I remember my first online class: Research Methods in Education. I stared at the computer screen like a deer in the headlights trying to figure out what I should be looking for, how to use this online tool, and wondering how I was going to keep myself motivated with so much freedom and little structure. While online learning sounded like a great idea because it was flexible and I could work at my own pace, or so I thought, I quickly realized that it was far more than sitting on my couch in my pajamas and choosing when I would prioritize my online classes over social media and all the other things in my life. As institutions like mine, Western, move to an online learning approach for the remainder of the semester, educators are having a lot of conversations about how we can best support students in successfully completing the term, particularly those who may not have been enrolled in an online course previously. These conversations have made me think a lot about my own experience having to navigate the online learning curve myself, and some of the things I wish I had of known as I eased into it.
While it is important to acknowledge that every student's experience is unique, including mine, if there is one thing I learned from my own experience with online learning – as a student, TA, researcher, student affairs and quality assurance professional – it is that we don’t often talk enough about how the online approach can drastically change how you learn, organize your notes, and prioritize your time. It can also change how you interact with peers and social connection, and ultimately succeed in a course. With that in mind, I wanted to draw upon my various perspectives and personal experiences with online learning to share a few things I would encourage students consider as they become an online student for the next several weeks. Truthfully, I wish someone could have shared these insights with me at the beginning as well, as it likely would have changed how I approached my own online learning journey.
Become familiar right away with the learning platform. My first challenge as an online learner was that I had never had to use an online learning tool before, and wow, was it ever different than showing up for a lecture or tutorial. If you aren’t already using OWL or another learning management tool, the earlier you can open and look around the tool, the easier it will for you to find things when you need them. Review the syllabi, modules and resources that are provided. Start to learn how to navigate the site and make notes if you need to so that for the next few weeks you can use it as efficiently as possible.
Review the learning outcomes, assignments and requirements for the remainder of the term. I quickly learned that online courses are often structured very differently than in-class courses because of the nature in which the content can be taught. It is very possible as institutions move to an online approach that your original course syllabi, outcomes or assignments may be modified. It is important right away to become familiar with any changes so you know exactly how to focus your time and attention. This is particularly true for online tests, projects, or culminating assignments that may be replacing a formal exam. If you have questions, reach out to your professor, TA or peers for support right away.
Levering your strengths is important. We all have unique talents that help us be successful, and using them as an online learner can really help you find what works best for you. In my case, I do best with a checklist, because I get satisfaction from crossing something off it, so making a daily to-do list to help me stay focused and on-track for deadlines worked well. However, if you are not someone who generally finds checking things off a list productive, that is probably not a great way to try to manage your time as an online learner. Maybe instead of a checklist, you prefer structure so you block your existing in-class schedule into your calendar to maintain dedicated times to focus on your courses. The same goes for studying – if you study best with music or the TV on, go ahead and use those mediums to be productive; however, if you know you are more engaged with limited distractions, do your best to seclude yourself in a quiet place for a designated amount of time and then reward yourself with an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Build a study plan to manage your time. I learned the hard way that losing the regular structure of classes can make it easy to procrastinate or put course work on the backburner, especially when you can binge your favourite show on Netflix. A study plan is critical to the success of a lot of online learners, and might be helpful for your own success as well. Here are a few things to consider:
Assignments and tests will come quickly over the next few weeks, especially while you are settling into the online learning format. Don’t wait until the assignment is due to start looking at it and working on it. Additionally, the new online format may need you to engage in online discussions with peers, which may require you post frequently to share what you are learning. Be proactive in completing work and discussions so that you can effectively manage your time and eliminate stress, particularly as you get to the end of the term.
Find an organizational system that works for you.
As I mentioned, maybe using a to-do list or a calendar system isn’t aligned with your strengths, but the sooner you can identify what the best way to organize your time is, the more successful you will be. Perhaps it’s using the ‘notes’ feature in your phone, having an accountability buddy in your course that you can text or email to keep each other on track, or colour coding sticky notes on your wall to stay focused and organized.
