Online learning in the time of Coronavirus: Tips for students and the instructors who support them

Abbe Herzig, AMS Director of Education

In the midst of the upheaval due to the Coronavirus, students and faculty are transitioning to new virtual classrooms. Many of us haven’t chosen to learn or teach, but here we are, making the best of this new reality.

In this post, I describe some guidelines that may help students manage the transition to online learning as smoothly as possible. Instructors can support students by helping them to learn online, and I encourage instructors reading this to pass it along to your students. I offer these suggestions with a caveat: Some of these ideas may not be feasible for everyone, and that’s ok. We all have unique living, learning, and life situations, and what works for one of us may not work for others. Take what you can, and leave the rest. Keep realistic expectations of yourself, understanding that these circumstances are less than ideal. While the suggestions in this post are directed toward students, I also offer “teaching tips” to help instructors support their students.

Teaching tip: Remember the diversity of your students and keep equity issues in mind. Not everyone will have reliable internet access, computer access, time, or a quiet place to study. Students may be caring for children or sick family members, may be sick themselves, may need to work, and may be facing any number of other challenges and stressors.

Above all else, take care of your physical and mental health. Self-care isn’t self-indulgent. If your physical or mental health falters, the rest of your work will suffer. Time invested in healthy habits pays off.

Create healthy habits for sleep, eating, exercise, and hydration. These basics will help you focus and manage stress, and also have many long-term health benefits. The hardest part of self-care for many of us is getting enough sleep, but this is one of the most important things you can do for yourself.

Focus on the positive. While this may sound simplistic in these challenging times, finding ways to laugh, watch funny videos, sing, dance, or do whatever will help you unwind and give you a much-needed break from school and other pressures. Limit the amount of time you spend surfing about how bad things are. If you choose to follow the news, identify a trusted news source, and tune to it judiciously.

If you struggle with anxiety or depression, identify resources in advance and keep the information handy. This will make it easier to access support if you need it. Do a little research today to identify resources for counseling and crisis management available online or by phone. Your college or university has not shut down, only moved to a new normal, and most essential services are still available. You can also identify support groups in the community or online. There are several hotlines and other resources for students in crisis. The counseling center can help you find one to have on hand just in case you need it.

Create a specific, intentional routine. Have a structured plan for your days. Consistency in your schedule can help you reduce anxiety and stress.

Teaching tip: Understand the stress that students are experiencing in this transition. Remain flexible with deadlines, incompletes, extensions, and grades.

Make good use of resources. What arrangements has your college or university made for access to libraries, advising, and technical support? How can you contact each of your professors? If they have virtual office hours, learn the times and how to reach them. Is there an online forum for asking questions? If you know in advance how to access these resources, it will be easier to seek help when you need it.

Teaching tips: Know which resources are available to students for advising, counseling, library use, crisis intervention, tutoring. Help students connect with these and also with external resources, such as Virtual Nerd, Math is Fun, Khan Academy, or Math Forum. Make sure students know when and how they can reach you: Establish virtual office hours and give students other ways to contact you for help. 

Find a physical workspace that can help you focus and be productive with as few distractions as possible. Depending on your living situation, this may be particularly challenging, but develop the best plan possible in the circumstances. Think about what kind of environment helps you study, and try to re-create that. Having a regular, designated space helps signal your mind that it’s study time. Aim for adequate lighting, access to your books, calculator, laptop, and other supplies. If you need background noise, or need to block outside noise, consider a white noise app.

Talk with people around you about what you need, including parents, siblings, children, roommates, friends, bosses, and anyone else who has expectations of you or who impacts your daily life. Discuss your educational workload and what you need to meet it. Especially if there are other people in your living space who are studying or working from home, negotiate how you can have the best access possible to the space, technology, time, and quiet you need to meet your responsibilities. You may not be able to achieve the ideal, but planning and talking in advance will get you as close as possible.

Make and maintain personal connections to combat isolation. Personal connections can support your physical and mental health and can help you learn. Form a study group, use social media, connect through discussion boards or a Facebook group. Schedule video calls with friends and family. If you find it helpful to study with others, try a virtual or phone-based study session with your group. Keep in touch with instructors and classmates through virtual office hours or study groups so that you can stay up on your coursework.

Teaching tip: Promote community through interactive class activities and authentic communication with students. Recognize and disrupt any racist, xenophobic, or other controversial issues that may arise in your classes. Making uncomfortable conversations productive can help our students and colleagues move forward with greater understanding and inclusion.

Find out what is expected of you. A chart or list of requirements for all of your courses might help you stay organized. Identify changes to course requirements, assignments, and due dates. Record the tools you need to access each course and where they are, including any chats, discussion forums, or other means to ask questions and communicate. Identify if you need to be online at specific times, how you are expected to submit assignments, and the schedule and process for quizzes, exams and other assignments. These details may be different for different courses, so a system for keeping track of what you need to do, and where, how and when, will really help you as you move through the rest of the semester. Ask lots of questions, but also be patient with your instructors! Many of them are new to this online environment as well, and they are figuring all of this out as quickly as they can.

Get comfortable with the technology in advance. Test computers, internet connections, software, webcams, headsets, mobile devices, and microphones. Mobile devices may be convenient, but may not always provide all the functionality you need. Know where to get technical support in the event that you need it. If you don’t have access to something you need, contact your professors as soon as possible. They may be able to provide alternative assignments or different ways to access the course material.

Teaching tip: Communicate expectations clearly and often. Use multiple modalities like email, announcements, texts, small peer-support groups, and other means. Offer students multiple ways to participate. Some students have more limited resources than you expect and may need alternative ways to meet course requirements.

Use good study habits. Take notes and study just as you normally would. Close distracting tabs and apps. Humans are not as good at multitasking as you may think! Set yourself up to be able to focus on your work. Limit social media. Give your fullest attention to all course activities (discussions, group work, watching videos).

Teaching tip: Provide students with individualized support and feedback.

Manage your time and stay organized. Setting a schedule can help provide structure, keep you motivated, and prevent you from falling behind. Make sure your schedule is realistic and achievable. Record due dates, exams, and other assignments. Set aside specific times to study, and strive to keep balance by including the things that are most important to you. Allocate sufficient time for self-care. Schedule breaks. Do you need one-on-one time with your family? Build it into your schedule on a regular basis. If unexpected circumstances arise that interfere with your schoolwork, communicate with your professors as soon as you can.

Teaching tip: Communicate weekly about what is due, when, what tools should be used, and how work should be submitted. Establish weekly routines and rhythms to help you and your students keep on track.

Engage actively in online group work. Group work and collaboration will look a little different online, but is still important to learning and creates a much-needed sense of community. Meet regularly with your team. Check in regularly with a quick text on your group chat. Identify a purpose for each meeting to help your team stay focused and on track. Take notes in a shared document so you can all contribute and keep track of progress. Meet by video when you can, to help you communicate more clearly and stay connected to each other. If someone has been absent from your group meetings, check in on them to make sure they’re ok.

Remember, as time goes by we will all adjust. This crisis has disrupted travel plans, ended sports seasons prematurely, confounded important projects, separated friends and family, and overall is a big strain on us all. Remember to take good care of yourself. You will find your way. We all will find our way as we settle in to the new normal.  Until then, take a deep breath, do your best, get some rest, and wash your hands.


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4 Responses to Online learning in the time of Coronavirus: Tips for students and the instructors who support them

  1. Jane M says:

    Thank you, this helped so much! Good luck to all as we go through this rapid transition to a whole new learning modality, we can do this.

  2. Anju Kedia says:

    Thankyou, this is helpful and empathetic.

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