The reality is finally sinking in—I’m going to be teaching and taking online classes for the foreseeable future. A lot of my students have asked me about my top tips for online classes. As someone who’s teaching and taking them simultaneously, I feel I have a unique perspective on the issue. Personally, I’ve even come to enjoy remote uni life!
Affiliate disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I'll receive a commission if you purchase through my link, at no extra cost to you. Please read my full disclosure here.
Let’s start with some of the benefits of online classes. I know it might not seem like it at the moment if you’re frustrated with online learning, but there are quite a few! Hopefully, thinking about these benefits will help keep you motivated to SMASH your online classes.
This is perhaps the biggest benefit of online classes. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a lecture and the professor is going WAY too fast through super difficult topics. I’m convinced I wouldn’t have survived my intro to cryptography module had it been in person. Even though the lecturer went through everything appropriately slowly, the subject matter was so complex that I VERY often needed to go back and re-watch things. (Case in point: it generally took me about 5 hours to go through 2 hours’ worth of lectures).
Last year, it took me about 45 minutes each way to commute to uni. Since I took the bus (and it was super unreliable), I tended to leave about an hour before every lecture. If I went in every day in a week, that’s 7.5 hours wasted!
Now, there are benefits to commuting (in terms of mentally preparing yourself for the day, maintaining work-life balance, etc.), but I’m more than happy to have that extra time back every week. Not to mention, if you’re commuting on the tube during peak hours, you could save more than £30 a week commuting (or more than £100 per month)!
You can find thousands of course from top universities and companies (many for FREE!) online on just about any topic from Coursera, edX, Datacamp, or Skillshare. So, once you’ve really gotten the hang of online learning, the opportunities truly are endless for what you can learn.
This is a big one. If you’ve read my other articles (like this one), you know that I think time management is absolutely PARAMOUNT to surviving your PhD / grad school / uni in general. Being responsible for watching all your lectures and getting all your assignments done on time, without the benefit of regularly scheduled lectures (or general structure to your life in general) really helps you level up your time management skills. Every time you make the choice to watch your lecture instead of slacking off with your friends, you’re improving your self-discipline and willpower which will spill over into other areas of your life.
So, if the most famous academic in your field lives in California and you’re studying in London, it might ordinarily be WAY more logistically difficult to get them in for a guest lecture in your module. Now, with everything happening remotely, the sky is the limit! Many of your professors may be able to get academic celebrities and experts in to teach you which is an amazing opportunity for you as a student.
Despite some of these pretty amazing benefits of online classes, there are some drawbacks. I feel you!
Now, I know when you’re on your computer during a live lecture it’s pretty easy to get distracted too. But when no one can even see you browsing Facebook and not paying attention? The temptation is REAL. Even if you’re not slacking off during a lecture, it’s a lot harder for lecturers to keep your attention online than in person.
Finally, all that pausing and rewinding of lectures can really add to the time it takes to complete them. As I said above, I was spending more than DOUBLE the length of each of my lectures actually watching them. It’s difficult, but eventually you’ll find a balance between making sure you catch every word the lecturer is saying and efficiency.
We’ve all been there—you might have a 9AM real time lecture or one just after lunch and you’re just not feeling it. When no one can see you, it can be much easier to just put your head down or not pay any attention at all. It happens to the best of us, but your live lectures or tutorials are really best shot to clarify anything you don’t understand and make sure you’re fully getting the material, so try to take advantage of them.
This one is particularly tricky. With lots of unis operating remotely, students tend to be scattered all around the world. A 9AM lecture might be in the middle of the night for someone who’s currently living in the U.S., for example.
I’m not going to tell you to get up in the middle of the night every week to attend live tutorials, but, if it’s a particularly difficult subject or you have questions, it’s worth seriously considering.
This one is tricky, and I was suffering through it for MONTHS. It’s even harder to engage with lectures if you’re getting kicked off every few minutes.
That being said, there’s hope! My uni now allows you to use BT Wifi for free if you sign in using their VPN. We also recently (finally!) called our internet provider and found out we had some interference issues which have now been fixed.
Now, I think most of the major video conferencing programmes have sorted their user interface out, but some still, quite frankly, suck. Microsoft Teams for example, while pretty crucial if you’re in uni at the moment, can be a massive pain in the bum to use.
I don’t really know why this is, but I find it a lot more intimidating to participate in virtual classes than real life ones. It’s probably just because it’s a different format and everything takes some getting used to.
The bottom line is, some people might find online classes harder, some people might find them easier. I, personally, have come to enjoy them, as you can take your time learning things and going through the material. However, it’s a bit more difficult to stay motivated and not get distracted. It’s also easier to procrastinate when you don’t have set lecture times.
Finally, I think it depends on who’s teaching the online class. Some lecturers put TONNES of effort into their videos to keep them engaging. Others really do not.
I do feel though that, using the tips for online classes I detail below, anyone can learn to master online learning!
Now that we’ve gone through the pros and cons of online classes, what’re my top tips for online classes?
Even though it takes longer, it will help you understand and remember the material.
I find that taking notes by hand and writing down basically everything the lecturer says MASSIVELY helps me stay focussed and retain information. I did this throughout my undergrad and master’s degree (and still do it to this day, even though none of the classes I’m taking are examined).
My noise cancelling headphones are a GODSEND for online classes. It’s so much easier to block out distractions (especially if you’re working in the same room as housemates, family, etc.).
I know it can be tough but, especially if it’s a difficult module, it’s worth attending synchronous tutorials and labs. It’s important to ask questions and engage with the material.
I find that this helps me a lot. Last term, I watched my lectures on Tuesday afternoons. Relying on routine, rather than fleeting motivation—helps ensure you actually get it done.
For more tips to stay motivated and get things done, check out this article.
I know it’s easy to just say, ‘oh, I’ll watch it next week’. However, particularly if you have several hours’ worth of lectures per week, it can get VERY difficult to catch up very quickly. Try to keep up with lectures and assignments as you would for in-person classes to avoid falling behind.
Email your tutors, module leaders, and teaching assistants when you have questions! We’re more than happy to help! Many module leaders also hold office hours if your question is too long for an email or Moodle post. It’s our job to make sure you understand the material, so if it’s not clear from the lectures or homework assignments, don’t be afraid to reach out!
Again, I know it can be super intimidating to participate in class discussions even in real life. And, I know I sound like a broken record here. But, engaging with the material is key to making sure you understand it and pass your classes!
As I said above, you could be getting an extra 7+ hours per week ABSOLUTELY FREE. Use that time to do additional reading, make yourself study guides, and really stay on top of your learning.
As I said before, when we first moved into our current flat, our internet connection was pretty unstable. And, at the time, our uni wasn’t offering free use of BT Wifi.
In this case, it might be worth getting a mobile phone plan like Voxi that gives you TONNES of data. That way, you can use your phone as a hotspot when your internet isn’t working well and avoid interruptions to your learning.
Do you have any other tips for online classes? Let me know in the comments below!
Liked this article? Check out my other articles for PhD + grad school students here.