Q. I go back for my second year of college in August. My school is offering an online option as well as in-person instruction. I don’t typically learn well online. I prefer face-to-face interaction with my professors. But, I’m worried about my dad. He has several health conditions, including just finishing a round of chemo for cancer. Both my parents are older. I think I should live at home, save money from room and board, and take the semester virtually. I can then help my mom and dad physically distance and minimize their exposure to the outside world. Do you have any suggestions for learning online? I made it through the last semester with a 4.0, so it’s obvious I can do it. How do I do it well? – Almost 20

Mary Jo’s response: I admire your ability to make such a challenging decision. Your concern for your parents’ well-being is admirable, and your commitment to your education will help your personal growth. Making an other-directed choice takes maturity and courage.

You are obviously a person of worth; I am certain you will achieve academic success. Here are a few tips to help you make this semester count:

Attitude: One of my life philosophies deals with how we react to tough situations. You cannot change the pandemic but you can decide how to react to it. We often feel powerless. We cannot change a difficult medical diagnosis or the loss of a loved one. We can decide how we will react to the challenge. Start each day determined to make the best of it. Treat your online course like a “real” course on campus.

Study space: When you attend a class on campus, you prepare for class, walk to your class, and enter an educational environment. Creating a space conducive for learning is important in a virtual learning experience. Find as private a place as possible, take time to dress and make yourself presentable (although you can remain in your pjs – which isn’t all that different from my college students’ attire on campus!). Surround yourself with good light and minimal distraction. When my college abruptly closed due to the pandemic, one of my students was an exchange student. Her country’s borders closed. She had to leave campus but was fortunate to find temporary lodging with a local family. The family had small children; my student created a learning space in the back of a walk-in closet!

Internet access: Plan ahead by checking your internet connection, your computer or tablet, and your microphone. Nothing is more distracting than speaking in an online class and sounding as if you’re under water. Back up all your work. Use a service like Dropbox or One Drive to protect your assignments. Glitches happen. Spending hours on a paper for class and finding the file corrupted can be discouraging. Make copies and place them in files in separate locations. Make sure you have a reliable contact for your instructor and tech support. Check in with your professor and prepare for sudden changes.

Create a plan: Use your syllabus to create a plan for learning. Make a schedule. Online learning needs structure. Write your assignments on a calendar. Get organized. Avoid procrastination. If you wait until the last minute to work on an important paper and a storm knocks out your internet, you’re in trouble. Discipline yourself to work ahead. Create “to do” lists and check off your accomplishments.

Time management: While distraction on campus can be real, self-motivation during an online course is key. If your professor holds regularly zoom or Skype-type meetings, treat them as you would a class and prioritize time to attend. Do not schedule conflicts around those times. If you are interacting with a professor by email or in a virtual setting, but not face-to-face, set aside time every day to be “in class.” Set times for learning instead of studying as an afterthought.

Participate: If your class has an online forum or discussion board, actively contribute. Make comments to your professor and classmates. Seek outside research on a discussion topic. Be excited about learning. Take responsibility for your contribution. Build relationships with other students. Network. The more you give to an online experience, the more you will gain.

Ask for help: Most professors teaching online courses are accessible. Connect as soon as you feel yourself falling behind. A good professor wants you to succeed; a great one creates a relationship with students. Take advantage of call-in times or tutoring. Speak up. Don’t wait until an hour before an assignment is due to ask questions or clarify the syllabus. Take the initiative.

Discover your strengths and weaknesses: Each of us learns differently. One of my fellow students in my graduate cohort was an auditory learner. She read the text aloud, recorded it, and played back key sections while studying. You may need routine. Make a hot beverage, boot up your playlist for studying, get in your zone and focus.

Stay connected: We are social beings. Your mental health is important. Connect virtually with college friends as well as old friends from home. Set aside times to socialize. Take the time to support others and ask for support when you need it. It’s OK to admit this is tough. It’s OK to be discouraged. Seek help.

Online learning is a wonderful way to achieve academic success and soak up knowledge without leaving the comfort of your home. Approach your online classes with the same vigor and commitment you would bring to a class on campus. Remember, this too shall pass. Take this semester a day at a time. You’ve got this! Good luck.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email podmj@healthyteens.com.

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