By Dr. Sarah Haas *
Taking classes during the year of COVID-19 is not easy. I was teaching at a college last semester when schools shut down and moved to finishing the semester online. I know how much of a challenge that was for me as a professor, and I heard some concerns my students had with online learning.
This year, you may actually be prepared for virtual learning whether your college or university has stated outright that all classes will be taught online, or if your school has a plan for moving to online classes. So, that's one good thing because when we know what to expect, we can plan for how to address upcoming challenges. This gives us some control back that we did not have in Spring 2020. [Moving to virtual learning unexpectedly made many of us feel a huge loss of control. Side note: One idea is that so many people purchased toilet paper so they could feel in control of something :) So don't discount how powerful a loss of control is in dictating what we think and what we do!]
Another good thing is that we have already had a few weeks of virtual learning so we have learned some lessons already about what works and what doesn't. Knowing what doesn't work allows us to try new techniques for this upcoming semester if you are doing virtual learning.
So what are some things that you can do, some things you can control, that may set you up for success in the Fall 2020 semester? Well....I have some thoughts!
1. Take Fewer Classes (if you can)
I think we like to think we have unlimited resources. We can do whatever we want, as long as we put our minds to it.
While that's true to a degree....we are still human. We naturally have limitations. Every single day we have a gas tank of physical, mental, and emotional resources, and these resources are interrelated (that means they impact each other). These resources are not unlimited. And the amount of these resources we have are different for everyone [Side note: which is why it can be dangerous to compare ourselves to others!], and can depend on situational factors (like sleeping and eating) and stressors, including changes to our normal schedule.
How do we know that our physical, mental, and emotional resources are impacted by each other, situational factors, and stressors? Let's look at a few examples. How well were you sleeping right after when you moved off campus from COVID-19 [Side note: "poor" sleep is defined by sleeping too much or sleeping too little compared to your usual!]? Do you think it would be easier to go through a break up with a significant other during the beginning or middle of a semester at college? Likely most people would feel it'd be easier to do at the beginning of a semester before classes are more demanding. Ever wonder why you are more likely to get more sleep the night before and have a good breakfast the week before/morning of starting internship or a new job? Because that allows you to fill your physical, mental, and emotional tanks and focus all of your resources on learning new skills!
Because these resources can be altered by day-to-day variables, it's important to plan for your semester not necessarily on how you feel right now (for example, when you don't have classes or midterms or COVID/job concerns), but on how you anticipate feeling in the middle of the semester.
Maslow noted that we need to fulfill our basic needs (eating, sleeping, physical health) before being able to address our psychological needs (e.g., learning, peer relationships). We know from Maslow's Hierarchy that students are not going to have less resources to spend on learning if they are worried about their physical safety. Maslow noted that we need to fulfill our basic needs (eating, sleeping, physical health) before being able to address our psychological needs (e.g., learning, peer relationships). Your class schedule is something that you can control. So, placing less demands on yourself in terms of class work makes your resources available to address any possible stressor that may be anticipated during the Fall 2020 semester while nailing the classes you are already taking. Thus, taking fewer classes may help you be successful in the classes you are taking when your physical, mental, and emotional resources are taxed.
2. Maintain Regular Sleeping & Eating Schedules
You are in college! You and/or your friends likely eat when you have time and go to bed late so you can prioritize other things, because of a FOMO (fear of missing out), because no one can tell you what to do, or for any other reasons!
But.....habits help our bodies and minds prepare for what's going to happen next. When our bodies and minds prepare for what's going to happen next, we can perform that task much more effectively.
Ever plan to sit down and study only to have a friend ask you to hang out with them? If you turn down your friend's offer, how long does it take you to re-focus and actually start studying? How likely are you to go to the gym this Monday at noon if every Monday at noon for 12 weeks prior to this you have gone to the gym? Are you more likely to go to the gym this Monday than if you haven't gone for a few weeks?
