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Adapting to Constantly-Changing Learning Environments

Edited by Aminata Jalloh


In the last year, practices like wearing masks and social distancing have become a part of our lives. But for some, other parts of our “new normal”, like distance learning and online classes, have proved to be more difficult to get used to. After a year in a pandemic, we should all be accustomed to keeping up with virtual events, emails, and zoom meetings right? Wrong. The truth is that many of us are still adapting, and trying to make the best of a less than ideal situation. With more and more states loosening COVID restrictions, and continually changing guidelines, there is an added fear of soon having to transition back to in-person campus activities as well.


Though everyone’s experience this past year has been different, the common thread between us is adaptability, which also happens to be a skill required of every healthcare professional, pandemic or not. COVID, however, has taken this expectation to new and unnatural heights. It has forced us to quickly change our lives in ways that we were not prepared for, and deal with circumstances we could never before imagine. As students with varying learning styles and personality types, to some, virtual learning is a blessing, to others, it might be one of your hardest challenges to date. Knowing this, it is important not to compare your individual experience to anyone else’s, but to do YOUR best in this season, whatever that looks like for you. So whether virtual learning has been a breeze, or the bane of your existence, we want to remind you that you are not alone. Here are some of our staff members’ experiences with online learning:


For France, online learning proved to be difficult and only made the other changes happening in her life harder to adapt to:


As an introvert who loves her alone time, online learning sounded like a glorious thing to me, but during the past year, I’ve been proven wrong. When the pandemic came around and all my courses were switched to an online format, I was still engaged in multiple extracurricular activities and taking 18 credits. As a Pre-med student, science classes require my intentional energy to master, so activities like group study and visiting my professors’ office hours were extremely important for me. With online learning, those opportunities diminished and this caused me to struggle with understanding the material. Additionally, circumstances in my personal life (my parents contracting COVID-19, a death in my family, etc.) coupled with increasing anxiety and stress from isolation, social unrest, and some non-COVID-related health complications affected my ability to adapt to this new form of learning. I did not know how to cope in a way that rejuvenated me, instead I used more screen-time (social media) to take breaks from school-related screen-time. I was drained and settled for simply passing my courses instead of understanding and retaining the content. 


Fast-forward to this school year, my negative experiences intensified and I was forced to evaluate and transform how I took care of myself. This is leading to a shift in how I tackle online education. I’ve learned, and still am learning, that “I am not a machine, but a garden”. I need “nutrients” like water, exercise, mental health breaks, quality time with the people I love, time to do hobbies that make me happy, and adequate rest. They enable me to have the energy needed to be resilient through this difficult season and tackle online learning efficiently. My mindset has also shifted from one of survival to one that accepts the new adjustments and seeks to make a fulfilling experience out of them. I can take note of how my learning styles and study habits are changing and discard habits that aren’t beneficial for me. I am also learning to accept fatigue or slow days and give myself grace. Adaptation isn’t a linear process, but it’s a rewarding one. 


For Roddley, this shift to online learning has “taken him for a joke” in many ways. This is probably how many of us feel. But, like Roddley, you will discover that there are ways to make sure you stay afloat:


Attending school amid a pandemic has not been easy, I must say. Then couple that with senioritis and me trying to plan my next steps in life, HA! The shift to online learning has forced me to step up my time management and organizational skills, while also paying more attention to myself. Between the minimal amount of zoom classes (for me) and many classes becoming fully online/hybrid, it became easy for me to simply get lost in Netflix or Hulu all day. I had to learn to pace myself and also be patient with myself. Usually, I can adapt quickly to new situations, but this took a lot longer to adapt to than others.


