It’s 2021, and most of us are still attending class virtually and learning online. While it may have sounded like a grand ol’ time at first, it’s a different animal from traditional in-person learning with its own unique obstacles. If you’re struggling, know that you are certainly not alone. Here’s how to make the most of it.
Most college and medical school lectures across the world are now being delivered online through virtual platforms such as Zoom. While there is an end in sight to this global pandemic, we’ll still likely be stuck with online and virtual learning in the near future.
Over the past few months, a large number of students have reached out to me, voicing their struggles to adapt to online learning and virtual classes, trying to figure out how to succeed in this new environment.
These are the five strategies to help you overcome these newfound challenges and crush your next semester.
1 | Leverage Structure & Organization
We must first address the biggest hurdle students face with online learning, and that’s the lack of structure and organization. As a student attending class in real life, you have a place to be at a specific time, which forces some function of structure into your life.
With online learning, that structure is largely gone. Some classes must be attended live, but many can be viewed asynchronously as a recording at a later time. Same with reading and assignments. Compared to before, you’re more independent and distanced as a student, and it becomes almost natural to simply fall behind.
To combat the natural tendency of allowing your studies to fall by the wayside, we need to set up systems leveraging structure and organization to keep you on track. Here are a few ways to get started.
First, use your calendar as it was designed. Put in your recurring events into your calendar, such as classes or small group sessions or office hours, including any additional useful information. That includes links to pages or Zoom conferences. The idea here is to make life easier for your future self.
Second, find a task manager and stick to it. My favorite for the last several years has been Things3, which is exclusively for macOS and Apple products, but there are other great options like Todoist that are available on Windows.
Your calendar should be used to categorize how time will be spent each hour. Your task manager is where you should organize the specific assignments and tasks you must complete, including due dates. Mixing their intended function leads to a mess that discourages you from using either one.
As part of your recurring calendar events, I recommend having a 30-minute block every weekend to review your calendar and task manager to consolidate and reorganize any loose items. It’s completely natural to fall behind. I use 30 minutes every Sunday evening for this exact purpose, to recalibrate my task list and calendar.
Next, make sure your class materials and files are organized and not scattered around multiple apps. You should have a folder on your computer for each class, with subfolders for each project or larger task. Ideally, all of your class files will be organized in just one or two places. Chances are it will be an app on your computer or tablet, rather than a paper notebook, in which case you should aim to limit the number of apps to reduce confusion and disorganization. The exact app you use will depend on your unique use case. For some, Notion or Evernote would be the best option, and for others Notability or OneNote.
Last, sit down and deliberately create a daily routine. This may seem like overkill — after all, you didn’t have to do this with real-life classes, so why should you start now? The reason is that the lack of structure in remote learning often leads to inertia derailing us from our plans, placing us into a funk. You should have a consistent wake-up time for every weekday, a consistent morning routine including a healthy meal, scheduled breaks throughout the day, consistent study blocks, exercise scheduled, and also time to decompress and let go of all work. If you need help on where to get started, check out my scheduling & routine playlist for examples and the thought process behind the strategy.
2 | Use Physical & Temporal Separation
The biggest obstacle most students are facing in transitioning to online learning is the lack of separation, both in time and space. It’s common for one’s day to feel like an amorphous blob when you haven’t left the house, haven’t changed your clothes, and haven’t interacted with other people. This is the part that can wreak havoc if unaccounted for.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the more time you spend in front of the computer trying to study, the better your grades will be. Quite the contrary. If you don’t have adequate separation, you’re much more likely to burn out, get into a rut, and see your effectiveness plummet.
Let’s start with optimizing your physical space. In an ideal case, the space you attend class and study should be separate from the space in which you relax and unwind. This physical separation allows you to compartmentalize your mental states, one for work and one for play. If you live in a small apartment, like many of us, then you’ll have to be creative. For some, you may have your desk and computer set up in your bedroom and study there, and unwind and relax in the living room by the TV and in contact with your roommates or family. For others, the reverse may be better, whereby the dining room table is your workspace, and the bedroom is your space for relaxation and unwinding.
When studying from home, the biggest enemy to your productivity and focus will be distractions. Use this opportunity to audit what types of distractions you’re facing, and how to best minimize their influence. You may opt for noise-canceling headphones to block out the noise of roommates, or perhaps move your desk such that you aren’t facing a busy window or the TV isn’t in your line of sight. Distraction blocking apps, such as Freedom or Focus, are some of my favorite tools, and they restrict you from browsing distracting websites while you are supposed to be studying. Putting your lectures into fullscreen to block other apps helps too.