Set time limits and take breaks.
When you take online learning really seriously, it can become easy to find yourself immersed in reading articles, watching videos, completing assignments and studying for online tests. I quickly learned that it is important to set boundaries for yourself to help develop self-discipline. There reaches a point where the work becomes unproductive, so set some time limits to ensure that you stand up, stretch, take a few moments to practice mindfulness, do something for you, and come back at a time when you know you can more effectively focus on the task at hand. It could even be as simple as switching up courses to change the topic.
Practicing self-discipline, setting boundaries and planning ahead can be difficult, particularly when you’re new to online learning, so take care of yourself and practice an abundance of grace. After you’ve finished a reading, module, assignment or reached your allotted time limit, reward yourself with a healthy snack, FaceTime with a loved one or friend, or play a game of NBA 20. An important piece of this process is recognizing that it is new and takes some adjusting to, so find something that rewards the time and effort you’re putting in. I know for me personally, it was as simple as snuggling up with my cat on the couch and watching an episode or two of my favourite show while enjoying a bag of microwave popcorn. For my friend in the program with me, it was exercising or shooting hoops.
Ask for help when you need it. When I was an online TA, I realized that students don’t always reach out as naturally as in a face-to-face class. There is something about being physically disconnected that can make it feel like it is difficult to find support. Be proactive and reach out to your professors, TAs, peers and resources when you need them. It is a difficult time for everyone, especially as we quickly adapt to online learning, so know that you are not alone and there are plenty of people and resources out there to help you. Many institutions have put together websites with remote resources for students, including Western Student Experience, which has launched a website intentionally designed to help online learners and offers tools to help you be successful. Visit https://studentexperience.uwo.ca/remote/ for more information and supports.
Think of online learning as a job. Think about finishing your courses as your job for the next few weeks. If you can start to think about your study as your work – consciously showing up, absorbing content and knowledge, scheduling “meetings” (ie. assignments, tasks, etc.), and setting appropriate boundaries – you can begin to develop a growth mindset that helps you get through it. I always tried to remind myself that if I could set daily goals, demonstrate my ability to work independently, and stay motivated, I could make it to the end. If that doesn’t help, remember that these are great skills you are developing and resume examples you can share with future employers who one day ask you, ‘Tell us about a time that you successfully managed change?’ or ‘Tell us about a time when you demonstrated effective time management?’.
Stay connected with others. I remember feeling oddly isolated when I started online learning because I was used to seeing my classmates and really enjoyed group learning conversations in tutorials and labs. You might be experiencing some of those feelings too and that is absolutely okay. Connectedness is another adjustment that we have to make as we move to online learning environments, but don’t forget that there are plenty of ways to stay connected with peers and friends – social media, online discussions, texting, FaceTime, calling, email, the list goes on. Reward yourself with connection when you can, and check-in with your classmates and friends. Chances are they are going through their own unique transition too and experiences like these can bring community together, even if it is digitally. Consider using your technological tools to create e-study groups, say a quick ‘hello’ at the end of every day, share insights that you’ve learned from the online content, or just be there to support and listen as you all navigate this new experience together.
Find what keeps you motivated. Whether you are in your first year or your fourth year; your undergraduate degree or your graduate degree like I was, find something that helps you stay motivated throughout the next few weeks. Perhaps it is motivating yourself with rewards, pinning up or sharing inspirational quotes, listening to podcasts that excite you, participating in workouts at home, practicing yoga, or changing out of your pajamas into class-appropriate clothes to feel more productive. Whatever that motivation is for you, try to stay positive and find things that push you to make it through. The light is at the end of the tunnel – only a few weeks left. You can do this!