 In this online learning environment, it has been important for me to have a planner. I don’t know about you, but with all the time spent at home, the days often start to merge, and my planner is what keeps me on track with assignments, deadlines, and personal projects. My advice would be to look at your syllabus regularly to see what is due, and write out a general schedule of what needs to be done for the week. Pay attention to yourself and listen to your body. PLEASE take some time to get fresh air throughout the day and move around. Even minimal exercising will help to keep your brain at optimal performance. If you feel overwhelmed, step back, do some breathing exercises, take a walk, and get back to work. It’s not going to be easy, but the more you push through, the better it gets. Staying organized and cutting tasks into smaller subtasks aids in preventing you from becoming overwhelmed. Hopefully in this transition to online learning you’ve learned more about how you like to learn and study!


For Frank, online learning has given him more freedom to be a responsible and independent student:


When my school declared that they would make classes online last March, I immediately saw the opportunity for flexibility. I realized that I could travel (safely) and have a bit of freedom with everything I wanted to do from home. The time no longer spent on traveling to campus and classrooms has translated to more time to sleep and more time in comfortable sweats. Overall, it has given me a chance to be relaxed while I’m learning.  


Online learning has also allowed me to think independently; I’ve been relying more on my knowledge and other resources,  and not just lectures. It has pushed me to figure out my weaknesses and strengths and to show that I was capable of understanding materials on my own. Online learning has also helped me to be more present and opened doors that wouldn’t be available otherwise. Currently, I work as a research coordinator in one of the top hospitals in New Jersey. I can say that online learning has given me more wiggle room to be ahead of the game academically and professionally.


For students like Alex, doing school in your pajamas might be one of the highlights of this year:


 Initially, when we were forced to go home in the spring of 2020, I was sad. I missed being in person, studying with my friends, and having the privilege of being able to just walk into the office of any of my teachers, just to talk to them or ask questions. Now I’m comfortable. I can attend class from my room without having to go and get ready for the day. For my classes that require a camera, I end up looking nice, but below the camera’s view, I’m in my pj’s with bunny slippers on, I’m still comfortable. Also, unlike online classes that I took pre-pandemic, the fact that I can communicate with my class and my teachers made the switch a little easier for me. I honestly enjoy this, but I know that I might have to give up such comfort in the fall when I’m back on campus. Even still, it will be worth it as I will finally be in person again. My teachers will be able to connect my face to my name, and I will be in an environment where I’m surrounded by other students who are focused, driven, and want to attain their goals. This is something that I look forward to in the fall of 2021. 


For Sebastian, an M1, upgrading his workspace and daily scheduling was key:


Before this first year of medical school began, I anticipated spending more time studying and attending Zoom lectures, small group sessions, etc. So, I made plans to optimize my workspace to accommodate virtual learning. Optimizing my workspace consisted of changing my desk setup to have more space, getting a new lamp, and buying an external monitor that I use in conjunction with my laptop. I invested in the extra monitor to increase my computer screen real estate and reduce eye strain. I did have to shell out some money for it, but it has been worth every penny because it made studying way more bearable. Another thing that has worked for me is making time to take intentional breaks and go outside. I accomplished this through the Pomodoro method (25 min studying, 5 min break), picking out parts of my day to run an errand or workout, engaging in my favorite hobbies when I have free time, and making time for self-care. This experience has reinforced how mental health is just as important as physical health and why we all should strive to take proper care of both.


Wherever you fall on the spectrum of feelings and experiences with online learning, there’s no doubt that we have all been forced to grow and adjust our educational expectations. If like many of us, you are still trying to find ways to improve your success in online educational settings, here are some tips to remember as you strive to achieve this goal:


  • Give yourself grace and room to grow

  • Be open to new experiences and new ways of doing things

  • Stick to a schedule (because time management has taken on a completely new meaning)

  • Be aware of your academic strengths and weaknesses

  • Try your best to get over the fear of reaching out to professors 

  • Lean on your classmates and peers for accountability

  • Create virtual study groups

  • Don’t be afraid to get a tutor or coach

  • Get comfortable with change!

We know this year has been less than ideal to say the least. Remember that all you are expected to do is your best, even if that looks a little different this time around! We are all in this struggle together, but if you stick with it and find healthy ways to cope, you will come out more resilient and equipped to face other obstacles on your journey to getting that white coat!