Sep 21, 2020
How to Excel in a Remote Learning Environment

On the last day of classes last spring, after muscling my way through a semester interrupted by a global pandemic, I slammed my laptop shut and sighed in relief. Mid-semester, in what now seems like a chaotic blur, my teachers morphed into fuzzy apparitions on my computer screen and my cozy nook in the library transformed into a cramped, noisy, makeshift office space in the cobweb-ridden basement of my childhood home. But I made it–there I was, closing my laptop screen on the final Zoom class I would ever have to endure.

Oh, the sweet, sweet bliss of ignorance.

Little did I know, with less than a week until classes start this fall, I would be picking up right where I left off in the spring. Admittedly, I’m a little disappointed. I mean, I totally get it—with the coronavirus continuing to put everyone’s health at risk, protecting students and teachers makes perfect sense. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to getting back to normal. The whole doing-college-with-a-dog-barking-in-the-next-room-over thing was getting pretty old, pretty fast. 

Most things are the same this fall, but not everything. Last semester, students and teachers were caught totally off guard with the switch to remote learning. But with almost six months to get used to the new way of doing things, we’re now much better prepared to make remote learning a more positive and productive experience for everyone involved.

To help you excel in a remote learning environment, I’ve spoken to students and teachers and compiled a handful of tips from across the internet. Surely, remote learning will continue to have its challenges. But by accepting this new reality and thinking critically about how you might conquer it, you’ll give yourself a valuable head-start toward thriving in your classes this fall. 

Eliminate distractions

It took me a couple months of remote learning to realize just how many distractions threaten effective studying, and how good the school environment is at limiting those distractions. At home, no one can stop you from whipping out your phone to check basketball scores, turning on the TV to catch The Price is Right or making frequent trips to the fridge—more out of boredom than hunger. But to succeed in remote learning, you have to remember that, for now, your home is also your classroom. During the time you designate for classes and studying, you should hold yourself to the same high standards that you would at school. This means:

-Put your phone away. Out of sight is best. If you need it for class, then consider putting it in airplane mode so the thrills of the internet don’t tempt you.

-Close all unnecessary tabs on your computer. Besides being stressful to look at and difficult to navigate, they can funnel your attention away from the task at hand.

-Try a browser extension that’s made to reduce distractions. True to its name, Stay Focused can help you study by placing time limits and temporary bans on websites that might distract you, like Instagram or BuzzFeed. AdBlock Plus and AdBlock for Youtube eliminate pesky ads from web pages you need for your schoolwork. 

-Reduce unnecessary noise. Some noise might be unavoidable, but if you can use headphones or negotiate quiet times with your family, you’ll be less likely to lose focus. If you prefer a little background noise while you work, try out noises.online to simulate a coffee shop or wherever you like to study.

Stay Connected

During this period of remote learning, you might sometimes feel, well… remote. If you feel alone in your studies, you might eventually lose interest in the subject matter, and your work will suffer. You might not be seeing them as often, but your teachers are still there to help you succeed. What changes in remote learning is the increased need for you to show your teachers that you still care. Adria Alfano, who taught middle school science in Providence for 16 years, said students should reach out to teachers as often as possible. “If students don’t go out of their way to call you, email you or text you, it’s hard to know if they’re not doing their work because they don’t understand, because they don’t want to or because they don’t have the support,” she told me. So, show your teachers that you’re interested in doing well. If your teachers offer live Zoom sessions, try your hardest to attend them. That way, they’ll know to help you as best they can.

Also, communicate with your parents, classmates and friends. For one thing, maintaining these relationships is good for mental health and life in general. But especially during remote learning, talking to peers and loved ones will help you establish a network of accountability for your work. Let them know what you’re learning and what you’re working on so that they can remind and encourage you to stay on top of your deadlines. Show your parents the online platforms you’re using, and set up group chats with classmates to create virtual study sessions. The less alone you feel, the more motivated you’ll be to excel.

Build a study environment that works for you

For most of us, doing school entirely from home is far from ideal. Whether it’s a lack of space or an excess of noise, there are plenty of obstacles that can make remote learning difficult. But the closest you can get to simulating a school environment, the better. Here are some tips:

-Dedicate a space to studying. I’ve always had trouble working in the same places that I eat and sleep. If you can find a corner of your home that you can associate exclusively with studying, you’ll avoid the distractions and temptations of other activities. 

-Make it comfy, but not too comfy. You want to feel relaxed, but not so relaxed that your A’s turn to Zzzz’s. 

-Make agreements with your family about when and where you’re studying. Your family wants you to succeed, so they’ll probably be happy to give you the space and quiet you need.

-Experiment with your study space. Make it your own. The reality is, everyone is different, and no one has all the answers. Try different things—adjust the lighting, change your seating position, sample different noise levels. The best study environment is the one that makes you feel comfortable and ready to work. 

Stay organized

It can be easy to lower your organizational standards at home. No one is necessarily watching when you throw your papers in a heap on your bed or lose track of a project due date. But this reality only makes solid organization even more important. To succeed in remote learning, you’ll need discipline to stay on top of your work and your time. 

-Keep a planner. Try to do it on paper so it doesn’t get lost in the jumble of windows and tabs online. Pencil in every Zoom session and deadline that your teachers announce. But also include specific times to work on assignments and study for quizzes and tests. And hold yourself to those times. True, there’s nothing preventing you from putting off schoolwork for a half an hour. But that half hour becomes a full hour, then three hours, then never. As Adria noted, “once you’re at home and you miss something, it kind of piles up quickly.” 

-Keep a folder for each class. You might have teachers that take a completely different approach to remote learning, making it hard to remember which one wants which thing. Maintaining separate spaces for each class, whether with paper or digital folders, will help you keep track of your materials and stay up-to-date with each teacher’s assignments.

-Set goals. By day, by week, by month. Clearly stating what you want done and when will help your short-term and long-term plans come to fruition without any last-minute panic.

-Organize your time to maximize productivity. When I don’t have anywhere I have to be at a given time, I can waste a lot of time convincing myself that later is just as good as now. Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time each day. Try out the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in 25-minute spurts separated by five-minute breaks. By simulating the regimented structure of a school day, you’ll get more done in a faster amount of time, rather than half-heartedly stabbing at work until 2 a.m. Predictability and consistency is key.

Stay Positive

However this semester or school year goes, it will not be the end of the world. It will not cancel your future. Colleges and employers look for applicants who are adaptable, flexible and tech-savvy. If getting through this moment doesn’t prove those characteristics, I don’t know what will. Look at the bigger picture, and take a deep breath. You will be okay. 

Take care of yourself

Let’s admit it. Things could be going better. I hope I’ve shown that remote learning is doable, but it will be hard. Now more than ever, it’s important to prioritize your mental and physical health. Spending hours and hours online isn’t healthy. So, if and when you can, go outside. Take a walk. I’ve always turned to basketball to release my energy and clear my mind for a little while. Find what works for you—dancing, singing, weightlifting, crocheting, whatever. When you find yourself in a rut, talk to someone. And look out for the people you care about. All of us—students, siblings, parents, friends, teachers—could use a little empathy right now. Patience, determination, and a commitment to ourselves and our loved ones will make remote living and learning an easier pill to swallow.

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Thomas Patti

Thomas is an undergraduate student at Brown University currently studying environmental science. These fields have let him combine his interests in nonfiction writing, wildlife conservation and natural history—all while taking courses from the hundred other subjects that fascinate him. He loves watching birds and playing basketball in his spare time.