Maintaining Normalcy While Learning Remotely

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended student plans and disrupted learning routines at campuses across the country, including at William & Mary. Many of us left for Spring Break not realizing we’d be gone the rest of the semester or longer. Now that remote classes have started, it can be a struggle to stay motivated and focused on learning in these new formats and without our usual on-campus inspiration. Here are a few tips that can help you reduce stress, improve productivity, and generally make the most out of this unexpected experience.

1. Create a routine that you can take with you.

A routine doesn’t have to be complicated – it can be as simple as five things you do every day when you wake up or when you go to bed. The idea is to build a practice that can travel with you, so you are able to do it no matter where you are. My portable routine includes waking up early, practicing meditation and yoga, writing down at least one gratitude and goal for the day, and then eating breakfast. I can do this easily at home, in my dorm, in a hotel room, at a friend’s place, and so on. Maintaining a simple routine gives your mind and body a familiar pattern to follow and helps you manage the stress caused by events that are out of your control.

2. Create a dedicated study space.

Claiming a space as your own can be challenging, especially if your living arrangements aren’t conducive to studying, or if you have multiple people in your home working remotely. But even establishing a part-time study space—for example, by setting up the kitchen table as your “desk” for a few hours every day—can make a big impact on your productivity. When we try to study in spaces typically used for sleep or relaxation, we may subject ourselves to an unnecessary emotional muddle. For example, try to avoid working in bed. When I work from my bed, my mind begins to associate that spot with the energy and emotions I feel during work and school, which can make it much harder to unwind and fall asleep in that same bed at night. By separating the spaces, I avoid this emotional overlap and make it easier to be productive in my study space and fall asleep in my bed at night.

3. Minimize distractions and take notes.

Remote learning can be difficult because it often comes with many more distractions than learning in a classroom does – noisy backgrounds, family members interrupting, food, pets, and so on. During an online class session, maximize the browser on your screen so you can’t see other distractions on your computer, use headphones to help block out other sounds, ask family members if they can keep the volume down for the time you are in class, and take notes with a pen and paper so that you can stay focused on the class and not the tabs open on your computer.

4. Take purposeful and regular breaks.

It is easy to end up sitting at your computer or in front of the TV all day when working from home because it can seem like there isn’t much else to do. It is important, however, to take regular breaks from the screen to relax your eyes, muscles, and mind. Use these breaks purposefully: exercise, take a walk outside, play with your pet, or do something creative like knitting, drawing, painting, or writing. The goal is to give your brain regular rest periods throughout the day. A rested brain is better able to retain information. Keeping these breaks purposeful can help you stay energized and motivated to continue your studies.

5. Stay connected and use campus resources.

When we are on campus, our friends, classmates, professors, and campus resources are all nearby and more immediately available. Now that we are studying remotely, we have to take the extra step to reach out to others and seek support. Contact your friends and organize group FaceTime or Zoom calls. Setting a regular time for socializing can help replace the positive energy that used to come from running into friends on campus. In my case, I used to meet a friend every week at the Rec; now we FaceTime each other while exercising.

Many campus resources are also available online. Online appointments are available at the  Writing Resources Center and the Tribe Tutor Zone. The Wellness Center and Counseling Center have created a  Virtual Health & Wellness  page with pre-recorded classes on yoga, meditation, mindful arts, and more. The Office of Academic Advising has created a Studying with Distance Learning resources page, and their professional advisors are available for online appointments. The Dean of Students Office has created a student support page and is available for phone and Zoom meetings. If you’re struggling to keep up with your studies during this pandemic, it is important to ask for help.

Most of these tips can be used any time, not just during this unexpected campus hiatus. Implementing small changes to our daily habits, and staying connected to others, can help us maintain our sense of normalcy wherever life takes us. Stay healthy, W&M!

Have you tried gratitude journaling?

grateful-forScrolling through my social media feeds, I can’t help but notice a sudden burst in pretty twenty-somethings professing themselves to be wellness gurus, promoting some kind of “healthy” practice that “Everyone Should Add To Their Routine!” Things like yoga, meditation, vitamin supplements, and innumerable recipes using organic foods fill my screen. As someone who tries to stay holistically in-tune with her wellness, I like to try a variety of these cool things I’m seeing online. There is one approach that I have found more beneficial than any other—gratitude journaling.

Gratitude journaling is the daily practice of writing down at least one thing you feel grateful for and why. This can take many forms—bullet points, full journal entries based on gratitude-themed prompts, drawings, or photographs with captions. There are many creative possibilities. The goal of this journaling is to create a deep sense of appreciation in one’s life.

In a world with so much inequality and struggle, it is often easy to overlook something as simple as being thankful for warm socks or the way the leaves on your favorite tree change colors. Competitive and academically challenging environments can make it easy to forget to be grateful for internet connection or supportive friends and family. Gratitude journaling focuses the mind on the present and generates a more appreciative view of the world.

There are even some proven benefits to daily gratitude journaling. The University of Minnesota and the University of Florida teamed up for a study in which participants were instructed to write down a list of positive events that occurred throughout their day and why these made them feel happy. At the conclusion of the study, the participants reported lower stress levels and a greater sense of calm at night. Psychotherapist Amy Morin has identified some key benefits of gratitude journaling, such as an improved quality of relationships, physical health, self-esteem, mental strength and resilience, and a decrease in aggression and anger.

Gratitude journaling is something I have come to look forward to every day. By positively focusing on the things that matter to me, no matter how small, I generally feel happier and more content with everything around me. I am more receptive to friends, family, even strangers; and I’m more resilient when faced with uncontrollable, stressful events in life. The physical act of writing down my gratitude helps to permanently capture these important things, and reading back through all these entries is something that brings peace to my life.



Writing Centers Grow Up, Too

writingThe transition from high school into university is a large leap for many: students, parents, teachers, administrators, and, yes, even writing centers. Adjusting to the higher quality of writing and topics in numerous subjects that aren’t found in typical high school papers is a daunting task for both the consultant and the consultee, but it’s a necessary leap in higher education that fosters personal and intellectual growth.

High school is often the first time students encounter a a group of people dedicated solely to helping them improve their writing. But high school writing centers are often not valued to the same extent as writing centers at the university level. When I was a junior in high school, I helped found my county’s first in-school writing center, comprised of about thirty students and one very dedicated advisor.

To be honest, it was very slow-going. First, we had to get the word out that we now existed. Then we had to prove our value. The students had no prior experience with a writing center and were wary not just of our authority, but also of our ability to help. The center was only open during lunch hours, so sessions were crammed into 15- to 30-minute chunks and focused more on quick grammar and punctuation fixes than on content and analysis. More often than not, the only students who came to visit were those who were required to by their teachers.

For me, the biggest adjustment to working in a writing center at the university level has been the significant increase in working with students who come in on their own accord—students who truly want to improve their writing and value the consultant’s perspective. Not only that, but now we have an entire hour to sit down and work through the piece together, which is something that allows for a deeper conversation about the topic and arguments.

What I have found most rewarding, however, is the ability to work with more international students. These sessions pose different challenges for both the writer and the consultant. Working with students from a variety of countries has helped me see writing in an entirely different way—every culture, every language, every person has a unique voice and view of the world, and helping these students develop their ideas in their writing is a very rewarding experience that isn’t found often in a high school setting.

A higher education, especially at a liberal arts university like William & Mary, encourages students to gain a broad perspective on subjects in multiple disciplines. University writing centers have adapted to the different levels and expectations of writing, giving students a place to find support as they grow as writers.