The next few weeks might be a learning curve, and that’s okay. Part of my choice to share my own experience and the resources that Western has put together is because it is important to acknowledge that students are not alone in this journey, and I wish someone would have shared that with me. This change might be new and exciting for some; it might be frustrating and saddening for others. Just like many of you will have your own unique reactions to finishing out the term online, many students will also face their own successes and challenges in becoming an online learner. Remember that this transition is a process, and you can help yourself be the best online learner you can be by identifying your strengths and which strategies will maximize your success, asking for help when you need it, and utilizing the resources that are available. It took me almost 3 years to learn these things, and I’m still learning, but knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to online learning would have helped me be a lot more prepared at the beginning. Hopefully, this can help prepare you for success too; after all, you are a bright post-secondary student, and you’ve got this.
Today I am recentering. The past few months have seen a lot – student staff hiring, professional hiring, preparing training, updating curriculum, reinventing staff development, planning conferences and institutes, and trying to be a good wife, daughter, granddaughter, and friend. I have heard the comments about the world of busyness –not using it as a badge of honour - but I do think it is okay to take a moment to reflect on the scope and capacity of our world. I do think it is okay, and healthy, to press pause, rewind and reflect, and to appreciate the immense amount of work and life that sometimes feels like a total blur.
Tonight as I sat at home curled up on the couch with a tea in hand and chose to focus on updating presentations, reviewing colleagues’ work, responding to my staff’s questions, and preparing to be out of the office, I took a moment to take a break and look at Twitter. I didn’t expect to be so consumed with the content, and certainly didn’t expect to be (finally) writing another blog post. I didn’t expect to feel... appreciation.
As I scrolled through Twitter I felt an immense amount of appreciation for my colleagues and the incredible work they are doing on their campuses to make their student experience that much better. One colleague was presenting about storytelling as her institution launches a new, and very impressive, strategic plan. Another colleague was sharing incredible quotes and learning moments from a conference. Colleagues I will be on faculty with for the Assessment Institute have profiles posted, and I am reminded of how much their work inspires me. A former student staff was encouraging chatter about what graduates learned at university, and a dialogue about the value of co-curricular learning sparked as a result. And on top of that, there are four emails in my inbox from colleagues and government groups awaiting a reply to speak with their teams and organizations about my work. And my husband is constantly finding ways to spend as much quality time together as possible before I leave. And, and, and. And this feeling of gratitude and fulfillment is reminding me that the term was busy, and the summer will be busy, but instead of thinking about it as a badge of honour or a deterrent, it can be a moment of recentering. Of clarity. Of appreciation.
Repeat after me, when things feel genuinely busy and the summer months speed by like a flash of light: It can be a moment of recentering.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the traditional assessment cycle and how we use it when creating assessment plans to measure student learning. The intention behind it is to ensure that we are not just collecting data, but doing so in a meaningful way by having intentional outcomes and using techniques that help us ensure our questions are measurable. It also helps remind us of the importance of not just the collection, but the gathering, analysis and sharing of data. In fact, as I often say when I present on assessment, we owe it to our students who provide us with the information to close the loop and show them that we value their time and input. While I believe this is a very helpful tool, especially if you are just starting to work in assessment, I find the human element of the approach to be lackluster. A traditional cycle focuses primarily on data – numbers, words and information – rather than people’s stories. If you are moving through the model for the sake of ‘just doing assessment’, it is very easy to forget that the human aspect of it should be included.
Considering the human element (or lack there of) in assessment is something that has been on my mind the past couple of months, which was initially sparked by Lesley D’Souza’s (2017) Design Thinking Assessment model, because it emphasizes the importance of empathy in our work as data storytellers. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on how I talk about assessment, especially in regard to student learning, how I train colleagues or students on it, and how I (often subconsciously) do it in my everyday work. Most recently, as I was compiling, analyzing and sharing the assessment, evaluation and metrics from our Residence Life Staff training in August, I was pleasantly reminded of the importance of how sharing information can invoke a feeling, an experience, and a snapshot in time. Finding the right combination of data has the power to turn numbers into context and imagery, where you can find yourself lost in the picture being painted in front of you; as if you were there, living that experience through the eyes of a student yourself. In my opinion, that moment is what makes assessment not only so important to demonstrating our worth, but can be such a powerful change agent in our work, workplace cultures and across divisions. It is what drives me to continue to evolve, reflect, and learn about ways I can enhance our assessment practices so that I can continue to find ways to paint the picture of our students’ experience.
