The majority of college students were largely disappointed by remote learning this past spring, with many reporting a strong preference for in-person instruction. Bearing in mind the low expectations that many students carried into online courses this fall, what advice can we give to help them succeed in this final month? As colleges across New England and the country continue to announce spring plans that include online courses, what can we share to prepare students for success in 2021?
While the internet is saturated with “hacks” for online learning, I want to connect you with the best experts I know: Students.
Since March, the Persistence Plus mobile nudging support platform has asked more than 25,000 students from both two- and four-year institutions about their experiences with remote learning. Specifically, we gathered their advice about how to excel in this format, and I saw four key themes emerge. I have also paired their insights with science-based exercises that can be shared with students to bolster their motivation and improve their performance in online courses.
1. Set a schedule. The most frequently offered advice was the need to set a regular schedule—especially in asynchronous courses—and stick to it. Several students mentioned examining the syllabus for major assignments and noting due dates in advance, working ahead on those assignments to the extent possible and regularly checking email and the course website. Here’s some of what they said:
- “Make a schedule for classes, study time, completion of assignments, breaks, etc. and build enough discipline to stick to the schedule.”
- “Make a schedule for time to study. Prioritize due dates on assignments and exams. It is not as difficult as you may think. Discipline and focus is key.”
- “Work as far ahead as possible, get assignments done as soon as you get them so you don’t have to worry about it, and set a scheduled time each day to work on school.”
- “Write everything down and log into your classes and email to check for new reminders and announcements every day.”
One way that students can go beyond just setting a schedule is with “if-then” plans. We all naturally underestimate how long it takes to complete projects (known as the planning fallacy). To counteract this optimism, students can make very specific plans for when and where they will work on assignments (for example, “I will read Chapter 1 at the dining room table after my daughter goes to sleep on Wednesday night.”) The more specific they are, the more likely they are to follow through.
Yet the best-laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry. Students should also develop contingency plans for common obstacles (such as “If my daughter doesn’t fall asleep by 9 p.m., then I will read Chapter 1 before she wakes up the next morning.”) No one can foresee the future, but anticipating the most likely problems and pre-designing solutions will help students stay on track. You can facilitate students’ if-then plans by prompting them to complete the exercise via an email, a poll within your institution’s learning management system, or even providing space in the syllabus to craft if-then plans for each big assignment.
2. Create a study space. Students noted how important it is to have a quiet, peaceful (but not too relaxing!) area for schoolwork. The goal of such a space is to create focus without inducing grogginess. They suggested:
- “Find a place where you can be composed and stay focused with your priorities.”
- “If you can, set aside someplace that is specially for school work so that you can focus when doing work and then relax when you go to bed (if you only have space in your bedroom then just make sure not to do work on your bed, work only on your desk).”
- “Find a place in your home to go that is designated to your studies.”
- “Don’t attend virtual classes in bed! Try working at a table or desk for effective productivity. Working in your bed allows you to be too comfortable and can cause you to fall asleep or lose focus.”
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, this area is most likely within students’ homes. But as we all know, our homes are often crowded with partners, children, parents and roommates. One advantage of a dedicated space is that it sends a signal that this person is studying and shouldn’t be interrupted. Moreover, a regular study space takes advantage of state-dependent memory. When you learn something, cues from the environment become associated with it: the feel of your chair, the smell of the room, the taste of your coffee, even your mood at that moment. If students put themselves into those same circumstances when they need to recall that information (i.e. for the exam), they’ll be more likely to remember.
3. Ask for help. We heard over and over that students must reach out for help, especially from their professors, if they get stuck. If you’re a professor but you might be difficult to reach (you’re dealing with plenty of crises too!) build a system that makes it easy for students to connect with other faculty, former students, campus tutors, tech support and each other. Students advised:
- “Don’t be afraid to email professors and/or classmates/peers for understanding of the coursework and/or additional assistance.”
- “Professors make it very easy, they work with you and they provide all the resources you need to be successful. Don’t forget to ask questions.”
- “Make group messages with your peers so you can keep each other on track, and ask each other questions.”
- “Don’t be afraid to reach out to classmates and ask for help. Everyone is going through it together and supporting each other through it is what makes it work.”
Asking for help makes some students feel nervous or embarrassed. One way to circumvent those feelings is to use simple role reversal. Instead of asking someone else for advice, students can imagine that one of their classmates came to them with the same issue. Students can then consider what they would advise their peer to do, or whom they would point them to for help. This role-playing can make students less anxious by approaching their own problem from a neutral perspective, make them feel more empowered, and help them generate potential solutions that they may not otherwise see.
4. Be accountable. Finally, students noted that success in online courses requires a lot of self-discipline and accountability. The physical and emotional distance between students and their professors can make it all the easier to skip assignments or not participate in class. They noted:
- “It’s all about being on top of your work and holding yourself accountable. If you can handle online college classes, you can handle college.”
- “Don’t put off projects and homework just because the deadline isn’t for a little while, you will forget and have to rush to finish it so just do it or start it (and do a good amount of the work) as soon as it is assigned.”
- “Study just like you would if you were taking the class in a classroom. No matter where you are learning from, the same level of effort and focus is expected.”
It is challenging to maintain focus on learning online, while also working (or looking for work), raising children and dealing with life’s other responsibilities. One practice that may help students concentrate is to engage in 5-10 minutes of expressive writing before working on school. Ask students to privately jot down everything in their life that is worrying or stressing them out, and write specifically about how each one makes them feel. Rather than suppressing or ignoring their emotions, releasing them on paper lessens their impact and will allow students to better focus on learning or performing. They can even crumple up that piece of paper and toss it in a recycling bin, symbolically discarding those intrusive thoughts so they can get down to business.
Despite our general comfort level with technology, most of us are still unacquainted with experiencing most of our lives online, and things won’t be that much better as we continue remote learning into 2021. While students study algebra, or 20th century European history or computer coding, remember that they’re still adapting to a whole new way of learning, and that’s not easy. So please pass along advice from our college experts to your students and their instructors so they may be better prepared for any eventual roadblock.
Ross E. O’Hara is director of behavioral science and education at Persistence Plus LLC.