If you go to bed each night at 11PM, you can fall asleep quicker and perhaps get the sleep you need. When we are stressed out, our eating habits can change where some people may eat more or eat less or eat less healthy. If we anticipate stress--in whatever form--this semester, having structure or a plan around when we eat can help us maintain an eating routine so we don't fall into these traps. All of these factors play a role in how effective we are at learning and taking tests.
3. Maintain A Regular Class Schedule
Internal motivation can be difficult to muster when you are stressed our or when your resources are taxed. So when a professor allows you to access and complete class materials whenever you want, this sounds awesome (hello control!), but you can be less effective (motivated) at learning that class. You can be much more easily distracted in this scenario, which can cause you to get less work done or require more focus to do just a little bit of work. For some of us, when things get hard, we may be more likely to give up.
So, if your professors are holding live classes, that may help you set aside time to learn the class material. If they are not holding live classes, this requires you to schedule specific days and time to complete the work. You are more likely to focus and thus effectively learn Spanish if you study it every Tuesday and Thursday from 11 to 12:30, for example.
4. Use a Desk For Completing Classwork
Completing your school work at the same place every day again just helps your brain recognize that it is time to learn. Placing all the materials you need to complete your school work (e.g., pens, paper, computer, books) at the place where you complete your school work allows for reduced distractions. That is, if you need to find a pen because it's not at your desk, you may be making it harder to do your work because you are seeing all kinds of other things you'd rather be doing (watching TV, video games, or your parent asking you to do something for them "real quick"), than your school work. Having all your materials in one place reduces the opportunities that you allow yourself to get off task.
OK I'm just going to say it even if I'm not going to be making friends by doing so....Although it is super comfortable to do your classwork on your bed, it can be less than helpful to do so. It can be harder to focus on your work, and it can actually interrupt your ability to sleep at night (since your bed is used for awake and sleep activities and not just for sleep).
5. Set Appropriate Boundaries With Parents
Yup...you're home all the time now! What an awesome opportunity for you to do....chores????
Your parents may be used to having you do your part when you are at home. They may have the mentality of them running the house and seeing you as one person who can help the home run efficiently. But...you may have the mentality of an independent college student. You need to get your classwork done, hang with friends, and clean your room.
So expectations for your role at home may differ between your parents and yourself. Setting up effective boundaries with your parents and making explicit what your expectations are leaves less room for frustration when either person's unspoken expectations are not met.
Also, your parents may not realize how stressed you are with trying to complete your classes virtually. It feels harder to do than face-to-face, right? Express that to them. Your parent may want to chat with you, or may ask you to take the dog out, or just let your little brother hang out with you. If these activities are interfering with your ability to complete your classwork, let your parents know!
6. Talk To Your Professors
In my experience, many professors are being more forgiving given that everyone--especially students--are going through unexpected stressors. We are all in this together! If you are feeling stressed out or are having a hard time focusing, please take the time to communicate this to your professors! Although this won't guarantee that your professor will be understanding or will extend a deadline for you, communicating this with them will increase your chances that they will. You say nothing, nothing will change. You say something, there's at least a chance something will change. Please communicate with us so we can help you have a successful academic year!
7. Increase Your Self-Awareness
One huge problem that people face is not recognizing when they are starting to get stressed. Instead, we know when we are really stressed because it affects our thoughts and behaviors (we yell, can't think clearly, have negative thoughts about ourselves or others, have a hard time focusing, etc.). Stress can feel like a snowball - it builds and builds, and once it is big enough, we have limited ways to stop is detrimental impact on our functioning. In this way, if we can recognize when we start feeling stressed, we can engage in helpful coping skills earlier on so we are able to stop the stress snowball more quickly. This may mean taking more frequent but shorter breaks.
8. Set Small, Achievable Goals For Yourself
The things you accomplished last year may have been easier to achieve because....we weren't in the middle of a worldwide crisis. So you may need to lower your expectations for what you want to achieve this year due to the unprecedented nature of the current pandemic. You cannot control this.
What you can control is how you talk to yourself and how you set yourself up for success! You want to challenge yourself but not to a level that your goals are unattainable.
