Adventures in Online Learning: Solving Calendar Woes

One of the hardest parts of taking a class on time is making sure that you stay on top of assignment due dates. When you take a class in person, often the professor will kindly give you multiple reminders that an assignment is coming due at the beginning or end of class. When classes are online, you are not necessarily going to get that same kind of reminder—especially if your class is operating asynchronously. So how do you make sure that you don’t miss a due date?

Get a calendar. You need some kind of calendar, but it should be one that fits with your habits. For example, no matter how cool a bullet journal looks, if you aren’t going to create the pages every week or month, this is a bad choice for you. If you never open the calendar app on your phone, this also isn’t the calendar for you.

Once you’ve got a calendar, you need to write all the due dates into it. The purpose behind doing this is that you can see how your assignments are stacked. If you have a bunch of papers due all in one week, you’ll know that you cannot procrastinate on all of them—you’ll need to space out the work.

Set up automated reminders for assignments. Once you have your calendar populated and know how your assignments align with one another, you’ll want to set up automated reminders. Here, you’ll want to explore your options: you can probably find programs that will send you emails, pop up in your online learning platform, etc. However, if at all possible, I recommend using a reminder app of some kind on your phone. Most of us can’t go more than an hour or so without checking our phones to begin with, so you are most likely to actually see the reminder if it pops up on your phone.

You’ll want to set up a couple kind of reminders. You’ll want one reminder to to get started on the assignment (this will be especially important if you have stacked assignments that you’ll need to space out work on). You’ll want another reminder set for the actual due date. After all, you don’t want to forget to turn the assignment in!

A final tip: make these reminders as annoying as possible. The last thing you want this to see the reminder, and ignore it. Doing that does you no good. Set multiple reminders, make sure that they pop up at a time when you are already planning on working on the assignment, and make sure that if you are the kind of person who tends to sleep through alarms or push the snooze button, you make the reminder hard to ignore!


The Importance of Spending Time Out of Doors

Spending time outside is actually good for you—at least according to science. Here are a few reasons why you should consider taking your next study break out of doors rather than with a run to the coffee cart.

  1. It makes you more energetic. Spending time outside (even if it’s not sunny out) helps us to set our internal clocks correctly. The amount of light that we get from fluorescent or other artificial light sources is actually a LOT dimmer than what we can get outside, even in the middle of winter. Getting natural light is important because it helps your body self regulate when you should be tired and ready to go to bed versus when you should be awake.
  2. It can make you happier.* The increased light can also relieve feelings of depression, anxiety, and generally make you feel happier. In addition, if you pair time out of doors with physical movement (a walk or run), it can raise seratonin levels in your brain, leading to increased happiness.
  3. It can improve your vision. Spending time out of doors has proven to reduce the probabiliity of near sightedness in children and teens. However, time away from phones and computer screens is generally recomended, so spending some time observing out of door spaces will help reduce eye strain and can potentially strengthnen your eye muscles.
  4. It can improve your concentration.* Studies have shown that time outside has improved concentration for children with ADHD. While studies have not been done on adults, taking an outdoor break, may help you focus when you return.
  5. You’ll get a dose of Vitamin D. Limited sun exposure will lead to increased levels of Vitamin D, a necessary nutrient. Vitamin D has been shown to improve mood and overall health. While we can get some Vitamin D from food (got milk?), increased time outside will also help to combat any Vitamin D deficiencies.

Disclaimer: you should not make changes to needed mental health therapy, or any kind of medication without talking to your Doctor.


Considering Graduate School? Introducing the GRE

What is the GRE?

The GRE (Graduate Records Examination) General Test is a standardized test that is often required for post-baccalaureate (aka “graduate”) education. Similar to the ACT or the SAT, the GRE is a general education exam, that focuses on verbal, quantitative (i.e. math), and analytical writing skills. The exam is administered by ETS, or Educational Testing Services; as of 2020, costs just over $200; and lasts just under 4 hours. The exam is a computer adaptive test, or CAT. A CAT exam is a learning test: the more answers you get right, the harder the questions become, and the higher your score may be; the more questions you get wrong, the easier the questions get, but the number of points you can score also goes down. You can take the exam more than once.

How do I know if I should take the GRE?

The GRE is generally a required part of a graduate school application (for MA/MS or PhD). It is also being accepted at some business schools and law schools (although this is not universal, and you should check to see if the GMAT or LSAT is a better exam choice for those types of schools).

