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Succeeding during the pandemic, Part 1: Learning and studying remotely

The shift to online education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has created several new challenges for graduate students. Many students have a hard time avoiding distractions when forced to do their academic work from home. In addition, many have difficulty maintaining a consistent work schedule or finding a healthy balance between work time and leisure time. Further, students may have difficulties making academic progress without access to libraries, laboratories, archives, and computer labs, while others are simply exhausted by spending hours on video conferencing apps like Zoom.

Obviously, there is no “quick fix” that can resolve all the difficulties you might face during this exceptional period. However, there are some strategies that you can use to make these difficulties a little easier to manage. This page (Part 1) discusses some of the challenges of online learning and what you can do about them. Part 2 focuses on maintaining mental health, and Part 3 reviews metacognitive strategies that help with all forms of academic study, whether online or in-person.

Practicing acceptance and self-compassion

For starters, there is nothing wrong with you if you’re struggling with the uncertainties, dangers, inconveniences, and changes caused by the pandemic so far. And it is natural and understandable if these struggles have an effect on your academic productivity. Rather than berate yourself for being less productive, it is important to practice self-compassion, meaning that you should treat yourself with the same compassion that you might show to a close friend or relative who is having a difficult time.

In a recent article for Greater Good, school psychologist Rebecca Branstetter recommends the following mantras:

  • I am not “working from home.” I am doing my best to work at home during a crisis.
  • I cannot be as productive as normal because these are not normal times. I will focus on what I can accomplish in just the next 24 hours and let go of what I cannot accomplish right now.

Accepting that you are having difficulty, and being compassionate to yourself as a result, can go a long way toward improving both your mood and your productivity. For more on maintaining mental health, see Part 2.

Beating “Zoom fatigue”

Many people have found that they feel exhausted after attending video-based meetings for work or school. In fact, many find these video meetings to be more exhausting than in-person meetings, an experience that is often called “Zoom fatigue” (although it should be noted that this fatigue is not limited to Zoom—any video conferencing app can cause exhaustion).

Of course, Zoom and other video conferencing tools have been indispensable during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The goal here is not to pick on Zoom or any other tech company. Rather, the goal is to identify, and learn to overcome, some of the challenges caused by video conferencing in general.

One such challenge is “nonverbal overload,” which is described by the cognitive psychologist Jeremy Bailenson as the discomfort that results from the extended eye contact and large facial close-ups that occur during video meetings. In real life, these sorts of nonverbal contact—long, steady eye contact and close facial proximity—occur only in intimate relationships or physical fights. Thus, enduring long bouts of such contact during Zoom meetings with colleagues and classmates can be emotionally draining and can even stimulate the brain’s “fight or flight response.” Needless to say, such experiences are stressful.

Fortunately, there are several easy ways to reduce or eliminate “Zoom fatigue.” You might consider:

  • Positioning yourself farther from the camera so that your own image is not too big and imposing (for either yourself or others).
  • Resizing the windows in your video conferencing app so that the images of people’s faces are smaller. You can consult the help files of your preferred app for instructions. For example, Zoom has multiple display options that can be modified for your ease and comfort.
  • Asking your professor and/or classmates for permission to turn off your video camera and use audio only during the video conference.
  • Suggesting phone calls, rather than video conferences, whenever possible.
  • Limiting the use of video conferences during leisure time and instead keeping in touch with friends and family through phone calls, texts, emails, social media, or other means.

Obviously, there is no perfect solution to the ubiquity of video conferencing during the pandemic. But practicing some of these “video hygiene” techniques can help.

Maintaining focus

Another risk of online learning is the temptation to “multitask.” For example, sending a text or email during a video lecture might seem like a good use of time. You’re accomplishing multiple goals during the same period, right? Unfortunately, research has demonstrated that multitasking is mostly a myth. What seems like multitasking is simply the brain switching rapidly between multiple tasks. This rapid switching wastes time, decreases accuracy, and interferes with the process of forming new memories.

To make the most of online learning, avoid trying to multitask and instead:

  • “Monotask” by eliminating distractions and focusing on one task at a time. For example, you can put your phone on silent or “do not disturb” mode for the duration of a lecture. Or you can use programs like “Freedom” to temporarily block out the internet or distracting apps for set periods of time, allowing you to focus on completing assignments.
  • Set boundaries to give yourself time for your online classes, just as you would for any class. Schedule time on your calendar for lectures, homework, and office hours, as needed, and let your family or housemates know that you won’t be available during those times. Whether online or in-person, your classes are equally real. They all cost money, count toward your degree progress, and require you to master advanced skills. As such, they should be taken seriously.
  • If you are distracted by noise, try investing in a pair of noise cancelling headphones or safety earmuffs, or try an app like Noisli to drown out disruptive noise with soothing “white noise.”
  • Redirect interruptions by using what Francisco Cirillo, the inventor of the “pomodoro technique” (discussed in the next section), calls the “inform – negotiate – call back” strategy. That is, when someone interrupts your work, let them know that you’re busy (“inform”), agree on a future time that you’ll get back to them (“negotiate”), and then proceed with what you were doing until the agreed-upon time (the “call back” time). This strategy helps you minimize the length of interruptions and maximize your “time-on-task.” 

