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Student reflect on challenges, benefits of online learning

Difficulties include workload balance, connecting with peers

For many University students, the shift to remote learning has also necessitated a shift in study habits.

Many have found it difficult to stay connected with other students through the screen, a disconnect which can negatively impact the virtual classroom experience. Undergraduate Council of Students Chair of Academic Affairs Deepak Gupta ’22, “when you’re over zoom, people really only stay for class, from the beginning to the end,” resulting in a loss of informal connection before and after class.

Maisy Meyer ’22, a chemistry teaching assistant and head of the Chemistry Departmental Undergraduate Group,  has seen firsthand the effects of online learning on staying connected. The ease of collaboration in study groups, for example, is inevitably lost in an online setting, she said.

To help combat this loss of connectivity, the chemistry DUG arranged study groups for introductory classes within the department to accommodate students across time zones, “predominantly first-years,” Meyer said.

Meyer also often recommends to students that they go to office hours, which can serve as smaller meetings that can relieve students of the pressure of speaking in front of a large audience.

“I’ve been encouraging all my students to make a study group. Literally just look for something fun in someone's background of the Zoom and message them about it,” Meyer said. “It really (can form) a lasting relationship.”

Director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning Mary Wright also spoke to the benefit of connecting with other students in study groups. “Often when you’re studying, if you can explain your thinking or teach it to someone else, you’re learning three times as well,” she said. Utilizing Zoom features like the emoji react feature, as well as turning cameras on, can help to simulate the in-person classroom experience. 

In addition, with all schoolwork and activities being remote and accessed through the screen, it can be difficult to distinguish work from home, Meyer said. 

In a normal, non-pandemic year, “I would leave my home, I would work for a certain number of hours and I would come home and do other things,” Meyer said. “I don’t really do that anymore.” 

As such, Meyer believes that right now, practicing self-care — including taking regular breaks, getting enough sleep and not skipping meals — is especially important.

Avery Oliver ’23 said she finds it particularly important to take breaks from her phone, especially since most interactions are now virtual, and uses an app called “Focus Keeper” to maintain good study habits away from the screen. 

“Distance from the work environment is especially important now since it’s harder to separate the two,” Oliver said. She also finds it beneficial to talk to peers and to take walks when she’s not in class.

Virtual learning also presents other challenges. According to Wright, over half of student respondents to a fall 2020 survey expressed that they had trouble finding quiet rooms for class and study spaces to focus. She added that this challenge may be exacerbated for students who are studying entirely remotely and those who may need to balance school work and family obligations.

Many professors have been moving away from assessment-heavy courses, which typically culminate in a final paper or exam, Wright added. Instead, professors have been assigning more evenly spaced quizzes and papers. According to scientific literature, she said, this approach is more beneficial for students, encouraging them to study in “chunks” rather than cramming for a final, along with giving them the ability to pause, rewind and consume recorded course material at their own pace. This allows students to engage more thoughtfully with course material than they may have been able to in prior years, Wright said.

Still, Meyer believes this approach can be overwhelming.

“It seems like there’s always an assignment that pops up that’s new,” she said. “The boundary of when to stop is hazy.”

 Soon, the University will again begin to offer numerous opportunities for small group learning settings, such as meeting with Writing Fellows, offering small group academic tutoring and offering small group peer tutoring.

“Those peer to peer small group learning contexts can be really helpful all of the time, but especially in times like this when you have to learn in socially distanced ways,” Wright said.

The UCS Academic Affairs committee has been working on addressing study concerns by working closely with the University, said Gupta, who has been meeting with Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01. The committee also plans on sending out surveys to gauge student concerns and to increase communication between the University and the student body.

 “Obviously remote learning is not the ideal way for students to engage in their classes,” Gupta said, “but at the same time, students have been willing to accept the circumstances given to them and try to make the most of them even if they are not ideal.”


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