As it begins to feel more and more like we’re heading towards a second lockdown (“£10,000 fine 'for leaving house' and 'new Covid clampdown’”), people everywhere are preparing for another go at remote learning. The content of class is no different: the cycle of taking notes, memorising them, and revising them remains the same. The added difficulty with remote learning is one’s environment, which will be the focus of this article. With the advantage of knowing what likely lies ahead, which important lessons should we keep in mind to excel at university at a distance?
There’s no doubt a spatial and temporal blur often comes with learning from home: you can no longer “switch off” after a long day as you might’ve in the past; the days and weeks blend into one another, and time that should be for leisure can feel permeated by work (and vice versa).
Keeping a routine is the first step in avoiding the downsides of flexible learning. Getting showered and dressed in the morning is an obvious start, as is trying to emulate the schedule you would have if we weren’t in a pandemic, but what people struggle with most is intrusions: whether that be from friends and family or online. In order for your routine to work and your space to be guarded from distractions, ensure your flatmates know your working hours, and make sure you yourself stick to them. It may seem self-centred or even narcissistic, but sharing your goals and your progress makes you much more likely to achieve them, so you may want to not only tell people how long you’ll be busy for, but add what you’re hoping to achieve in that span of time.
We don’t all have the privilege of having a separate workspace at our fingertips, but there are steps one can take to create the best learning environment, even when it is where we have to wind-down and relax. I personally make a very simple switch (literally) between two different types of lighting. When it’s time to get work done, I’ll flick on the bright, neon light, and reserve my softer, orange lamp for offtime. It’s simple, instant, and gratifying. Similarly, keeping your space clean and tidy is certainly more difficult when you’re cooped up, but studies by Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute have shown that constant visual reminders of disorganization and messiness “drain our cognitive resources and reduce our ability to focus”, whereas clearing clutter before work boosts productivity.
When trying to avoid cabin-fever, going for a run, doing a home-workout or getting some sunlight works miracles, and it also has work-related benefits whether those be cognitive, to do with rational decision making, or even recalling your notes [link exercise article?].
Importantly and controversially, you mustn’t forget we are in a global pandemic. Yes, this will be the new normal for a while, but don’t be too harsh on yourself, particularly if your work conditions are sub-optimal. A great way to regain perspective is to keep in the loop with people who are on the same course as you.
“Watercooler conversations. Proper bants. The boss’s jokes”: unlike that viral Dettol advert, we need not romanticise mundane tasks of “life when normal” to recognise that small interactions and a sense of community can help us avoid feeling submerged and lost when the going gets tough.
When attendance isn’t possible, you can’t completely give up on all peer-to-peer exchange. This shouldn’t limit itself to keeping in touch with your friends (which is of course a necessity for mental health reasons: avoiding loneliness, checking in from time to time, etc.) but extend to those who are aiming for the same academic or work goals as you.
Coursemates and colleagues are also having to cope with many of the same challenges and can give you points of reference as to how they’re managing, and in turn how you’re managing. This also means you don’t simply reduce each other to shallow online personas, which can be wholly off-putting and make classes seem optional (after all, they aren’t really human, are they?). This is not to say everyone should take part in the Friday Faculty-led Quiz, which, although a welcome distraction, doesn’t necessarily enable connections. It is easier to build a sense of community in smaller groups, which are also practically easier to set-up, of course. Texting someone you last spoke to during freshers, but who now finds themselves in your tutorial group may seem daunting, but most people recognise that these times require more reaching out as “chance encounters” become increasingly difficult.
No one knows how long this might go on for, so why not get used to the idea you’re going to have to meet new people online, and work as a team, even though beginnings may be awkward now?
Lastly, remember that the right mindset can get you through anything and achieve you anything. Don't succumb to self-doubt and remind yourself that you are capable of doing everything you want and need. Just have a little belief and don't overthink the process.
1. Staff, “The Papers”, BBC News on 22/09/2020 available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-the-papers-54221862.
2. May, Waring, Rodrigues, Oleski, Olendzki, Evans, Carey, Pagoto, “Weight loss support seeking on twitter: the impact of weight on follow back rates and interactions”, Translational Behavioral Medicine, 7, 1 on 03/20, pp.84-91.
3. Sander, “The Case for Finally Cleaning Your Desk”, Harvard Business Review on 25/03/2020 available at https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-case-for-finally-cleaning-your-desk.
4. Andrews, “Office workers ruthlessly mock new 'Back to work' ad by Dettol”, Daily Mirror on 03/09/2020 available at https://www.mirror.co.uk/money/office-workers-ruthlessly-mock-new-22624094.