Managing time and maintaining a schedule

A related pitfall of remote learning is the failure to manage your time or create a consistent schedule. Procrastination is a common challenge even during the best of times. But now that your study hall, office, or lab space has been replaced by your bedroom, it is much easier to avoid responsibilities and lounge around in your pajamas all day. As Amanda Merner writes for the APS blog, studying at home makes it all too easy to “get sucked into a Netflix series, only to come-to 8 hours later in the same pajamas, with the same email draft open on your laptop.” Maintaining a consistent schedule can help you avoid this problem.

To maintain a consistent schedule, try the following:

  • Do your best to get up at the same time every day. Routines help with productivity.
  • After getting up, follow your normal morning routine. Shower and change out of your pajamas, just as you always would. Such “rituals” can improve your mood and make you feel more productive.  
  • If possible, avoid working on your bed. Doing so can make you sleepy. It can also interfere with your sleep if you start thinking of your bed as a workspace.
  • Use the “pomodoro technique” to plan work periods and break periods. For example: set a timer for 25 minutes, during which you ignore your phone and other distractions and focus on a single task (e.g. writing the “Methods” section of your paper). After the timer goes off, enjoy a 5 or 10 minute break period. Then repeat the process.
  • Use a calendar to keep track of assignments, due dates, and deadlines. One approach is to write down major deadlines and plan backwards from them (e.g., if an assignment is due on the 15th of next month, what do you have to do each day, and each week, to get the assignment done comfortably by the deadline?). Such backwards-planning is a useful habit to practice any time, but it is especially critical during online instruction.
  • Syllabi and class websites are an excellent source of information—read them closely and take note of important information and deadlines. A pet peeve of many professors is being forced to answer questions whose answers are already clearly listed on the syllabus! More importantly, the better you keep track of expectations and due dates, the less likely you are to fall behind.

Accessing academic materials online

With libraries and archives mostly closed to in-person work, it can be difficult to access scholarly materials needed for your graduate studies. However, many publishers and platforms are offering free or expanded access during the pandemic period. In addition, many “open access” materials and “open educational resources” (OERs) are available.

Some useful resources include:

These are just a small sample of the many resources available. Doing a web search for “open access journals” or “open educational resources” can bring up other materials. In addition, major institutions and platforms like the American Psychological Association (APA), Project Muse, and JSTOR have offered expanded access to normally-restricted resources. These can be accessed through the CSULB University Library’s databases page or through the webpages of the respective platforms.

Maintaining community remotely

Studying remotely or under quarantine conditions means less interaction with classmates and peers. This is unfortunate, because peer interactions—including friendships, mentoring relationships, and mutual academic support—are often among the most valuable aspects of a grad student’s career.

There are several things that you can do to try to preserve or maintain these valuable relationships:

  • Create an online study group through email, Zoom, BeachBoard, or another platform. Many students work best in groups. While it might be impossible to meet in person, you can still simulate a group atmosphere through a video conference, email thread, discussion board, or other virtual platform.
  • Keep in touch with classmates and instructors regularly. You can contact classmates through BeachBoard or student email. You can also attend your professors’ virtual office hours. Regular contact is good for both your progress and your mental health. And remember that we’re all in this together—your peers and professors may also feel isolated and will value the communication.
  • Attend virtual workshops and other events to network and to foster a sense of community. The Graduate Studies Resource Center and Career Development Center offer regular programming. You can also check the website of your department or program for upcoming events.

While there is no denying that the pandemic has created disruptions for everyone, and online learning does not work perfectly for all students, applying the tips and techniques on this page can help make your remote graduate study experience successful.

Further Reading

Bailenson, J. (2020, April 3). Why Zoom meetings can exhaust us. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-zoom-meetings-can-exhaust-us-11585953336 (available through CSULB Library OneSearch).

Burek Peirce, J. (2020, May 14). When you can’t send students to the campus library. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/When-You-Can-t-Send-Students/248784

Branstetter, R. (2020, April 21). How to reduce the stress of homeschooling on everyone. Greater Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_reduce_the_stress_of_homeschooling_on_everyone

Fosslien, L. & West Duffy, M. (2020, April 29). How to combat Zoom fatigue. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/04/how-to-combat-zoom-fatigue

Merner, A. (2020). Student notebook: Managing productivity in the time of COVID-19. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/student-notebook-managing-productivity-in-the-time-of-covid-19

Stark State Digital Library. (2020). Study Skills: Adjusting your study habits to online learning. https://libguides.starkstate.edu/StudySkills/OnlineTips

University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation. (2020). Adjusting your study habits during COVID: We’ll get through this together. https://ai.umich.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/student-disruption.pdf