying focused is also their biggest challenge.”
“With time, I’ve realized this is the new normal, at least for the moment, and if I want to make the most out of my online learning experience then I need to treat remote classes with the same amount of attention and devotion I would with any other classes.
“It can be very challenging to focus all of my attention on a laptop screen for the many hours of Zoom class I attend each day. So I try my best to do work away from my bed by creating a space in my room that can separate my work from the rest of my life. As tempting as it is to do work in my bed, I spend most of my time at my desk, and I continue to use notebooks and folders to try and keep tabs on my work so that it’s not only on my laptop. I also take advantage of public spaces if I can safely study there.
“Maintaining a schedule is also an important strategy. I manage to still wake up early to get work done and time out my assignments just as I did before being remote. This is my way of convincing myself the only change in my education is that my classes are now through Zoom and not in person. This platform doesn’t have to prevent me from learning.”
Challenge 2: Building relationships
“At first, it was difficult to build connections with my teachers and peers. And when we first went remote, it was tough to get a hold of my teachers. This made it challenging to participate.”
“Now, I find myself sending twice as many emails to keep in touch with my teachers and peers, and I try to reach out with questions and concerns as often as possible. I think that teachers are also starting to get more comfortable with this platform, and they continue to offer office hours and chances to get in touch.
“Some of my teachers even require us to Zoom one-on-one to get to know each other. This has really helped maintain communication and build a relationship. It’s important to acknowledge that this platform is new for both of us, and I think our feedback as students is very important.”
Challenge 3: Staying Organized
“Switching to remote learning was challenging because my entire education shifted online. I typically learn best when writing things out, working with hard copies, and learning hands-on. Without being able to have hard copies and access to all of the textbooks, I needed to learn how to organize my laptop and manage my digital work space.”
“I’ve found myself creating a variety of Google Drive folders, which is key to having every document in the correct place.
“I also utilize my Google Calendar, since my laptop comes with me everywhere I go now.
“And I’ve begun color coding my various projects and school work so that I can separate them a bit in my mind. I never paid much attention to this prior to being remote, but now that every document exists on my laptop, it’s crucial I can locate and differentiate them.”
How to Improve Virtual Learning
“I’ve found that requiring students to have one-on-one’s with the professor is extremely beneficial. This is a chance for students to express their own unique situations to the professor and begin building a relationship. Break out rooms have also been a very useful tool for facilitating discussions and simulating in person class.
“I’m fortunate enough to have the resources to make higher learning accessible, but higher education institutions need to be sure every student can succeed in this new form of learning. This means being sure all students have a device, a WiFi connection, and a place they can do their work. This may mean allocating funds to students who need these resources, or making accommodations so that learning remains equitable.”
Ellie | Senior Studying Social Neuroscience at Pitzer College
Challenge 1: Senior Thesis
“Our senior thesis consists of a 60-page research project, and I was super worried about not being able to meet with my teachers face to face, sit next to them, and get their help with my analysis.”
“I’ve overcome that challenge by doing virtually what I would have done if we were in person.
“First, I requested to have Zoom meetings with both of my advisors every other week so that I’m held accountable. Meeting with my teachers took a little more work, because most of them got rid of their office hours and are now appointment only. So I took the initiative to reach out to all the teachers I knew I needed to speak with about my thesis, and set up recurring weekly meetings.
“If I didn’t have these meetings on my calendar, I know I wouldn’t be as motivated to get the work done.”
Challenge 2: Coding Classes
“Last semester, I was in a class that required a lot of coding, and I was a beginner. Usually, you can go to a lab and the TA will sit down with you and actually show you on your keyboard and on your screen how to fix the problems. But once everything went online, people like me who needed those labs and TAs found it a lot harder.”
“I found out that if you took the initiative and asked, the teacher would screenshare with you and walk you through the problems.
“I had to set up a meeting time with my teacher, and sometimes I’d have to wait an hour in the Zoom waiting room for other students to finish their one-on-one meeting. But it was worth it. I would also ask the teacher to screen record our session and post it online. Then I could rewatch everything we did to better understand their problem solving techniques.”
How to Improve Virtual Learning
“When everything moved online, the teachers who taught lecture-heavy classes would often share their tablet screen with us, and we would just watch a pen moving on a screen. Not being able to physically see the teacher made it easy for me to check out.
“I definitely empathize with the teachers, because this is hard for everyone, but I think those teaching lecture-heavy classes should adapt them to be more collaborative. A lot of students don’t participate in these classes. They log on, turn their video off, mute their microphones, and do something else or leave the room. Besides making it so you could physically see them, teachers could also hold break out rooms so students would have to turn their video on and actually attend classes.”
Tanvi | Junior Studying Cell Biology & Neuroscience at Rutgers
Challenge 1: Keeping Track of Assignments
“When I first started online classes, it was very difficult to keep track of my assignments without being reminded during lectures, which is how I usually stayed on top of things. Most of the important assignments, quizzes, and announcements got lost in the flood of emails I received every day. I always felt like I was missing something, and was constantly anxious about it.”
“In order to better keep track of assignments, I schedule a time at the beginning of each week to comb through my emails from the previous week, and input any important information (deadlines, office hours, important links) into my Google Calendar.
“I usually try adding stuff to my calendar immediately after I get an email, or at least add it to my to-do list, but combing through my emails again once a week reassures me I’m not missing anything.”
Challenge 2: Budgeting Time
“Trying to budget my own time for each class was very hard. I’m working 25-30 hours a week this semester doing research in a lab, and half of my classes are asynchronous with pre-recorded lectures. The nature of these classes makes it tempting to spend my time in the lab rather than watching a pre-recorded lecture or getting some studying in.”
“To better budget my time, I’ve become very intentional with the way I schedule everything. I really take advantage of Google Calendar and try to lay out my day in half-hour chunks, including when I’m working in the lab, my commute to lab, and my classes. I then build in breaks first and fill the remainder of my time with studying and homework.”
How to Improve Virtual Learning
“Thankfully, all of my classes use a centralized LMS (learning management system), so I’m not juggling multiple websites for different classes. But professors should definitely be encouraged to add things to the class calendar. That way, my LMS calendar will consolidate a lot of the important dates for all of my classes, and I won’t have to go digging for those dates, assignments, or exams.”
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