Why Online Learning is so Hard and How You Can Make it Easier

Spring 2020 saw a sudden shift to remote learning. You didn’t ask for your classes to all be online. You may even find everything feels harder, you have no motivation and you don’t know how you’re going to make it through more semesters like this. In this blog, I outline five reasons why switching to online learning is hard for you and how you can make it a little easier.

1) The workload feels more intense. I have heard from student after student that teachers are assigning more work to make up for everything moving online. This is both accurate and inaccurate at the same time. I believe that some professors early in Spring 2020 definitely assigned more work since the in-person lectures were disappearing and there wasn’t enough time to scrape together decent online ones. There might even be a few that are still doing this, so ask around and see what other students are saying about specific professors to plan for this. However, many professors are not actually assigning more work; they are breaking down assignments and tasks into smaller components. This article offers more insight on your professors’ mindset when creating assignments.

Research on teaching and learning shows us that having smaller assignments, worth less points (lower stakes), and spreading out deadlines is beneficial for students. Many professors are now utilizing this tactic, not to increase your workload, but to minimize it. They are trying to break assignments down for a few reasons: (1) it allows you to spread out deadlines to help maintain your workload and motivation, (2) lower stakes assignments are supposed to be better for anxiety and even a little depression, and (3) it prevents you from having to do several large assignments all at the same time. The intentions behind this are good, but it seems it might be doing more harm than good as students feel that this is just more “busy work”.

What to do about it. You need to reframe your thinking to make it easier. Try to realize the intentions behind the newer assignments. It is not to create busy work, but to break your assignments down to make them more manageable. Even if this result is not achieved for you personally, try to reframe the way you think about these assignments. They are practice. You wouldn’t play in the NBA Finals, the World Cup or the Super bowl without lots and lots of practice right? Would you really play one game and then enter the finals? No! Same goes with learning. You can’t just take one test or do one large assignment then take the final expect to either do well or learn long term. Your professors are spreading out assignments to give you more retrieval practice to help you truly learn.

2) Your motivation and preparation have to change. This brings me to my second point. Sitting in a lecture listening to the professor talk for an hour is what’s called passive learning. It feels so much easier and therefore is often preferred by students. However, it’s also been shown to be less effective than more active learning, where you have to retrieve information and play around with it. Online learning feels more difficult because it requires more active learning. This actually can make it more effective than lectures, but also more difficult and can make you feel like you’re teaching yourself.

What to do about it. So how do you train yourself to like this form of learning. Change your motivation. Stop thinking of it as teaching yourself. Trust me your professor is still putting in a lot more hours into the course each week to make sure you have a secure scaffold to learn all that you need to learn. When you think of it as your teacher providing the scaffolding and experience, and you filling in the learning, you can start to see that you are learning at a deeper level than you were before. You’re also learning how to learn outside of the classroom which is a valuable skill in your future career. Real learning is hard and effortful. There are more reasons than this to the stress you feel, but part of it is because you are starting to learn at deeper levels and that is depleting your cognitive load and making you feel more tired and stressed. Take it for what it is, deeper learning and you can gain some, even if just a little, motivation back.

Also, be wary of motivation, it is a fickle thing. You won’t always have it. Even when you’re in your dream job you won’t have motivation most days. You have to build habits that keep you going when your motivation is low. This is where planning comes into play. Plan everything! I mean everything. Assignments, reading times, study times, exams, quizzes, lunch, dinner, Netflix binge watching, Zoom time with friends, whatever it is, plan it all out. Get a calendar a planner, sticky notes, whatever and write down all your due dates. Then write them a week ahead of time as a reminder to get started so you don’t miss the deadline. Set reminders in your phone. Keep to the schedule. Think of all your events as immutable like a class time that you can’t move. This will help you stick to getting things done even when you are not motivated. Use the pomodoro technique to time yourself and give yourself much need breaks to help carry through.

3) You didn’t ask for online learning. Probably the biggest barrier to online learning right now is that you didn’t ask to be doing all your classes this way. This creates a mental block where you don’t want to do it. Completely understandable. But if you’ve decided to keep going, then we’ve got to find a way to get you through.

What to do about it. This one’s tough. The only real way to change this one is to reframe your thinking. We know you didn’t ask for this, but unfortunately this is what you’re stuck with for now. Think of it as a challenge to overcome, a new skill to put on your resume, a sign of your resiliency, adaptability, and strong work ethic. All of these things will be great to talk to future employers about during interviews or in cover letters. Think about how you’d like to frame this story, your story, when we finally come out on the other side. Try to shape the story in that light.

4) Not all classes are the same. I can’t imagine having 5 different bosses with 5 different expectations of my role. That is exactly what is happening to you. Each class is structured completely differently, requires different technology, and has different expectations. This was already true when classes were mostly in-person, but is heightened now. Part of the reason is because some professors are trying to mimic in-person learning, some have switched completely to an online format, and others are just trying to figure it out and stay one-step ahead of you students. Whatever the reason, it is hard for you.

What to do about it. This is where the planning comes back into play along with reverse engineering the course. At the beginning of the semester sit down with each syllabus from each course. Plan deadlines and due dates. Write them on your calendar. Again, write them one week or month ahead of time so you remind yourself to start it before it’s due. Then think about the course structure and try to reverse engineer it. Each instructor carefully, and painstakingly, plans every detail about the course for your learning. Is it synchronous (live Zoom sessions) or asynchronous (at your own pace). These tap into different requirements, different expectations. How many assignments are there? What are they about? What are the learning objectives? How does each assignment/quiz/exam tap into specific learning objectives? All of this will give you a sense of what the professor wants you to learn, and if you can figure out what they want you to learn you can deliver that. Most professors will lay out exactly what it takes to succeed in their syllabus. It is up to you to take the time to figure that out and then plan ahead to build the habits that allow you to achieve that.

5) It's a Pandemic! A last note. You are doing all of this in the middle of a pandemic! That’s not even mentioning the political climate of our country and everything else you may be going through. This past year, and most likely the year to come, are stressful. They are stressful for us “adults” who have had more time to prepare, they are certainly stressful for you. A large part of why this is so hard has nothing to do with online vs. in-person learning, it’s that you are anxious and stressed because you are living in a freaking pandemic! Give yourself some credit for making it this far. Students today should seriously be given awards at graduation for surviving and even thriving during this time. You are doing amazing. Remember that you can still have a good college experience right now, even if it is different from the one you had planned. You may have to focus on new things (networking online, finding different types of experiences, planning more than usual), but you are still learning and still growing and that is the point of college.

Please comment below and ask questions if you are looking for more specific advice. Good luck!

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