School, Student Life

Tips for a Successful Online Semester

Back to school season is going to look a little different this fall. For some, learning at home in your pajamas with a fresh pot of coffee waiting in the kitchen might sound like bliss. However, there are also unique challenges that come with transitioning to online learning that can make it difficult to find focus and be productive — especially when you have young children to care for. To help with this shift to online classes, we’re sharing our tips on preparing for a successful online semester.

Create Your Ideal Study Environment

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We’ve discussed the importance of having a dedicated space at home for work in a previous blog post, but this is just as important when creating a suitable environment for online learning. When you sit in the same chair or at the same table while you study, your brain begins to recognize that when you are in that space it’s time to focus and be productive. Moreover, sitting in the same space while you work or study can act as a signal to young children that when you are in that space, you should not be disturbed. Even if you do not have the space for a makeshift home office, there are other methods you can use to create an effective study environment.

  • Find something to listen to — for you, and for your kids. Research suggests strong connections between music and memory. Some studies have even recommended students listen to the same music they listened to while reading over their notes before taking an exam in order to jog their memories. For those who find music or lyrics distracting, a good alternative is a white noise generator. You might not be able to go to an actual coffee shop, but you can brew your own cup and use this white noise generator to simulate the experience and encourage focus. Another option is this free ambient mixer, which offers a number of soothing soundscapes including calming rainstorms, quiet libraries, and rooms inspired from your favourite books and movies to drown out the noise of your family at home. Finally, for student parents who work best in quiet, you might consider scheduling your children’s screen time during your own study time. While your kids use headphones to watch TV, listen to their own music, or play video games, you’ll have the silence you need to focus on your lecture.
  • Consider taking calls and meetings while on a neighborhood walk. If you’re someone who finds it helpful to pace while on the phone in order to focus, you might want to try taking group meetings or even listening to a lecture while on a walk around your neighborhood. Not only will you get some much needed fresh air, but you’ll finally be able to hear yourself think without your children asking you a question every five minutes. Make sure to take a notepad or a phone with you to jot down any important thoughts you might have!
  • Ensure you have the right tools to succeed. A quiet place to focus, a dependable WiFi connection, and a device with internet access will be important for this upcoming semester. If you do not have access to a laptop, certain libraries at the University of Toronto offer computer and wifi access within current public health requirements, which you can find more information about at this link. Students are currently able to book one 3-hour session at a library computer up to 24 hours in advance.

Find a Schedule that Works for You

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Online and offline, creating a schedule is an integral step in following through with your personal, academic, and career goals. However, as parents of young children, you know that schedules don’t always go according to plan, and should therefore be flexible enough to accommodate your family’s needs.

  • Set up routines instead of schedules. Not only will this help you carve out time to work, but establishing a new routine at home can help bring a sense of normalcy to your children’s lives. For instance, you might plan to study while your child’s favourite TV show airs, during a pre-planned video call with one of their friends, or while your child is playing outside. Instead of feeling stressed about sticking to a rigid schedule, using simple routines can allow you some flexibility while helping your kids understand that there are certain times of day where you are unavailable to play with them. Telling your child that you’ll play with them after their movie is over can be more digestible than telling them you need two uninterrupted hours to work!
  • Plan special events during your study time. Consider only allowing your children to play with a special toy or game while you’re studying in order to incentivize them to give them the time you need to complete your work.  Eventually, your kids will come to associate these special activities with your study time and learn to look forward to this time of day.
  • Share the responsibility. If you have a partner at home, consider taking the child caring responsibilities in shifts. At the start of each day or week, you can organize your calendars together to make sure that one person can look after the kids while the other is on a call or in an online meeting. Try to make sure you each have a couple of uninterrupted hours where you can focus and be present while you study or work.
  • Think ahead to exam season. While it may seem far away now, it’s important to make plans for exam season before you get swept up in assignments and midterms. Make sure you have back-up plans for childminding in case your original plans go awry. 

Succeed in Online Classes

When it comes to online learning, it can be difficult to find the discipline to sit down and actually work. Here are some tips on how to make online courses feel like “real” in-person classes.

  • Coordinate study groups. Online or off, study groups are a great way to exchange ideas, discuss texts, or even swap parenting tips with fellow student parents. Differing time zones and conflicting schedules can make it hard to organize one big group Zoom call, but a group chat is a perfect alternative. You’ll be able to contribute to the group and catch up with your peers on your own time while sticking to your own family’s schedule.
  • Set clear expectations with your instructors. Be honest with your instructors about your ability to learn and perform academic work in an online environment. While you do not need to share the details of your personal life, it is important to be specific about the issues you are facing and to offer clear suggestions for alternatives. For instance, you might be concerned that a “real time” presentation might be disrupted by your children and offer a written paper instead. 
  • Be honest about your availability for group projects. Rather than playing catch-up with day-to-day conversations about a group project, set a schedule for meetings in advance in order to help organize your time with any support you have at home.
  • During lectures, if you have a young child who wants to sit on your lap, try taping some paper to the table in front of your computer. You can move your computer far back so that you can still reach it, and let your child colour and draw on the paper on the table. They can still be with you, quietly colouring, while you type or listen to a lecture!

Students around the world are changing the way they study due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Though remote learning can feel lonely, take comfort in the fact that many students are experiencing the same challenges you might be. If you are struggling, the My Student Support Program (My SSP) provides University of Toronto students with immediate and/or ongoing confidential, 24-hour support for any school, health, or general life concern at no cost to students. Additionally, many student life services at the University of Toronto remain open and available for consultations via telephone or video call.

For more information and advice on learning at home while managing family obligations, we encourage you to check out this helpful guide.