With the COVID-19 pandemic still ravaging many states, many schools and universities are making plans to go virtual this fall. While this spring’s virtual learning came out of the blue, the virtual learning taking place this fall will likely be more planned out and more like taking online classes than suddenly taking in person classes online. As someone who did traditional, in-person learning for K-12 and all 4 years of college, and then did a completely online masters program, I feel like I had to adapt quickly, and I was lucky to be able to adapt successfully. I did learn though that online school is different than in-person learning in some key ways and can change the way you interact with assignments and colleagues. Here are my five best tips for acing online classes this fall if your school does decide to pursue virtual learning.
Make a syllabus/assignment tracker & use an online calendar
When you’re attending in-person classes, you often have separate binders/folders/notebooks for each class, but when you’re doing virtual schoolwork, that can get complicated. Classes may be asynchronous–not at the same time for everyone–or you may have to log-in at a certain time to be counted as present. Sure, we all love our physical planners, but when school is online, it’s helpful to go digital with your organization as well. Put Class Reminders in your Google Calendar so you get a literal reminder–this is especially helpful as you build routine.
I also found it exceptionally helpful to compile all of my assignments into one master online document,organized by date and listing which assignment was for which class. Then, I could look ahead at what weeks were going to be tough and keep the whole in perspective instead of having to flip between 5 different syllabi. Plus, it’s really satisfying to see the list diminish in whole as the semester goes by.
Have a designated working space & time
Online learning is great because of how flexible it can be, but when you’re adjusting to online learning, it’s important to establish boundaries and set yourself up for success. For most people, that means having a designated working space and time so that school doesn’t bleed into every moment of your life. If you have a desk, great, use that. Working from bed sounds exciting but will lead to ruin. Even a dining room table can be better than the couch–both for your posture and your productivity.
I also recommend setting time limits–even arbitrary ones–to start off. If you have to be online at a certain time for classes–say at 11, 3, and 4:30, then plan to be “in school mode” from say, 10:30-6. Eat breakfast, set up at your desk to learn, take advantage of breaks when you can. Log off when you’re done for the day and walk away. Set time to do homework–say from 8-10 every night–but don’t just “do it when you have the time” because I promise it’ll explode and either never get done or take up any time you give it.
Check in regularly
Online classes, especially discussion boards and updates from teachers, can quickly get out of hand. It’s easy to “check out” if you don’t have anything due for a week, but I recommend checking in daily to stay on top of things–even if that means just checking your email or your assignment tracker each morning to make sure you’re on track.
If you have discussion board posts, schedule those like you would an assignment. Schedule when you’ll check in to respond to your classmates. Actually read the emails and announcements from your teachers and teaching assistants. A single sentence can drastically change everything and while a teacher in person might repeat it a hundred times, online it might just be one email, and you don’t want to miss it.
Take advantage of virtual office hours
There are lots of things you lose out on by doing virtual learning as opposed to in-person courses, but office hours don’t have to be one of them. Zoom-ing with your professor can sound awkward, but it’s better than not having the answer to your question. Most teachers will announce virtual office hours–time that they’ll be available either in a set Zoom room or on a phone line to be reached–and you should make it a point to attend at least once or twice a semester. Even if you don’t need help with an assignment, it’s a great way to connect. A lot of students want recommendation letters from former teachers. That’s awkward when you never really talked to that teacher–which could easily be the case here–so take advantage of these opportunities.
Do your work ahead of time to account for computer issues
Maybe this is the nerd in me, but working ahead is so much easier in an online course compared to an in-person one. Teachers often pre-load the online platform with future discussion questions so you can read ahead and prepare your remarks. Sometimes they even post assignments for the whole semester. Don’t work ahead to your detriment–aka before you learn the content–but work ahead enough that you will not be failed by one day of no internet access or a broken keyboard.
I had a colleague in graduate school who had to use library WiFi to access her assignments–but assignments were always due Monday morning and her library was closed on the weekends. She quickly learned to work ahead so that she wasn’t scrambling on the last hour of Friday to get in the work before losing internet access. Similarly, I had the worst time with a computer science assignment that ended up requiring a weird software update on my computer. Luckily, I was working two weeks ahead and not two hours before the deadline.
Technology can fail you in any situation, but when doing online work, it can be the end of the road. Don’t put yourself in a position where one technology problem derails everything. While some teachers will be forgiving, others won’t.