3 Areas of Focus for Improving Online Learning

While we’re probably best friends with Zoom now that the schooling landscape has changed, we may still be strangers to effective online learning. Things have seemed to progress way faster than we’re used to, and we may feel left behind in the dust. But it’s not too late to learn some skills that we can apply to our learning – even when school eventually goes back to in-person.

A while ago, I was really fortunate to have a one-on-one session with Paula and Chris from the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre (RGASC) at UTM. They shared Strategies for Learning in an Online Environment that I’ve broken down into 3 areas of focus for us to use. Let’s take a look at what they shared with me!

1. Prioritizing Goals

During school, there are opportunities abound that we may wish to take advantage of. This is bad enough for our everyday lives, but is expanded with the addition of online requirements and opportunities. We get a constant barrage of emails, notifications from professors and classmates, and countless readings that just seem to pile up higher and higher. It wasn’t until this year that I started to use the ‘flag’ button on my email to keep track of opportunities that I wanted to pursue – events on topics like career placements, health and mental well-being, social get-togethers with friends… not to mention actual work that needed to be completed!

Google Search: ‘how to get my life back together’

With online schooling, school is even more 24/7 than usual (if that’s possible). Not only are we expected to constantly be ‘on[line]’, but we hardly take breaks for ourselves. This can lead to burnout which is especially tough to overcome when work is so fast paced. RGSAC recommends prioritizing a few goals for your program so that you can focus and avoid burnout.

While we may want to take advantage of many opportunities, Paula mentions that ‘Knowing what you want let’s you say no’. In other words, if you identify your goals ahead of time, you can more easily determine which opportunities are critical and which can wait for another time. Thinking of your program, it’s recommended to identify 3-5 key goals that are crucial, and then to think about opportunities that can support your learning and application of skills, and perhaps even more importantly which to avoid. On a smaller scale, identifying goals for the month or the week may also work well, as it depends on the scope of planning that you’re doing.

“Knowing what you want let’s you say no.”

Paula Karger, RGASC

For example, if a goal of my program is to learn how to communicate effectively in psychological science, then I might look for courses which give me an opportunity to practice my writing and presentation skills. I might prioritize learning about how read research papers and how to effectively convey my knowledge by attending writing and studying workshops. While there may be tons of other interesting courses available, I might have to avoid more theoretical or lecture based courses to achieve this goal. It doesn’t mean I never do those courses though, maybe I can save them for another time (or after I graduate; see Continuing Education; see my gripe about how I wished I did a minor in Classics).

With clear goals in mind, we can then keep focus on these and become more in-tune with what we actually need and like to do vs. what we just think we are supposed to do! This helps us to reduce competition among events and opportunities that are waiting to sap up our time and cognitive resources.

2. Strategies for Online Learning

After identifying some goals, how do we actually achieve them? RGSAC provides some tips for us to use:

  • 1 Use your goals as a ‘lens’ to filter information for your projects
    • How can we make best use of our limited cognitive resources? When attending lecture or combing through readings, it might be best to use our goals to find what is important to us
    • We should look for key points that relate to our goals, (even abstract ideas may be helpful), and note them for future reference
    • In other words, think about how the information you’re receiving is important to you in order to help you focus your attention and make the text/lecture more engaging!
    • (From personal experience, once I start to do this, all of a sudden, there appears loads of information I can use for my own projects! Where did it come from?!)
  • 2 Engage in selective note-taking
    • We’ve all been guilty of highlighting too much text when it comes to reading textbooks… but it’s time to stop if you haven’t done so already
    • It’s tempting to think all information about a concept is important, but we need to be selective in extracting some that are more important than others
HELP
  • Some tips for how to engage in deep encoding:
    • Ask questions before, during, and after you read
    • Annotate and connect portions of text back to yourself (see point 1 above) or other concepts
    • Apply information by testing yourself on review questions (or make your own!)
    • Always ask why and think about the context of what you’re reading (e.g., ‘what does this information mean in relation to key terms in the text, in relation to learning goals for the course’ etc.)
    • Repeat, repeat, repeat!
  • 3 Be interactive
    • While perhaps intimidating at first, engaging with others becomes easier over time
    • Create or find spaces to interact or be with others such as in Zoom chat, group study sessions, course discussion boards, or even in online study rooms!
    • Being interactive helps to keep you engaged, generate new ideas, and is also fun!
    • Story time: Humans are social beings. When I was in undergrad (before Zoom was invented back in the old days), UTSC used to have Webcast so that we could watch lectures later in our own time. Any time I did this I would spend 3x as long watching one lecture because I was distracted and disengaged! However, once I went to class in person, even if I never spoke to anyone, simply being with others in a communal learning environment was enough to help me focus and learn the material. Imagine if I actually interacted more with my peers!

3. Organizing Time

Time management. ‘When you’re in the real world you’re gonna need time management skills, your boss is not going to accept late work or incomplete projects, you’re gonna get fired blah blah blah’. Ok prof, relax. How often have we heard something like this and thought, ‘of course I can manage my time, how else would I be here right now’, but then all of a sudden an assignment due date pops out of nowhere??

Contrary to popular belief (?), I think time management skills are something that require ongoing practice. It’s not like we can attend one seminar on this topic and then just hope we’ll be ok. We have to take time to manage our time! As ironic as this sounds, I’m sure many of your can relate with the increased need to organize our time amid numerous virtual demands and commitments.

One way to do this according to RGASC is called Time Blocking. Because university is often quite unstructured, we may find ourselves spending a lot of time ‘doing nothing’ where we feel like a whole day has passed where we mindlessly answered emails or didn’t really get anything concrete done. Time Blocking helps to create structure and give ourselves permission to do (and not do) certain tasks.

RGASC recommends using an electronic calendar to block off chunks of time in your day for specific tasks depending on their priority. For example, if you have a paper due at the end of the week, you might block off an hour a day to work on it, fitting it around lecture and study times. You can block times for personal tasks as well, such as going to the gym, taking a study break, cooking dinner, or even just loafing on social media. Blocking personal tasks like this may help to reduce guilt because you scheduled a time to do them!

This is the main benefit of Time Blocking; giving ourselves permission to say yes or no to tasks and reducing our guilt for doing or not doing them. If I schedule time to take a break and eat a snack, I don’t need to feel like I’m wasting time because I scheduled it ahead of time! If someone asks me to schedule a meeting and I say no because I don’t have time blocked for that, then I don’t need to feel bad because there’s just no time left in my schedule. Time Blocking gives us structured permission, and allows us to externalize our commitments somewhat (‘It’s the schedule’s fault, sorry!’).

One last thing regarding Time Blocking that the RGASC recommends is to block time for ‘unstructured time’. If we schedule every detail of our lives, although it provides structure and security, we may feel trapped or controlled by the schedule. Giving ourselves permission to freestyle is a good idea because life is messy and we need some time to be messy as well!


Well, wherever you are in your online journey, I hope these 3 areas of focus can be of use to you. As we’ve heard many times, ‘being online sucks’. There’s no doubt that it’s hard to learn online, but we are resilient students who can make the situation work for us. Think of some of the good things that have come out of online learning: we can re-watch lectures if we miss or didn’t understand something the first time around, we can communicate rapidly with the instructor via chat/email, those of us who are shy may benefit from the class chat (I know I have!), and we have many new ways to engage with the material (e.g., polls, group whiteboard function in Zoom, discussion boards) among many others!

So let’s go, let’s work hard, let’s ‘Improvise, Adapt and Overcome’ (Eastwood, 1986)!

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