Laptop sitting on desk

How to Be Successful in the Virtual Environment: Part 1

Our Pre-College Program Assistant, Kiran Boone, shares tips and strategies to be successful in the virtual learning environment

Set the scene

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received when it comes to virtual coursework is to set aside a specific place as a daily workspace. For me, that looks like a desk facing one of the walls in my room, with a comfortable chair and all of the notebooks, writing utensils, and other tools I’ll need to get my work done each day laid out and ready to go. For you, it might look like a desk, a kitchen table, a coffee shop table, or anywhere else that you can consistently use as your space. Having a dedicated workspace allows you to get in the mindset of work for the day, so that when you sit down, you feel like you’re prepared to be productive, and you’re not distracted by the places where you would usually watch Netflix, hang out with your family, or sleep. Then, at the end of the day, you can leave that space and feel better able to relax and decompress in those other places, because they aren’t mentally associated with doing work and staying productive. And here’s a bonus tip: when you go to your workspace for the day, wear clothes that you would actually wear to an in-person class, to keep you in the same kind of productive mindset!

Set a schedule

When you’re attending classes and doing work virtually, you might not have the same physical reminders (like a bell ringing or a location change) available to keep you on top of your work. One of the best ways to stay on task is to write out a schedule with the responsibilities you typically have each day of the week. Keep it somewhere that’s clearly visible from your workstation. That way, when you sit down at your desk first thing in the morning or after a lunch break, you know what assignments you could be working on, and when you need to be ready to join a Zoom meeting or turn an assignment in. This kind of preparation helps you use your time and energy more efficiently, so that at the end of the day you have more free time to relax and take some time away from your work. 

Actively engage in your synchronous courses

This piece of advice will be your professors’ favorite. And it’s a favorite of cognitive psychologists, too, who have produced lots of research showing that actively engaging with material leads to better processing of information and better understanding and memory. Many of your professors will have already done the work of setting up opportunities for you to stay involved in class, whether that’s through asking poll questions, giving you small assignments for breakout rooms, or starting class discussions. It’s up to you, then, to engage with those opportunities, and really use them as a chance to learn the material. Keeping your video on during discussions, thinking of how you would answer a question even if someone else is answering first, and handwriting your notes are all great ways to be actively involved in class. You’ll end up feeling a lot more comfortable with the course material when exams and papers come around, and you’ll have gained more from your experience in the program as a whole. 

Stay in sync with asynchronous work 

Asynchronous classes and coursework add a nice level of flexibility to your schedule, but with great flexibility comes great responsibility. It can be tempting to tell yourself that “asynchronous” means that you can get to those assignments whenever you have some spare time, but that mindset can make your weeks more chaotic, as you either procrastinate that work until you “feel like it” or forget you have work left until it’s too late to start. Instead, when you see “asynchronous course,” you should think “choose-your-own-time” - take it as an opportunity to pick a time of day that works best for you, and then commit to tackling that course work at that set time every week. That way, you’re still holding yourself accountable to a routine and making sure you’re getting your work done on time. But the great thing about flexibility is, you really can choose any time that works best - even if that’s 6am or midnight! Having asynchronous course work requires the same discipline as synchronous course work but gives you more independence to determine how to use your time.

Take care of your brain 

Having had three semesters of being a college-student-on-Zoom, I’ve definitely had my share of days where virtual work became exhausting. While it’s amazing to be able to learn so many things from the comfort of your room, it can also be mentally tiring to look at a screen for hours on end. That’s why it’s really important to know how to prioritize mental health and self-care while taking virtual courses. As often as you are able, take a fifteen minute (or longer) break when switching between your classes and coursework, and use that time to do or think about something that brings you calm or joy. For some people, it might help to take a walk around the house, do some stretches, and leave your mind blank as a reset before your next task. For others, it can be great to talk to a family member or friend, just to exercise some social energy and feel reinvigorated by those conversations. Whatever task works best for you, an essential part of mental self-care is being able to step away from work and remind yourself of what makes you happy and calm outside of school, and investing in that part of your life. 

Take care of your body

This piece of advice ties in closely with the last one, because you’ll also need breaks throughout the day to take care of your body. Mental energy and physical energy are closely intertwined, so sitting at your desk all day will tire you out quickly if you don’t take strategic breaks to move, eat, and rest. You could take five minutes here and there to hit a few yoga poses or stretch out your arms and legs, which will help you get out any tension brought on by sitting down for a long time. And if you notice yourself getting unusually sleepy during the day, you might be missing some much-needed carbs and protein! Eating well feeds your brain, too, and you’ve got to make sure that you’re getting your meals and snacks in to keep your mental energy up. And finally, remember to rest - take your sleep seriously, because a bad night’s sleep can leave you foggy and disengaged for the rest of the day, which just leads to more catch-up later. Keeping your body happy helps keep your brain happy, and the right amount of movement, food, and rest each day will help you get the most out of your course experience.  

Kiran is a junior at WashU, majoring in Cognitive Neuroscience and minoring in Russian Language and Literature. She is an active member of WashU Votes and on-campus Christian student groups, and she also works as a teaching assistant for Introduction to Computer Science. In her free time, Kiran loves discovering new music, watching thriller movies, going to the gym, and drinking chai lattes. She hopes to pursue a career that combines her love for all things brain-related with her commitment to social justice and civic engagement.