GRE scores are valid for five years, meaning you can take the exam and use the scores to apply for schools for up to five years. If you are considering graduate school, you may want to take the GRE. Even if you decide not to attend graduate school right away, taking the exam while you are in “school mode” may be helpful for some. You will need to evaluate that for yourself based on your personality and situation.

How do you study for the GRE?

Like other standardized college entrance exams (ACT, SAT, etc.), there are numerous preparation tools available from sources like Barron, Kaplan, and Princeton Review. These include prep books, flash cards, apps, and courses. The test administrators, ETS, also offer practice questions on their website. You will need to determine what type of preparation works best for you. For example, courses often work well for people who have trouble self motivating study or who have test anxiety. Books, flash cards, and apps can work well for those who need an overview of the types of information that will be covered on the exam.

How can I learn more about the GRE?

Here’s a link to the official exam website:

Using Study Guides

A study guide can be a great way to get some insight into what your professor might include on an exam. But, the question is: how do you actually use them to study?

The easiest way to use a study guide is as a way to structure your study notes. Generally speaking, these guides should give you some insight into the structure of the exam: will it be multiple choice? Short answer? Essay? Knowing the structure of the exam will help you organize your notes most effectively to study efficiently. So, some key tips and tricks for making the best use of your study guide:

  1. If it includes a key terms section, use this to make flash cards, or other memorization tool. In short, do something to rewrite all term definitions out.
  2. If it indicates that you will have any kind of free response (essay section), make outlines of information you will need to answer that question/question type. Generally speaking, outlines are easier to study from than written out paragraphs.
  3. If it indicates any problem types that you will need to solve, write out the process, including any needed formula. You should do this, even if the study guide includes sample problems for you to practice with.
  4. If your study guide is really vague (a “know everything” kind of format), ask your professor to walk you through the structure of the exam. Then, set up your notes according to the exam structure, rather than trying to memorize everything from a particular lesson or unit. (See steps 1-3 above).
  5. If your study guide is very very detailed (includes everything from the entirety of the semester), you may want to consider one of the following strategies: (a) typing up notes (faster than handwriting); (b) splitting organizing notes with a trusted peer and filling each other in

A few more key points:

  • Never ignore a study guide (if your professor took time to put one together, you should use it.
  • If your professor won’t tell you the structure of your exam (note: NOT content, but STRUCTURE) even after being asked, you have a right to be upset—include this on your end of course evaluations.
  • Sometimes a professor won’t issue a study guide. This is their prerogative. You aren’t entitled to one. I’ll discuss making your own in a later post (it is possible!). DON’T complain about this on end of course evals. You can—as always—suggest that it would be helpful.
  • Always ask your professor to clarify anything that is confusing or unclear about exam expectations. But do not expect them to spoon feed you the answers or content.

Close Reading Techniques: How to get all the information you need from assigned readings

A close reading is when you read the text for information, argument, and deeper meaning/details. In short, it’s the exact opposite of skimming. Close reading can be helpful when you are working on an assigned reading that you plan on using later for research, or one that you are planning on discussing in depth in class. There are a number of strategies you can use when doing a “close reading,” and I’ve listed some of the major ones below.

1. Make strategic use of highlighters

Many students have heard the phrase, if you are highlighting everything, you aren’t really highlighting anything. Over highlighting is a common mistake made by students when they try to do a close reading. There are a few ways to over come this problem.

Only highlight what you want to remember as a direct quote. This is the strategy that I use when I highlight my reading. This lets me pull out only the most important pieces of the text.

Use Multiple Colors: This strategy is helpful if there are different aspects of the text your want to remember for different reasons. For example, perhaps you want to identify several different arguments. Or, perhaps you want to highlight main ideas with one color and supporting facts with a second color. Another strategy is to highlight key terms in one color, conceptual ideas in a second, and important formulas with a third. If you use this strategy, the important thing to remember is to leave yourself some kind of key, so that you can easily return to the notes at a later time and understand what your rainbow effect means.

2. Annotate your reading

Annotation is just a fancy word that means take notes in the margins. There are two major things this strategy allows you to accomplish:

Summary of key points: When you annotate, you want to focus on summarizing key pieces of material in your own words. You can do this by writing directly on the document itself, or by using sticky notes. When I read, I do some of both. And, when I am reading a digital copy, I tend to put my summaries into digital sticky notes. The benefit of annotating a document this way is that you will be able to go back and get the gist of the argument (or major points) just by reading your annotations.