Your phone is the biggest offender, and I recommend placing it in another room entirely, out of sight and out of mind. While you’re working, notifications should be limited or blocked entirely. The only exceptions I allow for myself are phone calls and calendar events, but text messages, Instagram DM’s, emails, and just about everything else has notifications turned off.
When it comes to time, think about ways you can break up your day. Having work blocks versus meal times versus relaxation blocks in my calendar with event notifications helps me move from one task to the other, without getting caught in a slump. Studying in different locations, like a coffee shop or library, is probably not going to be a good idea right now. But there are still some options to consider. An extended break outside the house can work wonders, like hitting the gym or going outside for a walk or bike ride. Having something you look forward to every day, such as a meal with your family or roommates, or perhaps a favorite TV show in the evenings, is also going to be beneficial.
To further delineate work from play, I’ve found it beneficial to pursue new hobbies. At the beginning of lockdown, I took a keen interest in cooking and developed my skills, which was intrinsically rewarding while also getting me away from screens. I also took cycling more seriously and did my first ever century, or 100 miles on a bike in a single ride. Currently, I’m practicing drawing and calligraphy while picking up my Kindle and reading more often.
3 | Adjust Your Academic Approach
The assignments and exams in the virtual world aren’t the same as those in the real world. To best navigate online learning, you’ll need to account for the changes in what impacts your final grade.
With in-person school, you probably had one or two midterms and a final. With online school, many programs are requiring a higher frequency of assignments and assessments in a poorly executed effort to discourage procrastination and keep you on track. Ultimately, the importance of organization in juggling the added assignments and assessments becomes even more paramount.
Most of your assessments will be open-book in nature, which many students erroneously believe allows them to skip studying since they can look up what they need to during the exams. On the contrary, you must ensure you have a solid comprehension of the content, as the exams won’t be testing your ability to regurgitate facts. After all, that would be near meaningless on an open book exam. Instead, they will test you on your application of concepts and the depth of your understanding. Whether that’s creating concise lab designs for biology or thinking deeply on scenario-based analytical chemistry questions, your creativity and mastery of the content will be tested.
The most apparent benefit is that you don’t need to waste time memorizing obscure facts since you can look them up in the book. On the other hand, this highlights the importance of active learning and strategies such as the Feynman technique to ensure conceptual mastery.
4 | Virtual Study Groups & Maintain Contact
Despite getting your organization dialed in, routine set, and physical space-optimized, isolation is still tremendously challenging. As humans, we’re social creatures.
Virtual study groups with classmates or friends is an effective way to not only help each other work through difficult concepts or practice the Feynman technique but also get that sweet sweet social interaction.
Scheduling regular phone or video calls with friends and family should go without saying, and doing this regularly at least a handful of times per week is best practice.
Your professors and teaching assistants are aware of the added stress and struggle for students in the virtual learning world. If you are experiencing difficulties in the process, definitely reach out to them for help. Office hours and small group sessions are easier to attend than ever, as you can drop in quite literally from the comfort of your couch. You can even do assignments or homework shortly before scheduled office hours, so you have the option to drop in virtually should you have any questions or issues that arise.
Classroom discussion boards are also much more active than before, and allow you to receive a quick response from a peer or TA.
5 | Get Creative with Extracurriculars
Finally, get creative with your extracurriculars. Pipetting and doing bench research isn’t going to happen, and traditional hospital volunteering is also unlikely to work, but there are still several opportunities to consider.
If you’re intent on optimizing your extracurriculars for getting into medical school, see what types of clinical research you can do remotely. Working with your PI or mentor, you should be able to work through book chapters, literature reviews, database analyses, or even conduct chart reviews for clinical studies. Remember you’re not alone, and both sides of the research equation need each other. Students need PI’s for the research opportunities and mentorship, and PI’s need students for assistance with various tasks. If you put in the time to look for opportunities, you will be rewarded.
Apart from research, search your university and online for virtual volunteering opportunities as well. There are also safe in-person ways you can help out, such as delivering groceries to the elderly, mental health non-profits, and more.
Now is also the perfect chance to explore that hobby or interest you’ve been putting off. Maybe you want to start a YouTube channel or make art. Now’s the time to document your journey, regularly upload your content or creations, and build a channel or a portfolio of your work.
And if you still cannot find any clubs or experiences that pique your interest, don’t be afraid to create your own. One premed I spoke with founded a mental health initiative for struggling students in this trying time. There’s tremendous upside in taking initiative and doing something like this, whether you look at it from the perspective of personal growth and leadership skills, to positive impact on the world and others around you, to impressing admissions committees with your ambition.