Tips for Navigating an Online School Year

Hello reader! Welcome to the first Macademics blog post for the 2020–2021 year. As an MSU service, we strive to recognize teaching excellence, promote accessibility of academic resources, and share pedagogical research with the McMaster community. Keep an eye out for informative blog posts on Medium throughout the year!

Although we have reached the halfway point of the fall semester, we recognize that adjusting to a virtual learning environment is an ongoing challenge. As such, this article provides some tips for navigating an online school year! Our advice is based on published, peer-reviewed research. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the references at the end of this post.

1. Treat your online courses just like you would if they were in-person

If you have live lectures for any of your courses, try your best to attend them at the scheduled time. While it may be difficult to wake up for an early morning class, it can often feel even more difficult to catch up on a lesson later.

If you are unable to attend a lecture at its scheduled time, it’s not the end of the world. To avoid and falling behind, try your best to review the lecture content on the same day that it was covered. That way, you will be able to attend the next lecture without worrying about catching up. In other words, do not procrastinate!

Is procrastination really that big of a deal? I still manage to get my work done…

Research has repeatedly shown that “benefits” of procrastination, including short-term relief, are outweighed by the costs. An article from the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning found that procrastination can lead students to experience various psychological and behavioural problems, such as stress, anxiety, and fear of failure. These problems can often negatively impact academic performance.

2. Participate!

Participation will look different for every course this year. Many professors will opt to use discussion boards as a way of facilitating interactions between students. If that’s the case, try your best to comment on these discussion forums immediately after you finish reading/learning the content that the questions are based on. That way, you will have a fresh perspective on the topic.

Why should I bother participating?

For decades, research has shown that active participation is beneficial for student learning. In 1994, a study found that students who actively participated in their courses had better academic achievement compared to those who did not. A 2005 study similarly concluded that discussions and active participation in classrooms is important for effective learning, and it plays an important role in the personal development of students. While the definition of “active participation” continues to evolve as technology becomes a more integral part of education, decades of research show one similar finding: participation is a key component of learning.

3. Set a routine!

The benefit of having a fully online semester is knowing that you have full reign over how you choose to spend your time. On the other hand, a lot of freedom can make it easier to procrastinate. To make sure that you are on track, try to find a daily routine that works for you.

Do routines really have any benefits?

According to Northwestern Medicine, routines offer a way to promote health and wellness through structure and organization. Having a routine can greatly improve your health, as routines tend to reduce stress levels and allow you to get better sleep, leading to improved mental health and improvements in your performance during the day. Routines also promote overall better health as they can be organized in a way where you get enough time to eat healthy and exercise.

4. Minimize distractions

Distractions look different for everyone, especially when we’re all at home. That said, a good way to minimize distractions is by setting up a quiet space dedicated to schoolwork and studying. If you’re easily distracted by Netflix, Instagram, and other sites, try using website blockers while studying to improve your focus. Another good idea is to turn your phone off, or keep it in a separate room, or drawer, while working.

The deal with distractions…

A study conducted by Dr. Michael Hortsch, a professor at the University of Michigan, found that distractions affect the learning process, specifically by hindering memory retention. Dr. Hortsch analyzed student behaviour during live lectures and found that while more students are opting to learn via live lectures, a large proportion of students engage in “non-lecture” activities during the podcasts, such as scrolling through social media and checking their emails. Hortsch emphasizes that technology can be advantageous for both instructors and students, but it is important for each individual to use it in a way that enhances their learning.

5. Find time to exercise

Take 30 minutes out of your day to engage in some physical activity! You can go on a walk or jog (while the weather is still nice!), do some yoga, or find a fun workout video on YouTube to keep your body and mind active.

What are the proposed benefits of exercise?

Recent studies have demonstrated the positive relationship between physical exercise and academic performance of primary, secondary, and university students alike. Exercise aids thinking and memory retention. The direct benefits of exercise come from its ability to reduce inflammation, reduce insulin resistance, and stimulate the release of growth factors- chemicals in the brain that affect the health, growth, and survival of brain cells.

Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety, reducing risks of cognitive impairment.

Fun Fact: Many researchers have proposed that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are greater in volume in people who exercise compared to those who do not.

6. Recognize that it will take time to adjust

We know that online learning is a challenging process for many students. If you are not seeing the results you want (in terms of grades, gaining knowledge, feeling excited about learning), please be patient with yourself and those around you. Reach out to friends, family, your instructors, and classmates for support in these unusual times.

Please feel free to visit MSU Macademics’s Academic Resource Hub throughout the year to explore convenient links to a variety of resources, including tutoring, academic advising, and wellness:

We wish you all the best for the rest of the school year!

Abdullah, M.Y., Abu Bakar, N.R., & Mahbob, M.H. (2012). The Dynamics of Student Participation in Classroom: Observation on Level and forms of participation. Social and Behavioral Sciences,59(1), 61–70.

Hortsch, M., Zureick, A.H., Rafel, J.B., & Purkiss, J.A. (2017). The interrupted learner: How distractions during live and video lectures influence learning outcomes. Anatomical Sciences Education,11(4), 366–376.

Jiao, Q.G., DaRos-Voseles, D.A., Collins, K.M.T., & Onwuegbuzie, A.J. (2011). Academic procrastination and the performance of graduate-level cooperative groups in research methods courses. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,11(1), 119–138.

Maureira, F., & Diaz, H. (2017). Physical Exercise and Academic Performance. Sports Med,1(4), 21. doi:10.15406/mojsm.2017.01.00021

Northwestern Medicine. (2020). Health Benefits of Having a Routine.

Tatar, S. (2005). Why keep silent? The classroom participation experiences of non-native-English-speaking students. Language and Intercultural Communication,5(3), 284–293.

Theberge, C. L. (1994). Small group vs. whole-class discussion: gaining the floor in Science lessons. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Los Angeles, New Orleans.

Written by: Rabeeyah Ahmed, MSU Macademics Research and Resources Coordinator



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MSU Macademics is a service that advocates to improve the quality of education and celebrate teaching excellence at McMaster.