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My students and I just had our very first online class. None of us had signed up for that. Stonehill College has small classes and lots of faculty/student interaction, and that interaction is mostly face-to-face. We like it that way. And there we were, each at our own home, talking to screens.
We were all feeling disoriented. Before spring break, all college routines were in place: Go to class, practice, club meetings, and work. But now, normal routines had been exploded, and the regular structure was gone.
When I asked my students what they were most worried about in transitioning to online learning, three main themes emerged:
- How will I stay focused when I work at home?
- How will I organize my work?
- I’m in a difficult situation at home. How understanding will my professors be?
My students are right to be concerned. In small face-to-face classes, professors help you stay on track, for example by noticing if you start slacking off and talking to you about it. But we can’t really see you now. You can tune out, and the professor won’t notice — until you write a terrible paper, fail the exam, or stop turning in work altogether. More responsibility will fall on you.
Here are some suggestions for how to manage:
Staying focused when you work at home
Working at home with your family around is different from working at school, especially when you can’t go to the library or a coffee shop. To make it easier:
- Plan ahead. You’ll need a reasonably quiet place to do your work. Since other family members are probably home as well, talk to them beforehand and together come up with a plan that keeps interruptions to a minimum. You may need to negotiate, say, agreeing to play with your little sister later if she leaves you alone when you work. And of course you’ll need to consider their needs as well.
- When you attend an online class, minimize distractions. Put a do-not-disturb sign on your door or the back of your chair. Put your phone out of sight in a drawer or in another room. Close all other windows on your computer.
Set clear boundaries between work and leisure. Have a space where you work and a different space where you relax. If you must work and relax in the same space, make the space feel different when you are working, maybe turn on brighter lights and sit facing another direction.
Create a schedule and a list of projects. This is especially important now since your routines have been disrupted; otherwise you’re bound to forget some of the new information. Do it in two parts:
- Projects for the semester: List all papers and exams, their due dates, and the date when you’ll need to start working on them.
- Weekly schedule: Create a schedule for every workday and include all your time-sensitive commitments: online classes, work, and other appointments. Then schedule study time — and include time for relaxation too.
Next to the weekly schedule, list the assignments that are due for each class that week, and anything else that you need to work on, like a term paper.
You can do this on paper or use an app. I use Google Calendar for my schedule and Todoist for my list of projects. Some of my students go old-school and create beautiful color-coded paper schedules and post them in their study area.
Are you in a difficult situation? Here’s how to be straight with your professors.
Most professors understand that your lives have been turned upside down. But they don’t know your situation. They don’t know that you babysit your siblings during the day, that you don’t have a quiet space to work, that you don’t have your own computer, or that you have limited internet access. And since they’ve been scrambling to convert their classes to an online format, they are probably a bit more clueless than usual.
Try to do the class in the way that your professor has set it up. But if you think you can’t, tell them right away! Be polite and honest. Propose an alternative way that you could do the work, but be open to other possibilities. Ask for help.
We’re all in uncharted territory here, trying to figure out how to do things very differently very quickly. It won’t be perfect, but we’ll muddle through together.
- More from me about how phones distract us here and about how to work smarter here.
- In case you are curious, Prof. Michael Bruening’s remake of I will survive gives you a sense of what your professors’ lives have been like for the past week.
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