Sounds great, right? But as I explored all of this, I tried figure out what I could manageably do to be more intentional and I kept coming back to what I love most about Kolbs’ Learning Cycle (1984); I kept coming back to the reflection. To me, the steps in assessment are no different than his idea of a reflective learning experience – you do something (the outcome), you reflect on how it went (analyze assessment data), you conceptualize how to do something similarly or differently in the future (identify gaps, make informed decisions and review/update outcomes), and then you do it again. Over and over. In my eyes, assessment is an experiential process of trying to understand someone’s learning experience and personal journey, so it makes sense to me that it could easily follow a similar structure to Kolb. However, one additional piece I would add is understanding, similar to the idea of integrating empathy (D’Souza, 2017). To truly conceptualize how to recognize or improve an experience, it is important to first try to understand it through the lens of a student. Furthermore, we really should be able to understand and share that experience when we put together infographics, dashboards, reports, charts and graphs – to me, this is where the math and science of data can become art.
As I move forward in my own assessment journey, I am going to start thinking about assessment through the lens of this adapted model, which I’m calling a Reflective Assessment Model. I want to see if it will not only enhance the way we tell our story and the importance we place on the human element, but I wonder if it will change the way we implement and gather these stories? I wonder if our student staff will buy-in to the process more when we can show them a model where the stories are an intentional and necessary aspect of our practice as educators? I certainly hope it will remind us of the human side to assessment, and allow us to pause and consider that numbers rarely tell the whole story. And if they do tell a story, is it based on an understanding of our students’ experience?
I’ve taken this model a step further and broken down a couple of our curricular approaches to see how this model could help inform our assessment practices for each educational plan: student conduct, staff training and development, community development, and within our first year and upper year communities. While this is still very much a work in progress, I’ve included my ‘brain dump’ about how this could enhance our conduct program and assessment practice.
We know that student conduct is an opportunity for student growth and development (Karp & Allena, 2004), and our own assessment has proven that assumption to be correct. Over the past couple of years, we have been able to show that learning is happening through meetings, conversations, and sanctions using a variety of techniques such as rubrics and CATs (classroom assessment techniques). When Jordon McLinden (my favourite conduct guy) and I sat down to figure out how to meaningfully and manageably integrate assessment into our conduct strategies, we were intentional about which measures we used so that our data could tell the story of how much our students are learning about overcoming challenges, seeing conflict in a positive manner, examining the Rights & Responsibilities of living in a community, and ways to act for the benefit of others. However, in thinking about our approach through this reflective assessment model, I think that the assessment, evaluation and metrics we collect could paint an even better picture by being more conscious of the ‘understanding’ phase of the cycle. This stage has encouraged me to ask myself a few questions: How can we show what it is like to move through our conduct system through the lens of a student, beyond what they have learned, if they feel as though the process was fair, or how many students we met with? How can we focus on empathy as an educator, and how will that shape the ways we review our outcomes and ‘big p’ program? Why does our conduct process matter to students? What is the value to students? These questions have helped me see that right now we are focused on showing that learning is happening; next, we need to start focusing on how that learning is (or is not) adding value to our students’ experience. Without truly taking the time to understand that experience, I’m not sure we are reviewing and revising our program to the best of our abilities. After all, like I said, we owe it to our students to value their contributions and time, to share their stories, and use their experience to help shape and improve our programs.
A creative educator striving to enhance the holistic student experience and committed to exploring personal strengths and fulfillment.