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Online learning tips and tricks for students: what have we learnt one year on from the start of the pandemic?

  • Online learning has been part of our daily lives for a year now
  • It creates new issues and new opportunities for everybody
  • We've mastered the simple skills of online learning, but what about the more complex difficulties?

Online learning is no longer new to us – the majority of students were forced online by the sudden closure of schools and universities in the first national lockdown.

The pandemic has pushed us all to be more tech-savvy and improved our online skills. We’ve had time to adapt to this new learning style, so why are we still struggling with it one year on?

Learning

Online etiquette has been difficult to learn – virtual classrooms are a very different environment to what we’re used to. A few basic guidelines help things to flow without disruption:

  • Show up a few minutes early: online timetables often take a while to load meetings, so avoid being late by joining the meetings just before their start time.

  • Use the “raise hand” tool: it can be very easy to speak over others when you can’t see them. Be respectful by waiting until you’re asked to speak.
  • Mute your microphone: microphones pick up more noise than you’d imagine, and minor background noise for you could be a major distraction for others. Only turn your microphone on to speak.
  • Turn cameras off in large groups: keeping cameras on in meetings with lots of participants can cause connectivity issues. Avoid this by keeping your camera off, unless you’re asked to turn it on.

There have been other rules to remember outside the virtual classroom. Not being with your tutors face-to-face means communicating via emails and online messages. Students tend to have erratic work schedules, often needing answers and advice at odd hours of the day.

It’s important to make a note of your tutor’s contact details and office hours and remember to be reasonable with your expectations regarding response time. Working from home means we may struggle to draw the line between work and rest, so don’t expect others to reply outside of their typical work hours just because you do.

Routine

One of the biggest changes that came with online learning was the lack of routine. Without set times to leave the house and attend certain classes, many of us were left at a loose end and have struggled to adapt. Lockdown has led to many of us feeling as though we are on an extended holiday, and keeping a strict routine is no longer at the top of everyone's priority list.

Creating a schedule for yourself is key to avoiding wasting time and causing burnout. Don’t fall into the holiday mindset - consistent sleep patterns and regular eating times will give you the energy you need to learn from home. Setting deadlines is important; whilst you aren’t under the usual rigid class structure, it is easy to spend far too long on a task and ultimately waste your time. Try to challenge yourself to stick to your deadlines.

Whilst trying to follow our usual routines may work for some, others will struggle with a lack of motivation. Mental well-being should be a priority during these times, particularly if you have exams or coursework deadlines. A break from work will benefit your performance – studies show that stress negatively affects students.

Looking after your mental well-being is as simple as phoning a friend, reading a book, or cooking yourself a meal, and will prevent burnout. Motivation to work will be much higher if you know you can relax after you’ve completed your task.

Socialising

Beginning a new academic year in the middle of the pandemic means that making friends has been harder than usual.

Classes of new people are intimidating at the best of times, let alone when it’s a screen full of names without faces.

One particular cause of anxiety for students is the use of breakout room, because there have been no opportunities to meet the people we’re grouped with.

A black screen reading "your camera is turned off"
Turning on your camera may help you make friends

Facing that fear head on will make things easier in the long run. Turning on your camera in breakout rooms and making the effort to say hello will ease anxiety for others, who in turn will respond to you.

Student mental health has been in crisis this year due to people’s inability to meet new friends.

It’s easy to underestimate the impact friendships can have on your academic life; just having somebody to discuss your work with or a friendly face to meet in class will make you feel more confident.

During the pandemic it hasn’t been possible to socialise in the usual sense, but you could do a socially-distanced supermarket shop together.

Creating a social media group for your course will encourage everybody to be more sociable outside of class.

People studying the same course as you are likely to share your interests, so making friends is much more likely if you take a break from talking about work. Even just introducing yourself in a non-academic setting can spark conversations in a group chat.

Large groups online can also take the pressure off individuals to carry the conversation, as everyone contributes.

Group calls, via Microsoft Teams or Zoom, make it easy for people to play online games or have a few drinks together. If you’re shy or anxious, try not to let that stop you – there will always be chatty individuals that provide interesting conversation fodder.

Hidden obstacles

A hidden challenge of online learning is that we now have nowhere to go. With schools and universities online, many students no longer leave their home during the day. This has been particularly problematic during the winter months, as we often work through daylight hours and don’t want to go out in the dark.

Going out for fresh air is an immediate mood booster that shouldn’t be underestimated. Rearranging your day to fit in a walk has significant mental health benefits, not to mention the physical benefits of light exercise. Try to immerse yourself in nature wherever possible, as birdsong has been shown to improve mental well-being.

If you really can’t leave the house, try opening a window and doing some indoor exercises. Studies show that movement improves brain and memory function, so it’s worth trying if you procrastinate a lot.

It’s important to make the best of the situations we’re faced with, but also to remember that this won’t last forever. If online learning is something you’ve struggled with, remind yourself that with every day that passes, the weather is getting warmer, the evenings are getting lighter, and we’re another day closer to being with our family and friends again.

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