Adding your own thoughts/interpretations into your notes. Sometimes, when you read, you are able to connect it back to other things you’ve learned, to other things you’ve read, or you may be able to pass your own judgement on the validity of the argument. All of this counts as annotation as well. The benefit of this kind of annotation is that it allows you to remember the critiques you had of a piece when you review it later. An important key to using this kind of annotation is to keep it separate from any kind of summary annotations you make. Pick a different color pen, a different sticky note, or come up with a symbol (I use a #) to place in front of your own thoughts.

3. Create symbols to put in the margins.

Both highlighting and (especially) annotating are time consuming ways to do a close reading of a text. If you are also dealing with a large reading load, you may not have time to painstakingly write (or type) out your summary thoughts and ideas, and using a highlighter may cause you to over (or under) highlight passages. One way around this dilemma is to create a series of symbols to write into the text that are fast reminders about why a particular section is important. Perhaps you can throw an exclamation point next to a key piece of the argument, a question mark next to data you have an issue with, and draw a line down the side of a paragraph you think is particularly important evidence. You can circle key hypotheses, words, or formulas, and you can place a star next to key diagrams.

One benefit to this method is that it is not only a faster way to make notes while you read, but also lends itself well to marking lightly with pencil in books that you will need to erase at a later date (a text book you wish to sell back, or a library book).

4. Creating an abstract after finishing an article

A final strategy for a close reading is to create a short summary when you are done reading the selection. This method is one I used often in graduate school in order to cut through the large reading loads we were assigned. After I was done reading an article, I would try to summarize the main argument, key evidence and methodology in a few sentences to a short paragraph. For articles, I’d write this on the first page, above the title. When we returned to discuss the article in class, I’d have a quick reminder of the contents right away. For books, I’d summarize each chapter in this fashion. I use this method in conjunction with other strategies, but it is one that I find most helpful when returning to a text after any amount of time (even just two days) have passed. It is especially helpful if you are studying for exams and need to be able to cite readings from a course.

What other strategies do you use to take good notes while you are reading? Share in the comments below.

Adventures in Online Learning: Software Issues

Online learning technology has come a long LONG way in the past few years. We are able to engage virtually in a way that we couldn’t do even 5 years ago. In some ways this is awesome! It lets us deal with emergencies, like a global pandemic, without loosing some of the most valuable aspects of our education. But with advances in technology come bugs. In your online learning adventure, you’re going to come across software issues.

As colleges and universities have moved to embrace more online learning models, they have been presented with a variety of platforms from which to choose. Some of these platforms are better than others. But they all have software issues. The reason is because in many ways, all of these platforms are still in the beta stages. Widespread online learning is still not the norm for many schools. This creates two interrelated issues.

Software Design

First, many of these platforms try to accomplish several tasks all at the same time: they attempt to be a supplement for in person courses and they try to be a platform that supports asynchronous course delivery (an online only model). These two tasks are often at odds with one another.

As an instructor, I’ve had the opportunity to use multiple digital platforms to supplement my teaching (including blackboard, canvas, and Sakai). Sometimes a platform (take Blackboard for example) is set up really well as a supplement platform for in class learning. Blackboard’s structure is ideal for posting readings, recording grades digitally, and sharing announcements or reminders with students. Other times a platform is better formatted to serve as an online only learning model (take Canvas for example). Canvas’s structure is well organized around individual lessons, which students can self pace through, teaching themselves the material in an asynchronous manner. However, try to use either platform for the other major purpose, and it causes no end to frustration! Currently, I use canvas as a supplement to my in person classes. It simply doesn’t function nearly as well for that purpose—it’s too cumbersome because I don’t need each individual lesson to have its own space. At the same time, I can imagine using blackboard to try and make it through a self paced course would be very frustrating as it’s not organized well to accomplish that task.

The problem is that universities choose their software package based on what they expect that majority of their professors to need because it is too expensive to purchase more than one site license. (And honestly, you’d probably be upset if they raised your tuition to do purchase two different software programs!). BUT, this means that the software you are trying to use in your online class may not be well suited to an asynchronous learning environment.

Software Development

The second issue you’re likely to face is that online learning software hasn’t been adopted widely enough to be able to identify and fix all of the design flaws. Consider when any software you use comes out with a new version. Take apps on your phone for example: after a new software update, it takes several iterations for developers to identify and address multiple bugs in the newest version. Course delivery software is no different—it will take developers time to identify and fix bugs within the system. However, for course delivery software, this is process is likely going to take longer than it does for your phone. The reason is that online learning is not universal: it has far fewer users than you might expect given the size of the college/university industry. Most universities (and most professors) still specialize in face to face classroom interaction. Fewer users mean fewer opportunities to report problems to developers. Few reported problems mean a longer lag time in between software releases and the eventual fix.

