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10 Suggestions for Student Success when Learning Remotely

Call it distance learning. Call it online learning. Call it pandemic-based instruction. Whatever you call it there is a very, very good chance that students across this country will be continuing with it this fall.

During our nationwide spring experiment there has been almost no time to be reflective or to develop and improve out distance-based practices. But now with “summer” upon us (and yes, I did put that into quotes on purpose) we may be able to take a little time to catch our breath and think about not just what worked, but also how to make the next go-around even better.

In preparation for this fall, I’m in the process of authoring a Guide to Digital Learning which will be released in the near future. Hopefully. It kinda depends on if any other apocalyptic events derail me in the near future.

The following list is an excerpt that has been compiled from multiple sources; university studies, business school journals, and survey information from students themselves.


In the meantime, here is what you should think about when preparing your students for "round two" of distance learning;

1) Have a routine and stick to it

Wake up, get dressed, have breakfast, shower. Although you might be working at home where the dress code is “looser”, you need to make sure that you transition from your home-self to your work-self in order to be focused and productive. Prof. Blake Ashford from Arizona State University calls this “boundary crossing” and says research shows that people who transition into and out of school or work through a routine are more successful and productive.

2) Be aware of your “magic hours”

Study after study shows that most people have between 2.5 and 4 hours of “magic time” where they are at their most productive. After that, productivity and quality begins to decline slowly. This means two things; first recognize that you have about 3 hours of high-productivity work time before you’ll have to struggle to focus. Second, you will probably have to work past your “magic hours” most days, meaning you should prioritize harder and more important tasks before you adapt your approach to work in order to ensure the best circumstances for finishing strong.

3) Plan your breaks ahead of time

Don’t be spontaneous with your breaks, instead plan them out ahead of time and stick to that commitment. Productivity expert Daniel Pink recommends that you plan breaks that are no longer than 10-15 minutes at least twice within your work day in addition to whatever lunch break you give yourself. But don’t take out your phone or fire up Netflix. He goes on to say that the most regenerative breaks involve movement outside of the work area or breaks that are social. You should also try to change-up your setting. If you have been in front of your computer for a long while, consider a walk outside. Lastly, be strategic about where you plan breaks remembering what we said about “magic hours”. Shoot for a first break at around the three-hour mark, then a second one soon after to help ameliorate “the post-magic hour" slide.

4) Stay caught up

Staying onto of your workload is important, perhaps even key. In our student distance learning survey the most frequently mentioned success factor cited by our students was avoiding procrastination. Things you don’t complete on Monday become part of Tuesday’s work and get heaped on to the new work that is assigned for the day. If this pattern repeats itself too much you’ll fall victim to “cumulative workload effect” also knows as "the snowball effect" where the pile of carry-over work becomes larger and larger until you are crushed under the weight and have no choice but to spend hours past your regular school hours digging yourself out. As much as possible don’t procrastinate. If things begin to pile up, make a plan to address them before the “snowball” gets too large.

5) Plan ahead

When considering what to do with your time or how best to spend it, look at weekly the overviews or work you have been assigned and figure out where the “busy days” are going to be. You can leverage less busy days as times to catch up or to push flexible deadlines out strategically. Keeping your own calendar or “to-do” list is also key. Paper calendars, online organizers, or a bunch of post-it’s are all popular systems. Pick one that works for you and stick with it.

6) Create a workspace

Take some time to consider where you will be working and what you want this location to look like. There is a ton of research that shows that being smart about your work environment is an easy way to boost your productivity;

- Customizing your workspace and making it your own boosts productivity by more than a third according to a 2010 study conducted in London.

- Try to find a window that looks out on a natural area or get yourself a plant. Study after study links plants, trees, and other natural phenomena to better recovery from focus-demanding tasks and lower stress.

- If you have one, invite your pet into your working space. The stress-reducing effects of pets are so well documented that Harvard set up a program that allows students to check out puppies from the library during finals week.

- Consider a standing desk or stand in your workspace, at least for part of your day. Studies show standing helps you focus and it also helps you stay healthier!

Above all, your workspace should be just that; a place for you to work. It is not a place for you to sleep, a place to eat, or a place to game. And NEVER work in your bed. Studies have shown that it actually leads to worse-quality sleep and the feeling that your school will never end!

7) Minimize social distractions

Ultimately, YOU are the biggest deciding factor in how well your experience with distance learning is going to go, but your family plays a supporting role. Make sure that your family realizes that when you are in your work space, you should be treated like you are at school – meaning they should act like you are not there at all. No, you cannot help put away the dishes. No, you can’t watch your little sister while they run a quick errand. They should respect your your boundaries. And yes, feel free to use this to your advantage ("Sorry mom, i'd love to take out the trash, but you don't want me to fail, do you?") If this isn’t easy or reasonable, ask that they plan ahead with you so that you can find a time within your day to “boundary cross” back into family life for them.

8) Actively ward off all electronic distractions

Technology is a wonderful tool and when used properly it can help simplify and enrich your life. But in the end, it is a tool, and it's only helpful if you use it correctly. A hammer can be used to build a bridge or smash a window, so ultimately, it is up to you how constructive or destructive any tool is when placed in your hands. Set yourself up for success as much as possible by creating circumstances that lead to the productive, non-distracted use of technology tools. If you find yourself unable to stop texting form your phone, place it in a charger on another floor or in another room. If you can’t stop watching cat videos, try using “web minders” or other filtering apps that will help you remain focused and manage your online activity. Strict Workflow is a great add-on for Chrome while Self-Control is a free app for Mac that professionals use to remove the siren’s call of the internet.

9) Choose to engage

A study by Louisiana State University showed that students who spent more time being engaged in “high-touch” behaviors had better final grades in online courses. Simply put, the more questions you ask, the more emails you send to your teacher, and the more time you spend participating in online video chats will translate to better grades. Don’t “phone in” your work or look for the easy ways out of your school-related responsibilities. Just like a gardener, the more time you put in the better the end results will be.

10) Shift gears at the end of your day to refresh and recharge

Spending an entire day in front of a screen is exhausting, and studies have shown that being in online classes all day is even more exhausting. So, when you’re done, be done. Walk away from your “workspace” and stay away. “Boundary cross” back to your home and family life. Find activities or pursuits separate from school, especially when they involve modalities or environments outside of computers or screens. This complete reversal of activity is called “The 180 Principle” and following it will leave you refreshed and recharged for the next day.

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