Ten-step survival guide: Navigating university online classes


As an Online Course veteran, I want to offer some of the lessons I learned the hard way, so that you don’t have to!

Geneva, Switzerland — University students are taking online classes to adapt to a COVID-19 context. For many, the global surge of E-Learning comes with uncertainties and heaps of discomfort. Is this worth the tuition? Is it manageable? Would I just be self-teaching?

These are valid concerns, especially since online classes come with a steep learning curve that can get in the way of students’ performance. No one deserves to do less than their best because they’re still struggling to use the online classroom as coursework piles up.

As an Online Course veteran, I want to offer some of the lessons I learned the hard way, so that you don’t have to!

  • Taking remote or “hybrid” classes
  1. Battle of the Time Zones
  2. E-Friends
  • Using Online Learning platforms
  1. Read the syllabus
  2. Click on everything
  3. Make a flexible study schedule
  4. Spread out the load
  5. Modules will save your study life
  6. Discussions matter
  7. Make a connection
  8. What to do if you get stuck

Taking remote or “hybrid” classes (i.e. live classes via Zoom)

Depending on who you ask, this is either a million times better or a million times worse than taking classes on an online learning portal. For me – it was a mix of both.

  1. BATTLE OF THE TIME ZONES. The biggest evil of remote learning was battling time zones.  I took St. Louis-based classes from Geneva, so sometimes I would have class from 12 A.M to 4 A.M. Even if the time difference is only one hour, you need to be organised and try not to miss out for the wrong reasons. Wear two watches! Set alarms! Ask friends to check up!
  2. E-FRIENDS. The best thing about remote learning is that you can still befriend your peers organically. I made great friends by dropping messages in the chat box of Zoom. It helps to have someone to gossip with or be your study buddy if you need it.

Using Online Learning Portals (i.e. Webster’s WorldClassroom)

Before you start, download the smartphone version of your Online Classroom to stay alert! Then…

  1. READ THE SYLLABUS. At the beginning of term, go through all of your course syllabi. No – it’s not good fun. It’s the equivalent of actually reading the Terms and Conditions, which no one ever does. But, it’s necessary. You need to know what is expected of you; plus, some professors hide easter eggs in the syllabus. Once I got extra credit points for finding one!
  2. CLICK ON EVERYTHING. Each professor uses the Online Classroom differently. Some put rubrics in files, some put participation in assignments, others put participation in discussion boards, some use the chat box, others use announcements… At the end of the day, you have to be prepared to adapt. Click on every function of the classroom to make sure you have a sense of how to navigate your course.
  3. MAKE A FLEXIBLE STUDY SCHEDULE. You’re probably taking online classes from home. That means the dog might need walking, your mom might need help running an errand, the postman might need a package signed – there are so many potential distractions. So, a schedule in permanent marker is bound to fail. Write your schedules in pencil – have weekly goals and suggest when you might complete those, but do yourself a favour by accepting that it’s not going to be set in stone.
  4. SPREAD OUT THE LOAD. In-person classes are attendance, readings, assignments, and exams. Online classes have many more faces. On top of readings, assignments, and exams, you have initial discussions, follow-ups, and the actual course content to get through on your own. When you’re making the study schedule (which you definitely should do), map out each of those components to have targeted goals.
  5. MODULES WILL SAVE YOUR STUDY LIFE. In every online class I’ve had, the Modules function is the single best way for me to orient myself around the classroom. Each lecture slide is divided up by headings, instead being divided by week on Home or Pages. That makes everything more accessible and will allow you to skip quickly to the section you need.
  6. DISCUSSIONS MATTER. In online classes, the points you win (or lose) in participation will swing your grade completely. This is the area of online classes I struggle with the most. The way online participation is structured demands your constant attention: most classes require an initial post early during the week and multiple follow up posts later on, so you can’t leave anything to the last minute. If you’re one day late on your post or you send too few follow-ups, you’re missing valuable points that will affect your grade. So, read the darn syllabus to know what you need to do!
  7. MAKE A CONNECTION. The social aspect of taking classes might seem impossible to recreate in an online environment. I’m not going to lie – it’s not something that happens organically, but it can still happen. Always address your peers by name when you participate in discussions, and engage in ongoing conversation with students whose discussions interest you. Plus, add some personality to your discussions with small supportive comments or just giving a thumbs up to students’ participation on top of the more substantial posts you’ll have to make for full credit.
  8. WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET STUCK. Frankly, staring at a screen can become really repetitive. Your back will hurt, your eyes might start to fail you, things start becoming exhausting and you might find yourself in a rut or worse – a burnout. Especially during this academic year, the mental load might be overwhelming. Seek support from your academic advisor or speak to empathetic professors directly.

Find ways to break up the monotony of staring at your screen; create firm boundaries between academic screen time and personal screen time; do your part in desaturating your life from screens by occasionally taking time off social media or opting for podcasts instead of videos and graphics to give yourself a well-deserved break. Study methods that also help with these totally understandable mental blocks include free writing and the pomodoro technique (Google them – they really help).

Some students will have chosen to take online classes, for others it might have been an unexpected safety net because of the current state of the world. Whatever your situation is, I hope that you can make the most out of it and have the means to follow these courses effectively. On a final note, I just want to say that although it may seem daunting and unprecedented to take all your classes online, it’s a really privileged opportunity. And, I guess it is what it is! Go on and make the most of it, I’m cheering you on from a great distance.

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Yasmin Mehboob-Khan
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