Do you know what you'll be doing a week from now? How about a month from now? But...do you know what you'll be doing tomorrow? You're more likely to know what you're doing tomorrow than a month from now :) This demonstrates the importance of the first piece of effective goal-setting: to set small goals for yourself.
Small goals are important to keep you motivated towards your longer-term goal. For example, if you start going to the gym wanting to lose 50lbs, and in the first week you gain 2lbs, you are not likely to feel encouraged to continue going to the gym. If you set the goal of getting an A in your Intro to Psych course and you're in your first month of the class, it can be easy to "not worry about it" until the last month or week of classes. But by that time, you have less control over improving your grade, and thus, this mindset may keep you from achieving your goal! Setting short-term goals allows us to pivot and re-calibrate what we need to do to accomplish our long-term goals. This brings me to the second step in effective goal-setting: to set attainable goals for yourself.
If your goal is to make 1 day have 30 hours in it instead of 24, you may feel frustrated and engage in a spiral of self-doubt, which may negatively impact your physical, mental, and emotional resources. All over something that is quite literally impossible to do. That doesn't seem fair. Should something that is literally impossible impact how we feel about ourselves? Absolutely not! Does that mean we don't do this to ourselves? Unfortunately not!
You have a better chance to set yourself up for success if you set small, achievable goals for yourself. This allows for you to maintain motivation to achieve whatever your longer-term goal is, and allows you the flexibility to change your current behaviors or your longer-term goal to be more consistent with what you are actually able to achieve.
9. Give Yourself Grace
Are you starting to tell yourself, "Why can't you do this?" or "This shouldn't be hard for me to do". Don't discount how much of a toll being in the middle of a pandemic is. Do not compare your situation to someone else's (this often is used as a way for us to just feel poorly about ourselves). If you did not accomplish your goal this week, allow space for that to be OK and motivation to determine if you can try harder next week or if you need to change your goal. Do you catch yourself making negative-self statements that you wouldn't say to your friend if they were in a similar situation? Recognize that's not OK, and you deserve the same treatment that you would give your friends. Often, setting high expectation and now allowing ourselves to be "less than" or feeling like we "fail" often can be habitual patterns and not facts that are supported by evidence. This means that it can sometimes be hard to be kinder to ourselves in any given situation, but particularly in a situation causing us stress. This leads me to my last point...
10. Take Advantage Of Your School's Psychological Services
If you notice any difficulties in your day-to-day functioning, any difficulties sleeping, eating, socializing, getting work done, please take advantage of your school's services used to address these struggles. For example, if you notice that you are not sleeping or eating or focusing as well as you usually do, or if you're feeling socially isolated, or if you're having a hard time getting out of bed, or if you're feeling more anxious than usual, please reach out to your school's psychological services center. Of course, these are just a few examples of times where therapy may be helpful.
Many colleges and universities offer FREE therapy to students, and especially during this unprecedented time, some outside resources may help you have a successful semester. Strength is identified as knowing what your limitations are and utilizing the resources available to you to reduce the negative impact of your limitations. In short, strength is seeking help when you need it. And...it might be free.
If your school doesn't offer therapy services or you prefer to find a therapist outside of your school, you have a many options. A few options include the following: (1) you can call your insurance company to find local therapists who are in-network with your insurance, (2) you can go to psychologytoday.com and search for local therapists, or (3) you can go to openpathcollective.org to find low-cost therapy services in your area.
Happy Fall 2020, y'all! You got this.
The Center for Active Minds is a specialty clinic offering services for toddlers through young adults with ADHD and/or Anxiety. For more information, please check out our website at www.CenterForActiveMinds.com.
Interested in seeing how the Center For Active Minds may be able to help you and your family? Call us at 717-879-9797 or email me at DrSarah@CenterForActiveMinds.com. Reaching out for help is hard...finding a good provider shouldn't be.
Disclaimer: The Information provided through this website, including the various pages, blog posts, and emails, are designed for informational purposes only and does not constitute a client/therapist relationship. The information is not intended to replace medical advice or mental health treatment. Every individual person's situation is unique. Please seek out individual care if needed.