In today’s world, where nearly all universities have abruptly moved online, these bugs are going to become more apparent a lot faster. The bad news is: this could be a rough semester (for you and your professors!) The good news is that when life returns to normal, everyone is likely going to have an easier time using online supplements or complete course delivery platforms. So in the meantime, think of yourself as a beta tester. It won’t solve every problem, but with that mindset, you’re less likely to pull your hair out in frustration.

Adventures in Online Learning: The Importance of Creating a Schedule

“Things that can be done at anytime are often done at no time” —Gretchen Rubin, author

One of the beautiful and ugly things about online learning is that it is (very) often asynchronous. In other words, you do not have a scheduled class time during which you are expected to show up and be focused on the class in question. You get to complete the work when it is most convenient for you. Sounds great, right?

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of aspects of asynchronous learning that are pretty fantastic: it’s more convenient, you can move at your own pace, and you don’t have to deal with that one annoying student who always manages to ask a slightly off topic or tangential question that runs class over. BUT!

The problem with a class being asynchronous is that it becomes incredibly easy to fall into one of two traps. Trap #1: you procrastinate like crazy and never get anything accomplished. Trap #2: you never really start or stop work and everything just blends all together so that you never have real “time off” or real “work time.”

So how do you avoid these two traps? Well, we can take advice from someone who has experience with a radical asynchronous, zero work-life separation lifestyle: Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a year on the International Space Station. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times (see below for a link to the article), Mr. Kelly describes the importance of creating and keeping an appropriately paced schedule.

He notes that a schedule of will give you a structure to your day, including the all important bed time. A schedule will help you to both accomplish the tasks you need to get done and ensure you make time for the fun things: whether that’s a Netflix party or a walk around the block (time outside is also critical!). In short, Mr. Kelly emphasizes the importance of pacing yourself. In the same way that you can fall into Trap #1, never getting anything done; you want to avoid falling into Trap #2, of feeling like you’re never able to turn off work. Finally, a schedule will ensure you get enough sleep—which he notes is critical to mood, ability to think critically, and relationships.

Schedules do not have to be as strict as the one that Mr. Kelly describes following on the space station. It can be as simple as:

  • 8am wake up
  • Get dressed, eat breakfast
  • Work on coursework for 2-3 hours
  • Lunch
  • Finish any coursework with a deadline of tomorrow
  • Go for a walk outside/work out
  • Chill until dinner
  • Dinner
  • Hang out with friends/family
  • Bedtime at 11pm.

There’s no times listed, just a suggestion of what to do during certain times of the day, which you can adjust to your preferences: if you prefer to work out in the morning, work out in the morning! If you do your best studying at night, work on coursework before you go to bed! The key to to try and be consistent with how you’re working and relaxing, and making sure you get adequate amounts of sleep (i.e. not too little OR too much).

Link to The NY Times article by Scott Kelly:

Why Having a Clean Dorm Room (or Apartment) will Actually Make You More Successful

Cleanliness is next to successfulness. (I got that saying right. right?) Here’s my quick list of reasons why I think having a cleaner living space in college will help you be more successful.

  1. As a student, the need to work from home–at least occassionally–is a hazard of the trade. Having a clean workspace will allow you to stay focused when you are working from home.
  2. You’ll be more likely to be on time–to class, appointments with professors, and even extra curriculars–when you don’t have to search for your keys, a clean pair of jeans, or your ID card.
  3. You’ll be less likely to get sick. When you live in a dirty environment (be that gross dirty, like a bathroom or kitchen that’s never been cleaned, or a dusty one from piles of stuff that haven’t moved since the week after you moved in), your body has to work harder to keep dust mites, bacteria, and viruses at bay. Do yourself a favor, and get some Clorox wipes.
  4. You’ll be more relaxed. Spaces that are too cluttered actually have the potential to cause underlying stress. Stress means you’ll have a harder time being on your A game in other areas.
  5. You’ll have more confidence. Feeling in control of your living space will actually make you feel more in control of your life in general.
  6. You’ll be more likely to feel put together when you go out. When you can find your favorite jeans–and you’ve remembered to do laundry so they are clean–you’ll be more likely to rock it out in the world. Plus, you’ll probably smell better. People appreciate that.
  7. Your roommate’s mess probably drives you nuts. Having your own space clean makes it easier for you to ask them to keep their half clean as well. (avoidance of being hypocritical).
  8. Making yor bed everyday can lead to you feeling more accomplished, less overwhelmed, and may help you get everything else that you need to get done done. It’s an easy–hey, I checked this off my list already kind of task that literally takes about a minute.
  9. You’ll be more likely to have people over. Social interaction generally makes people happier. Happier people tend to be more successful.
  10. You’ll be more likely to have the blinds open. Sunshine boosts your mood. Happier people tend to be more successful.

