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posted: 9/12/2020 6:19 AM

How college students can make the most of remote learning

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  • In the spring, the forced pivot to remote instruction was a trial by fire for schools. Now, university officials say they're better prepared to translate coursework online.

    In the spring, the forced pivot to remote instruction was a trial by fire for schools. Now, university officials say they're better prepared to translate coursework online.
    (Trevor Cokley/U.S. Air Force Academy via AP)

 
 

The zoomers are settling in for another semester of Zoom University.

Most U.S. colleges and universities are offering some form of online instruction this fall semester. In many ways, this is more of the same. In the spring, the forced pivot to remote instruction was a trial by fire for schools. Now, university officials say they're better prepared to translate coursework online.

"The remote learning that we did in the spring, as an emergency, probably won't look the same as the remote teaching that we're doing now," said Thomas J. Tobin, the director of the Learning Design, Development and Innovation team at University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The Washington Post spoke with six university instructors who have spent the summer helping faculty rearrange classes for the start of the year. Many of them said students should expect more opportunities for "asynchronous learning," which means students will complete portions of a course on their own time -- not during a set Zoom call with the entire class.

"What we do hasn't actually changed all that much. How we do it has changed and shifted radically," Tobin said.

As Tobin explains it, asynchronous instruction flips the standard lecture on its head. Jenae Cohn, an academic technology specialist at Stanford University, said students will have a bit more flexibility and agency to decide how they spend their time completing coursework.

"They don't have to be thinking of classes as the time that their butt is in the chair in the lecture hall," Cohn said.

Find a daily schedule and a place that works best for you

Cohn said students should build a daily schedule around accomplishing tasks -- not just when their next Zoom lecture is happening. Take some time to reflect on "your ideal universe" for finishing assignments, Cohn said. Try to reflect on how you learn.

"When is your favorite time to listen to a lecture?" Cohn asked. "When are you most focused and most engaged?"

Once you create a weekly schedule, stick with it, because Zoom University can otherwise feel all-encompassing. A structured day will help you feel "more in control" over your coursework, Cohn said.

After you've settled "when" you work, move on to "where" you work. Find a room, a corner of a room, a desk or another dedicated area where you only study. It helps to have an area separate from other slightly less productive moments on the internet.

If at all possible, take your classes in a space where someone else is already studying -- such as a roommate. It doesn't matter if that person is taking a different course; you're both working. The social pressure can keep you on "the task at hand," said Art Markman, a psychology and marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the head of the school's academic working group for reopening this semester.

It's the same feeling you get when you're studying at the library with a studious friend, Markman added.

Of course, an in-person study group might not be possible because of social distancing measures. One workaround could be calling a classmate on FaceTime while in a live lecture on Zoom, Markman said. That way, there's some added accountability between the two of you to pay attention to the instructor.

Markman added that a lot of these solutions are attempts to manufacture social interactions that would have happened naturally in an ordinary semester.

Above all else, spend the time to create a "distraction-free" workspace. Hide your phone. Download tools on your browser to block social networks or other distracting websites.

"Make it difficult to do anything other than what you're there for," Markman said.

Zooming can get exhausting. Limit your screen time when possible.

Zoom fatigue is real. Hours spent on videoconferences can feel draining, and remote learning often requires a steady slog of lectures, study sessions and working groups via webcam.

"If we have our camera on for hours and hours in a day, we feel -- psychologically -- that other people are looking at us," Tobin said. "That feeling of being 'onstage' is really draining."

It's hard to watch anyone "drone on" for a two-hour Zoom lecture, even if the instructor is brilliant, Markman said. Professors know this, and students should prepare for classes to be more interactive -- with breakout rooms and voting.

"For the students: Show up and take advantage of those opportunities to actually engage in those discussions," Markman said. "These classes that are designed to be online have a lot more engagement, even when they're larger classes, and so it really is well worth being there."

Some professors may give you the option to turn off your camera during a lecture on Zoom, Cohn said. That way, you can listen and take notes without constantly being under a microscope. Do what works best for you to manage screen fatigue, Cohn said.

"Everyone has to kind of look out for their own well-being right now," Cohn said. "Take breaks; get away from the screen a little bit."

Outside of class, readings and research often add hours of screen time to the day. It's true that there are differences between reading on screen and on paper, said Cohn, who has a forthcoming book on strategies for digital reading in college.

Instead of endlessly scrolling through a PDF, Cohn recommends students download tools, such Hypothesis, PowerNotes or Scrible, to help them annotate and manipulate text on screen. Think of reading on a screen as "a conversation" between you and the text, Cohn said, adding that you have to be mindful of why you're reading and what you're trying to get from a text.

"If you're working in different material spaces, you have to adopt different strategies to remembering and keeping track of information," Cohn said.

Socializing in and out of class needs to become a lot more intentional

Zoom doesn't allow for the same happenstance conversations while walking around campus. You're not going to run into a professor in the hallway or see your teaching assistant at the library. Students and faculty have to create those opportunities for casual social interactions this semester, Markman said.

When the University of Texas at Austin surveyed students about remote learning at the end of last semester, Markman told The Post that many students reported that they felt disconnected from the campus community.

Markman has one suggestion: Think of the friends of friends you would say hi to while walking to your next class. Write their names down and send a text -- or even call -- to keep in touch, Markman said.

While in lectures on Zoom, Markman recommends students find the backchannels other classmates are using to talk about a course away from the watchful eye of the instructor.

"That's where all the action is," Markman said. Even if it's a grab bag of "snark and value."

Backchanneling is actually proven to help students process material in the middle of class, Cohn said.

"If you're having a productive conversation with someone about the class on GroupMe or WhatsApp, or wherever you're going, I think that should be encouraged," Cohn said. "Those are things you always probably did in class in some way."

In the spring, students and professors could lean on existing relationships they formed before the pandemic to get through the end of the year. Now, most students and professors are starting with a blank slate. Markman said he's planning an "offbeat campus tour" one evening to intentionally create out-of-class opportunities for students to meet and talk.

All the instructors The Post spoke with encouraged students to speak up and contact their professor if they have questions about a particular concept or problem in class. Professors are going to try to be a lot more available to talk this semester, Markman said. And it helps if students make an effort to be a "known quantity" in the classroom.

"I think a lot of people are just reluctant to talk to a professor, believing they're completely out of reach," Markman said. "The fact is, most professors are just goofy people."