Depending on where you live, there may be no end in sight to virtual learning. For many of us, continuing to take classes via Zoom or other online platforms induces dread and exhaustion. If you are feeling anxious about your ability to learn and focus virtually, know that you are not alone. Many students have been finding it harder to concentrate during online lectures and class discussions and feel that the quality of their learning doesn’t compare to in-person education.
There are many unique challenges to online learning. Finding a quiet space with few distractions is impossible in some households, particularly if there are multiple family members or roommates trying to work or learn from home simultaneously. The presence of young children and noisy pets of course adds to the chaos, creating noise and sometimes causing unexpected interruptions. It is also the case that many students have extra responsibilities at home that they’re relieved of in school. For example, when you’re home you may be expected to do extra chores such as child and pet care which pulls focus away from learning.
Another challenge to online learning stems from the technology itself. A recent study shows that because there is a tiny lag in the Zoom videos, students’ brains have to do extra work to process this lag, pay attention, and make things feel in sync. This extra work ends up taking energy away from the material. It can also be harder to focus on the instructor as one of many small windows, especially when classmates conduct themselves in distracting ways. Of course, you can adjust to speaker view in some applications but the fact still stands that paying attention is challenging.
Given that distance learning is likely to continue for months in many school districts, colleges, and universities — how can you make the most of your online education?
1. Advocate for yourself, at school and at home
Sometimes we have to set boundaries and prioritize our own education. This could mean talking to parents or roommates about expectations for online schooling. Remember that you are still at school and deserve to have a quiet workspace to the greatest extent possible. Gently reminding those you live with that you need quiet or can’t do other tasks during the time you’re supposed to be in school is perfectly acceptable—and sometimes very necessary. It’s also okay to advocate for yourself to your educators, requesting extensions, days off, or simply understanding that they have to expect some level of distraction from students logging in from busy home environments.
2. Maintain a “normal” routine
Try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time you would during in-person school. If your sleep habits were never great to begin with, distance learning might offer the flexibility to figure out a better routine. Also, try to work for the same number of hours you would be in school, even if you have fewer hours of class and transition time. The extra time could be all you need to complete homework or other assignments, meaning that when you finally log off, you’re truly done for the day.
3. Establish a work ritual
Anything you can do to put yourself in the right mindset to learn, and distinguish school time from the rest of your day, will improve your focus. Maybe this looks like getting dressed up more professionally, organizing your workspace in a specific way, or brewing a cup of tea or coffee to have at hand. Perhaps you are into lighting some incense to get the right aura in your room, creating the exact olfactory environment to optimize production. The point is, find a ritual that works for you, that can signal to your brain that it’s time to learn.
4. Get creative with your work area
The virtual learning epoch brought to us by Covid is taking us all out of our general comfort zone, but we should take it as an opportunity for experimentation. Of course, remaining professional is imperative for most and establishing routines in the classroom require consistency. However, we should not fall victim to functional fixedness and try to envision new ways to interact with our surroundings to promote education. Whether it’s trying on new virtual backgrounds, reimagining the use of space, or redefining what actually works, virtual learning can be an avenue for innovation if we put our minds to it.
To conclude, we should be kind to ourselves and others during this hard time. It is necessary to think collaboratively about how we can connect to one another in ways that are both human and effective.