Tiff’s Tips for Online Learning in Fall 2020.

(Adapted from Tiff’s Tips for Online Learning during the COVID-19 Crisis.)

With the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many changes in the world. One of the places where these changes are the most visible is in higher education. Almost overnight universities changed from in-person courses to nearly 100% online models. A change that for some classes, we will continue to see in September. 

I wrote “Tiff’s Tips for Online Learning during the COVID-19 Crisis[1] in the winter semester a few days after StFX University moved online. While a lot of the tips are the same, it is important to mention that learning online in a quickly transitioned crisis and learning online for planned-online classes are very different. So, some of the tips should be different too. 

Supporting and teaching ways of online learning from the student standpoint is often overlooked. I would think this comes down to the fact that people assume students are tech-savvy (we are) but being tech-savvy does not mean that students understand how to learn online. Most students only experience in-person courses during their degree, and this is a whole new world!

From having taken many online classes, here are nine tips that have helped me in my online learning endeavours combined with recommendations from professors and peers. I hope at least one of these tips can help you have a successful semester while you navigate online learning! 

1. Recognize that online learning is ‘like’ a real class. 

Athabasca University’s President, Neil Fassina, described online learning as “not easier or more difficult, but it’s different.”[2]  Despite differences between online learning and traditional in-classroom lectures, it is crucial to recognize that an online class is like a real class. Now, this first tip seems to be more obvious than it needs to be, but don’t doubt its importance. If your professor posts all of the course material at once, it may be easy to put work off until later. It’s even easier if your professors have decided not to do regular class meetings that you must attend. Like a regularly scheduled class, it’s vital to set time to work on the course material. Whether you’re reading notes, working on assignments, or preparing for tests, keep on top of the work that is coming your way. 

2. Communicate with your professors.

This point is always important. It is especially important when you’re beginning online courses, which may be a new learning style for you. Your professors should be providing you with information on how they will be teaching your class. This information includes course delivery, assignments, tests and final exams. 

However, when you’re navigating a new way of learning, there may be things that you don’t know or understand, new challenges due to something out of your control, and more. Navigating these challenges is why it is so important to communicate clearly with your professors. 

If you are in a class that will be delivered using Zoom but don’t have adequate internet access to join? Tell your professor. 
Do you have questions about conducting research for your thesis defence? Ask your professor.Are you having trouble adapting to learning online? Tell your professor.

Accommodations can’t be made if they are not known, and your success is important. 

3. Hold yourself accountable (when you can).

This point goes back to #1. Keep on top of work, readings, assignments. If you can’t, for whatever reason, refer back to #2. 

Like every rule, there are exceptions. If you’re taking online classes from home, you will find that not every day may be as productive as you think or wish. For example, a few weeks back, I planned to do three questions on an assignment. The same day, my landlord decided it was a great time to re-shingle the roof. Though this was out of my control, it threw a wrench in my productivity that day. Learning from home will provide a new set of challenges and some days barriers that you can’t overcome. That’s ok. Readjust your planning and start again at a time when you can be productive. 

4. Create a study space. 

After taking many online classes, this has been the key to success for me. Find yourself a space that works for you. It will be different for everyone. 

This tip may be challenging. I can’t do work when I’m at home and around my family (and my cats). So, I continued to live in my apartment in my school’s town. Here I have an excellent home workspace that is bright, comfortable, and, most importantly, conducive to getting things done.

A quick tip: your bed is probably a bad spot. I’ll save you the pain of figuring that out for yourself.

5. Eliminate distractions.

Look, we all know that sometimes we text in class (horrendously sorry to the professors who may be reading this). Though you should try to reduce that when working on your online courses. It’s easy to have Facebook or Twitter open in the tabs of whatever you’re doing but aim to focus on your work. Reducing the number of distractions that you can control will help you move through your course work more effectively. It will also help to limit the compounding effect of distractions outside of your control.

I’m not signed in to iMessage on my computer when I do work, and I leave my phone in a different room. Though I admit, I usually have twitter open in my tabs (we all have flaws). 

You may be so accustomed to doing things like picking up your phone and checking social media. They’re habitual habits and probably unconscious. If you want some help on how to change these things, check out James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits.” Don’t have time for the full read? Here is a link from Clear on how to break habits. https://jamesclear.com/how-to-break-a-bad-habit

6. Participate! 

If your class still requires you to participate actively, do it. If it doesn’t, still try to be as present as possible. If your classes are online Zoom meetings, attend them as regularly as you possibly can. Engage in discussion boards if you have them, too! 

7. Find ways to engage with classmates and friends. 

One of the best parts of the in-person course delivery is the social aspect. Every day you get to interact with friends and classmates, work on projects together and study together. Just because a course is online doesn’t mean that means to end. Try making an online study group. Here, you can work with your classmates and spend some time socializing, but it also gives you dedicated time to be doing work, where others can help hold you to account. 

8. Be patient with your professors and university

I don’t think I have to say this, but this is a very unusual time. Just like you are learning to learn online, your professors are learning how to teach online. Universities are learning how to support their students in an online model but also the thousands of employees they have during a time of deep uncertainty. No transition, especially ones of this scale, are ever perfect. But, try to believe your professors and other university staff are working their hardest to ensure that you not only continue to succeed but also that you receive the highest quality education possible. 

9. Keep on working hard! 

The shift to remote learning is temporary. In-person classes will likely be back for the winter semester. Thus, it’s essential to keep working hard. The effort you put in now will pay off when you finish the course or graduate! Keep going!


[1] Tiffany MacLennan “Tiff’s Tips for Online Learning during the COVID-19 Crisis” LINK: https://tiffanymaclennan.ca/2020/03/19/online-learning/

[2] Globe and Mail Events “Postsecondary Learning Online.” LINK: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/events/article-postsecondary-learning-online/

Tiffany MacLennan | x2015lki@stfx.ca | @tiffmaclennan (twitter)

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