Student-tested tips for online classes

September 9, 2020

Two UM-Dearborn students share their advice for tackling the unique challenges of a mostly online semester.

A collage graphic featuring an open book with its pages fanned out, with icons representing online learning escaping from the pages.
A collage graphic featuring an open book with its pages fanned out, with icons representing online learning escaping from the pages.
Graphic by Violet Dashi

After months of planning, the mostly remote semester is upon us. And if you’re a student who’s a little nervous about finding a rhythm with online learning, we’ve got some student-vetted advice to get you off to the right start. English and education senior Katarina Moore and bioengineering and mechanical engineering senior Brigit Bradakis are both veterans when it comes to online classes. And just ahead of the semester, we hit them up for their personal tips and tricks when it comes to things like time management, minimizing distractions and getting help when (or preferably before) you’re feeling overwhelmed. Here’s their collective Top 8.

Expect the fall semester to be different (and better) than winter.

If your only prior experience with online classes was this winter’s emergency switch to remote learning, you might be approaching the fall with some trepidation. But Brigit Bradakis says there was a big difference between her experience this winter and previous online classes. “Basically, winter was a crazy situation that no one was prepared for — not the students, not the professors — and everybody was doing their best,” she says. “But now, everyone has had time to record proper lectures and figure out the extra supplemental assignments that make an online course interesting.” That means students can expect a much more intentionally designed online experience this fall.

Schedule. Schedule. Then schedule some more.

As someone who had prior experience with online classes, Katarina Moore should have been as equipped as anyone to adapt to the quick format change this winter. But she says she actually struggled quite a bit — especially with asynchronous courses: “I would tell myself, ‘Oh, I'm a night owl, so I’ll watch this video or do this reading tonight.' And then, of course, I wouldn’t do it, and I got pretty far behind.” Creating a super detailed schedule saved her semester. She keeps both online and paper calendars to schedule everything from big due dates, to specific time blocks for reading and watching lectures, to five-minute tasks like sending emails to professors. On top of that, Moore creates daily to-do lists, which she often relays to her mom to add another layer of accountability when they break down the day over dinner. Bradakis says it’s also helpful for her to turn on notifications from her calendar apps and Canvas.

Close distracting browser tabs. 

When your learning experience is centered around your laptop or phone, it’s pretty easy to get distracted by non-school stuff. Bradakis says having browser tabs open for social media or personal email accounts can seem harmless enough, but they turn out to be big temptations. Instead, she keeps those out of sight and mostly out of mind in a completely separate, minimized browser. If you know those kinds of distractions are a big challenge for you, consider turning off social media and personal email notifications on your phone. 

Buy (at least some) old-school textbooks.

More online classes means more screen time. But if you find yourself needing a break from your laptop or phone, Bradakis has a simple, brilliant fix: Buy print copies of at least some of your textbooks (and buy them used if you’re on a budget). That will allow you to periodically cut your tether to your laptop and do your reading from the comfort of a park or backyard hammock. She even has a cool piece of hybrid analog-digital tech called a Rocketbook, which is a reusable notebook with whiteboardlike pages for taking handwritten notes. When you’re back online, you can use an app to photograph the pages, which upload automatically to storage platforms like Google Drive. 

Get up and move.

Bradakis says one of the biggest things she noticed when everything went remote was how sedentary her routine got. “You take for granted the 10-minute walk between classes, and I found out I was really missing that.” To recreate the experience, she makes a point to step away from her desk throughout the day to check-in with her parents or do some stretching. It’s not just good for your body. She finds that even 15 minutes of doing something that’s not school related provides the mental reset you need to stay sharp for your next Zoom call.

If you feel like you’re drowning, ask for help.

Moore says she’s always surprised by the number of students who seem nervous to reach out to their professors. “I think people have the idea that a professor is going to be mean or something, but that’s not been my experience at all. Nine times out of 10, they’re going to be happy you took the initiative to ask for help or ask for an extension.” Of course, it’s always better if that call for help doesn’t come on the day the assignment is due, so try to reach out before you’re in crisis mode.

Start a Zoom study group.

Your classmates can offer you another layer of support. In her past online classes, Moore says she organized Zoom study groups to cram for big exams and Snapchat groups for quick questions about assignments. Moore says if no one has organized one yet for your class, don’t be afraid to take the initiative and do it yourself.

Make an effort to make friends online, even if it’s a little awkward.

Moore says her hands-down, number one tip is to not let the online semester deter you from making social connections. “A big part of college is getting to know people, and without that five minutes before class where you’re all waiting for the professor, it can be really hard to do that.” Moore’s suggestion: Reach out to your online classmates who you feel an affinity with. “It can be as simple as sending someone a message in the Zoom chat like, ‘Hey, you seem super cool, I’m on Instagram if you want to connect.’ Even if you feel super awkward, you have to put yourself out there.”

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Ready for more tips? Check out our story on what faculty wish students knew about succeeding in online classes. 

 

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