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How to Optimize Learning Online

Updated: Aug 25

Zoom sickness. We’ve all had it. We’ve all been there. When you spend so many hours of your day staring at a screen and urging yourself to not get distracted by the raindrops racing down your window or your phone face down beside your laptop because there’s no teacher in the room to dock participation points, it’s hard to stay sane. Don’t deny it -- you’ve opened Facebook or Reddit on another tab to surf through memes while the Zoom window fades into the distance, dwindling to mere incoherent background noise. Virtual learning is not even close to the ideal education system we all signed up for. But, from what I’ve learned as a college student whose classes were dramatically switched online as well as a course assistant for a virtual class over the summer, I’ve found that online learning can also be a blessing in disguise.


For the first few weeks of virtual learning as a student, one might say that I was just straight-up not having a good time. The lecture recordings I had to review were piling up and on the especially bad days, I found myself resorting to making generalized statements on graded discussion threads without having done the readings. It was only when I started assisting incoming freshmen in a writing course over the summer that I realized -- it’s pretty easy to tell who’s genuinely interested in virtual learning. Here are some tips and tricks that helped me personally with online learning as a college student at the University of Michigan, combined with some observations I’ve noticed from the other side of the classroom.


Office Hours are a Godsend


I don’t think I’ve ever had an unhelpful meeting in office hours with my professors. Seriously. It’s like a personalized feedback session, and even if you run out of questions, just having a conversation with these instructors can be so eye-opening because, more often than not, they’re super cool people. Besides, they’re the ones grading your papers and your assignments, so getting their feedback can only help your grades. It’s also a great way to network and make sure your professor remembers you, which is also useful in case you need a letter of recommendation or a research position at a later point in time. While this is true for both in-person and virtual classes, I think it’s important to emphasize the importance of office hours during online classes. When there’s a lack of face-to-face human interaction, this is quite literally the next best thing.


As a course assistant, I have found that over the course of the summer, I got to know the students that came to my online hours much better than the ones that didn’t. While this certainly didn’t change or influence anybody’s grade, I like to imagine that the individual time benefitted the students with their assignments. This could be through ideating -- brainstorming by throwing ideas back and forth and hearing a fresh perspective to get the sweet creative juices flowing, restructuring or reformatting essays, or even hearing what is so great about your thoughts and ideas -- and god knows we all need that during a virtual semester!


Have a Study Playlist that Gets You Super Pumped


One of my favorite things about not being in a classroom is that I can have my headphones in (during asynchronous class components, of course) and motivate myself with some classic rock playlists. Whether I’m writing emails or replying to a peer on a discussion thread, I always have some tunes playing in my ears making these tasks, that would normally be mundane, a little more exciting. If you’re looking for some inspiration, here’s my Spotify study playlist that never fails to get me pumped. If there are a few easy little pieces of work I would usually get done in a group study room with my friends around, I find that getting them done to this soundtrack is a pretty good substitute. Plus, I can totally lose it to my air guitar and nobody can look at me funny, and I can scream out lyrics and nobody can tell me, ‘excuse me ma’am, you’re in a public library.’ Hmph.


You are Your Own Boss!


When I discovered I had all the scheduling power in the world, it really changed my outlook on online learning. Because every online class is divided into synchronous and asynchronous components, I realized I could alter my daily timetable to make it as productive as possible for myself. I always work better when I do one subject for a long period of time because it allows me to focus and think deeper and more critically about the same topic. When I only have asynchronous tasks for one class, I restructure my days according to the due dates so I can allow myself more time to focus on one individual part. Here are some other small perks I noticed:

  • Professor talks too slowly? No problem! You can watch lectures at 2x speed and fit twice the number of lectures in the same amount of time.

  • You don’t have to worry about traveling from one building to another in the ten minutes you have between classes, because you’re doing them all from your bed that you haven’t left in three consecutive days!

I have also always found that making to-do lists during a time when your schedule is all over the place is immensely helpful. I like to categorize tasks by categories like ‘What do I need to do now?’, ‘What do I need to do soon?’ and ‘What do I need to feel good in my life?’. There’s something so cathartic about checking tasks off a to-do list. Along the same lines, I also always take notes on my lectures, even if they’re recorded and I can go back to them any time, because, with my notes, I won’t have to.


Go Easy on Your Teaching Team


Okay, I’ll admit it. This one is quite biased from a teaching perspective -- but it’s also one of the most important points to keep in mind. Chances are, your professors and TAs are feeling just as stressed out and disappointed with the online format as you are, if not more. I’ve seen so many memes of people making fun of their professors who don’t know how to use Zoom. The thing is, this isn’t what they signed up for, either, and this certainly isn’t the job they were trained to do. To illustrate, I consider myself a relatively tech-savvy individual of this generation (although that statement didn’t work much in my favor) and I still had a hard time screen sharing on Zoom as a course assistant. It’s hard. So is making sure your class is engaged and interested when they are miles away from you. It’s certainly in your best interest to give your teaching team room for error because this is a first for everybody. And you know what they say, happy… teacher, happy life?


Go Anywhere in the World!


Wait, what? Are you sure you wrote that correctly, Rachna? Yes! You read that right. You can travel anywhere in the world in the middle of a pandemic -- virtually, of course.


Think about it: so many presentations and lectures from across the oceans would not normally be online, but now, they have to be, and you can use it to your advantage! If you’re a high school student in India or a college student in London, you probably would not have been able to drop everything to visit Yellowstone National Park, The Louvre or the Met, but now you can with the click of a button. Use this as an extra credit opportunity, or even immersive research for that paper you’re writing on the Byzantine empire.


Virtual learning is hard for everyone -- students and teachers alike, but I’d rather take classes online forever than be forced to get thrust into a pandemic-stricken world. Of course, your mental health is of the utmost importance. Don’t be afraid of taking a Zoom break if you need it to replenish; your professors will all be very understanding. Looking at the silver linings has helped me deal with the difficult transition immensely, both as a student and a course assistant (I wouldn’t even have my summer job if it wasn’t for the pandemic!). I hope it will help you, too.

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