Updated at 11 a.m. ET
Millions of students are starting the fall semester online — in their childhood bedrooms, at kitchen tables surrounded by siblings or wherever they can find a quiet spot — as the coronavirus has forced more than a third of four-year colleges to teach entirely virtually.
With everything that’s happening in the world, it can be hard to focus, especially if you didn’t go into college with the intention of taking classes online.
But students have been taking online courses for a long time, and many have loved the experience.
Here’s how to make the most of an online semester:
1. Figure out how you learn, so you can get yourself set up for success.
Jami Steimle works as a mentor for students at Western Governors University, which offers online degrees.
Steimle says it’s helpful when students understand what kind of learners they are.
Ask yourself: Do you need to sit at a desk, or can you focus while kicked back on the couch? Do you work better in a quiet place, or do you prefer a bit of background noise? Is it easier for you to focus in the mornings or at night?
Figure out how you can focus, before you log on to learn.
2. Make a schedule.
Once you’ve found a good, reliable spot for your studies, it’s time to plan out your days.
“Come up with a time management system — maybe even write out your days,” Steimle suggests. Block out time for class, studying and life outside school.
Steimle says writing out your time commitments can help you visualize how much time you actually have, so you can make the most of it.
Some online classes are synchronous, meaning they’re offered at a specific time, like most in-person classes. But others are asynchronous — meaning the time to watch recorded lectures or complete classwork is up to you.
With all these moving parts, it’s even more important to plot out the timing of your days — and weeks! The clearer you are with your schedule, the easier it will be to stick to it.
If you like to use digital calendars, you can try setting up reminders so you get push notifications on your laptop, phone or smartwatch. You can use the reminders to let you know when assignments are coming up or when classes are scheduled to begin.
Once you’ve mapped out the timing of your days, Steimle suggests thinking about how you’re going to work.
Are you going to do your reading one day and the discussion-board assignment the next? Or would you rather break up your reading over a couple of days and do your assignment right after you finish?
3. Seek balance and embrace the flexibility of online classes.
Michelle Krallman recently graduated from Western Governors University. She completed her bachelor’s degree entirely online while juggling a full-time job for most of her time in school.
For Krallman, who lives in Denver, finding balance between school and the rest of her life was essential. She told herself she’d work for eight hours, do school work for four hours and reserve the rest of the time for herself. “The rest is mine. I can do whatever I want with it. … It really was [about] giving myself boundaries.”
Krallman and her husband love to take walks and go on hikes. Setting aside time for recreation, Krallman says, actually made it more manageable to focus on schoolwork when she had to.
“It would be really easy, I think, to get so overwhelmed in classwork that I forget about all the other stuff around me. You know, learning doesn’t only happen in class — it happens everywhere around us. So we have to give ourselves that space too and make sure that we take it,” says Krallman.
4. Beware the Internet’s rabbit holes!
We’ve all been there: You navigate over to a new tab, search for one thing, then click a link, which leads you to another link, then another and another. Hours later, you surface and think, “How the heck did I get here?!”
While there’s no way to totally escape this while you’re taking online classes, Krallman recommends a few of her own tried-and-true strategies:
- Use browser extensions to block distracting websites.
- If you have access to multiple computer monitors, try designating one section for reading, one section for writing or note taking and one section for whatever music or ambient noise you’re listening to. Don’t allow anything else on your screens while you’re doing schoolwork!
- Disconnect from the Wi-Fi if you can.
5. Don’t be afraid to make human connections.
Accountability partners can help you stay on top of work.
Having someone to check in with can make online classes feel less lonely. An accountability partner — someone who helps make sure you’re doing your work and celebrates your progress — may help you do better academically.
Steimle suggests looking up the folks enrolled in class with you. Perhaps there’s an email thread with everyone’s names or a roster posted online. Since everyone’s in the same boat as you, there’s nothing to lose and a lot to gain by reaching out.
Krallman says every time she has reached out to someone in a class, she has been rewarded. “When someone does take a moment to go, ‘You know what? No, I’m going to make this happen. We’re going to talk to each other. We’re going to know each other,’ there’s just relief there on both sides. You know that nobody wants to be the first one to say it, but everyone’s grateful that someone said it first.”
If you’d rather check in with a friend or a family member, that works too. The key here is that you’re talking to someone about the work you’re (supposed to be) doing.
Don’t be afraid to give your professors feedback or ask for help.
“The whole purpose of an instructor is that they’re not just sitting there to sit there. Their goal is not just to talk. The goal is for you to learn,” Krallman notes.
So don’t be afraid to give your professors feedback or make suggestions about how to improve your and your classmates’ online learning experience. If the class isn’t going well, ask to hop on the phone or video-chat to talk about how you can improve your own work. During the conversation, you can work in suggestions about how the class itself could improve for students like you.
Remember, you don’t have to talk about the class. You can just get to know each other! Talk about movies or books or share what your home life is like, so they understand who you are as a whole person and not just as a student sitting in their class.
6. Look for ways to participate in extracurriculars virtually.
Many schools that transitioned online for the fall have seen students hard at work, adapting extracurricular activities to the digital sphere.
Shannon Li is a junior at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. All of her classes are online this semester. While Li, who uses she and they pronouns, values her education, she also likes being active in her community. “There’s other more important things in life than just focusing on getting that grade you want,” they say.
Many of Li’s extracurriculars are focused on social advocacy and volunteering, much of which can be done online. “Paying [it] forward has been really helpful in terms of balancing everything with the stress that’s going on,” they say.
One way to stay connected to your campus community? Check your university email for online events and opportunities to get involved with things. Poke around social media to see how different clubs and organizations are handling activities this semester.
Lastly, keep an open mind! The truth is that millions of students have been taking online classes for years and they love them.
You never know — you might end up loving them too.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen.
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