I think both faculty and students can agree that this Covid-induced learning environment isn’t ideal. I would even go so far as to say that it absolutely sucks. But here we are. We are just going to have to deal with whatever situation we are in. I suspect that just about all students are in one of three instructional modes:
Completely face-to-face classes with some type of social-distancing limitations.
Completely online (some people like to call it remote) learning.
Some type of hybrid model that includes both in-person and remote learning.
At Southeastern Louisiana University, where I teach physics classes, we are mostly in the hybrid mode. I have a “lecture” class that has 90 students enrolled. However, only 20 students can be in the room and maintain social distancing. That means the other 70 students participate in class remotely. Some students want to only be online and so the others just rotate between in-person classes and attending via Google Meets. It’s almost impossible to keep track of the two groups of students (remote and live) at the same time. My Classical Mechanics class has only 12 students enrolled, and we can all fit in the real-life classroom.
I suspect that no one would have high exceptions for an online or hybrid course. But even the “face to face” class is depressingly limited. My favorite thing to do in class is to have students work in groups and interact with each other. That’s pretty difficult to accomplish with 6-foot student spacing. Oh well. We just have to carry on and get through this. Maybe there are ways to do something similar online, but it still will add an extra layer of technology that hinders communication.
Last spring I wrote a post focusing on the instructor side of this pandemic-based learning. Now I’m going to give some tips for students. Here is some advice to make sure that you (the student) get through this with your education intact (hopefully).
Communicate and Make Connections
You might think the most important part of a class is the content. I mean, yes—but no. In physics there are some really important ideas to cover. There’s the Momentum Principle, the wave equation, Schrödinger’s equation, and a whole bunch of other stuff. But really, all of that material is either in the textbook or online. You know there is a YouTube video for every one of these ideas—and some of them are even useful (some are not).
So, if you can learn all the physics by just watching videos, you should be all set. Alas, most human learners (not sure about other species) can’t just figure stuff out by reading or watching a video. The majority of students learn by interacting with the instructor and other students. We often think of education as a thing that instructors do to students—but it’s not really like that. The vast majority of students have to learn by doing, not by seeing. That’s why we have class, so that we can work together and build a community of learners. This community is sort of like a built-in support group to help everyone understand the material a little better. If it was only about the content, the instructor would just stand at the front of the room and read the textbook to you. Clearly, that wouldn’t be helpful.
But what about this pandemic learning? This is where you need to be very careful to not lose this communication link between you and the instructor or you and the other students. Even during classes (if they are remote and not prerecorded), you can find ways to interact. Use the text chat on Zoom or Google Meet to ask (and answer) questions. Don’t just sit there and treat the class as though it were a movie in a theater. You have to engage yourself.
Outside of class, try to set up study groups with other students. I find that online video meetings actually can work quite well when there are five or fewer participants. You don’t need to mute your microphone, and everyone can get a chance to contribute. Yes, there’s still email—but the time between replies can sometimes be too long to be useful. You might think some other communication (like a Slack channel) would help, but in my experience it still takes a significant effort to get all the students to use a new system.
Don’t Fall Behind
Really, this is true for normal learning semesters also. It’s always important to stay on top of new ideas. In physics courses, if you don’t understand the material on vectors in the first week of class, you won’t be able to grok momentum and forces later on. When you get behind, it just makes you get further behind. It’s like trying to catch a train leaving the station: The longer you wait to jump on the train, the more difficult it gets, since the train is not only farther away, but also going faster.
You have an extra problem with remote learning in that you might need to be more independent about your education. When you don’t meet in class twice a week, it’s very easy to put off assignments and reading. This is exactly what you can’t do. In physics especially, you have to keep working on homework and reading the textbook to understand this stuff. I know it sucks, but you are going to need to rely only your own efforts to motivate your studying habits. It’s tough when you don’t have as much support from faculty and your student peers—but this is where we are. It might help if you set up a regular schedule to study and work on material outside of class … anything to help you keep up.
Realize That Instructors Are in a Difficult Position Also
From my own perspective, I have been doing some sort of physics instruction for more than 20 years. I know how to prepare for class, and I have a pretty good feeling for the types of problems students will encounter. We call this “experience.” But what about remote classes? Yup, that’s fairly new to me—and I’m even fairly proficient with technology. It takes extra time to get things working for remote classes. I mean, how many times before this pandemic did I have to use Google Meet? The answer is very rarely.
Also, I know what works well for traditional face-to-face classes. But even when I try new things (like physics speed dating, which you should totally try after this Covid thing is over) it’s low-risk. If the new activity doesn’t work, I can easily just switch over to something that I know works. For these normal classes, I’m like Batman. I have this utility belt of educational resources. But for remote and online physics I’m like Batman without a belt. It’s tough.
On top of that, faculty are also burdened with extra communications. For me, I feel like every morning I start off working in some type of tech-support role. There are so many non-physics issues that students have, such as due dates, location of resources, and actual technical questions. I want to help, but it’s hard to answer technology-based emails along with physics stuff. So, just realize that you might be stressed out about remote learning, and your instructors are in the same boat.
Don’t Take the Easy Path
So there you are, at home on your computer. You are working on a test, and you are stumped. What do you do? Do you keep at it, or do you give up? Or there is a third option: cheat. It’s way too easy to just Google the answer and get past this test. You might be surprised with what you can find online. Try doing a quick search for one of your physics problems and there’s a good chance that someone has posted the solution somewhere. But maybe you should ask yourself, why are you in this course? Is it for that letter grade that you get at the end? Or is it to learn something about the fundamental nature of the universe?
I know it sounds silly, but when you cheat you are getting a short-term gain (the grade) for the long-term loss (the learning). It’s honestly not worth it. Yes, doing it the right way is difficult—but it is this mental struggle that really helps us learn. There’s no secret pill that will just make you understand stuff. The same is true in fitness: You aren’t going to get in shape without some tough workouts.
Maybe I should remind you of my favorite educational statement:
So, if you cheat to get your answer you miss all the useful stuff. It would be like running 5 miles by catching a ride in a golf cart. Sure, you would get to the end point—but you wouldn’t be all tired and sweaty. The tired, sweaty part isn’t bad, it’s good. It’s called exercise. The same is true in learning.
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