Note: “Clean” doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone–you’ll have to figure out what it means for you. However, I recommend that at minimum, you consider clearing clutter from your desk, making sure your laundry gets done on the regular, and having (and using!) those Clorox wipes to keep the sniffles (or worse!) at bay.

Adventures in Online Learning: Communicating with your Professors

When you are taking a class online or in any way remotely, figuring out a good and consistent communication method is key. As a professor, I’ve often found that students will often ask me questions before, during, or after class. They do this more often than they email me and far more often than they visit my office hours. Taking a class online does not always allow this same kind of regular access. In short, you will need to figure out the best way to contact your professors in order to get a timely response.

The best way to contact your professors is to figure out what their preference is. Common examples of contact include (but are not limited to):

  • Email
  • Online learning platform (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.) internal email
  • Online learning platform discussion board
  • Phone

You want to figure out which of these methods the professor prefers to interact with students in order to know which platform they are consistently checking. If, for example, you are asking important questions on a discussion board thread, and your professor is only paying close attention to email, your question will likely go unanswered.

An important note in this regard: if a professor prefers that you phone them, you need to actually do this. As a millenial myself, I am sympathetic to the aversion to actually speaking with others on the phone. I would 100% rather send an email than make a phone call. However, professors from other, older generations may prefer this form of communication, and like it or not, you need to respect that or risk not getting the important clarifications that you need.

The best way to determine how a professor wants to be contacted is to check out the syllabus or course information page on the online learning platform. Most good professors will tell you right on that page what format they want you to use when contacting them. If, for whatever reason, they have not indicated their preferred contact preference, a short email to their university email address inquiring is perfectly appropriate.

Why you should ask: Professors are often assigned many students in a given semester. When I was teaching at a small liberal arts college, I routinely had 120+ students that I was overseeing across my classes each semester. At larger universities with large lecture courses, this number may be significantly higher. Fielding a large number of student concerns means that inevitably there will be a very large volume of communication that a professor is expected to keep pace with, presenting communication fatigue. There were days when I would literally do nothing but answer emails with student questions for an entire afternoon (particularly when an assignment was coming due) and I taught all in person classes! For professors who have not had much experience teaching online in the past, managing this level of communication is going to be difficult. Funneling your questions through to the preferred communication stream will be critical in ensuring that your communication is seen and answered.

Adventures in Online Learning: Finding a room with a door

If you find yourself working from home, finding a space that will actually allow you to focus on your work without interruption can be challenging: maybe you have a roommate, maybe your space is full of people who do not also have work/school demands on their time. Such situations can lead to loud, distracting environments that do not lend themselves well to the focused work (reading, writing, listening to lectures) that school requires. If you are constantly interrupted or distracted, it can be difficult to actually get done what you need to get done–period, let alone get tasks done on time or done well.

The easiest solution? Find a room with a door where you can close yourself in for a period of time.

This room does not have to be a bedroom, although for many students it likely will be. It may be a formal living room, a basement room, or even a car parked in your driveway or garage.* The only requirements are that you have enough space to set up your computer or book, and that it is an enclosed space in which to work. (Ideally, you may also want to have internet access).

The purpose of finding a space with a door is that it gives a visual signal to the distracting elements (be they people, pets, or even just noises made by others in your home) that this is time you need to focus and not be disturbed. To further this signal, you might consider letting others in your home know why you need the space and for approximately how long. A verbal reminder will cut down on the chances that someone will come looking for you while you are trying to focus.

If a verbal reminder and the closed door doesn’t do the trick, and you find people consistently walking into your space, consider hanging a little sign on the door as a reminder. Especially if your working in that location is out of the norm, others may forget that you are using the room for this purpose and walk in despite the closed door. A sign–a post it note will probably do the trick–will act as a secondary reminder that you are asking to please not be disturbed while you try to get your work done.

Finally, if all else fails, find a way to lock yourself in the room. A locked door is a surefire way to at least keep people out–I can’t promise it’ll prevent them banging on the door.

If you have other tips about keeping your focused space sacred, please share them in the comments below. Study Hard and Good Luck!

*Disclaimer: You should never sit in a vehicle that is on inside of your closed garage.