Learning Remotely

Learning Practices

This section is designed to help you succeed in a remote learning environment and adapt to challenges you may encounter. The guidance provided here is relevant for an all-virtual or a hybrid learning model that blends remote learning with an in-person experience. You will engage in traditional learning activities including reading, studying, and writing papers. But in this new learning environment, you will also attend lectures, discussions, and labs in a virtual environment. You will also learn new things, including how to use different forms of technology and undertake your course work asynchronously – which means, some portions of your course may occur at different times and in different formats (e.g. pre-recorded lectures, film viewings, virtual discussions, and so forth). Outlined below are suggestions on how to adapt your approach to learning and to help you become a more successful remote learner.

Preparing for the Start of Classes

Learn your tools and technology

In order to be successful in a remote learning environment, you must get comfortable with the technology that will support your learning. This means familiarizing yourself with Canvas, Zoom, or Panopto. Take the following steps in advance of the start of your courses to ensure that the quarter begins well:

  • Test all of your technology at least one day before beginning your courses. Make sure that your volume (input and output) are functioning effectively and test your video.
  • Assess your background and remove distracting features, if possible. If you are sharing your learning space, consider using a Zoom digital background. Consider a pre-class “meetup” with your peers to test Zoom or other technology you will be using for class.
  • Your Zoom connectivity will be stronger if you reduce or eliminate all other open websites, applications, or internet-based activities while in class. You are strongly encouraged to close all unnecessary applications not only to ensure that Zoom functions at its best but to also minimize distraction. The same holds true in a remote learning environment as in a “live” classroom: distraction and multitasking compromises quality learning.
  • Before your courses begin, write down the Zoom dial in (phone) instructions. This will allow you to connect with the course, even if your Internet goes down. It is your responsibility to do all that you can to participate fully. Make sure you understand your instructor’s policies on reconnecting to the course and what you should do if technology fails completely (on yours or their side). Make sure you also have UChicago IT’s phone number handy in case you need immediate tech support.
  • Take advantage of the technology resources and tutorials provided on the Getting Started page.

Create a schedule

One of the most important practices for higher learning – whether in traditional classes, pursuing research, or in virtual learning settings – is to establish a canonical routine. In other words, establish a “working” day that begins and ends at the same time, includes important breaks for meals, resting your eyes, and reconnecting with your peers. Below are some suggestions to help you establish a routine; remember that it should be adaptable and you should incorporate ways to change your practice from time to time. The requirements of remote learning may call for more flexibility, but this can present new opportunities to enhance learning and preparation. In fact, research shows that varying your habits and context can contribute to success, and better prepare students for real-world situations.

  • Once you know what is expected of you in each course, map out your complete quarter. Create a daily schedule (that begins and ends at about the same time); and, create a weekly, monthly, and quarterly schedule that tracks all of your assignments, due-dates, and other important deadlines.
  • Schedule in all of your asynchronous activities. You may have asynchronous lectures or course activities, which will demand a certain amount of independence. Build readings, lab-work, film-viewings, and other types of learning activities into your daily schedule.
  • Build in 10-15-minute breaks; as well as a lunch break. This will ensure you are more productive and that you can take a break from technology. In fact, take a real break from technology during one or all of these breaks; given the amount of time spent looking at screens, you physical body (especially your eyes) actually needs a break from reading online, watching Netflix, Zoom calls with friends, and other screen-based experiences (including your social media accounts and cell phones). Devote at least one daily break to a no-screen activity (like taking a walk or making an actual phone call).
  • If you are living in a time zone other than Central Time (Central Daylight Time), you may be required to attend Zoom classes or discussion sections at unusual hours. If you find the time-difference especially problematic, discuss this with your instructor. If it proves problematic, you may need to adjust your course schedule (in order to sleep and maintain a healthy lifestyle). If you are an undergraduate, you should work closely with your Academic Advisor to establish reasonable course schedules that are responsive to time-differences.
  • Be careful not to over-extend yourself. Learning remotely takes a lot of extra energy; it is an unusual environment that most of us are still adapting to. Prioritize activities that will nurture and expand your academic and social communities; they are vital to your overall success.

Additional Suggestions:

  • Educate those around about your schedule (and respect theirs). This is especially important if you are sharing your learning space with family or roommates. Consider working with your space-mates to establish a working schedule that is considerate of everyone sharing the space.
  • Get “dressed” for the day. You will find it easier to maintain your “workday”, if you treat it as such. It also signals a seriousness about your studies and shows respect for those who are teaching you, and those sharing a Zoom space with you.
  • Establish reasonable (and achievable) goals. Break your various tasks and assignments up into smaller sections that you can tackle on a daily or weekly basis. This will allow you to be more productive and to feel as though you’ve accomplished goals and tasks (rather than just creating a long list). Limit you daily tasks lists and goal setting to a manageable number; long lists are rarely “finished” and can lead to feeling overwhelmed.
    • Here’s an example of what we’re talking about: break up an assignment or task into its constituent parts. Instead of noting on your schedule “study for the final”, your schedule and task list might include a set amount of time for reviewing each chapter, reviewing your notes, taking a practice test, etc.
  • Consider using a workflow productivity technique, such as the “Pomodoro method”. This model breaks down your work into 25-minute intervals. After each 25-minute period, reward yourself with a 5-minute break. Once you complete four 25-minute work periods, reward yourself with a longer break (15-20 minutes; or a lunch break). Another model is called the “52/17” model; most of us work productively for about 52 minutes; after each work period, take a 17-minute break.
  • It is vital to maintain your learning community and continue to build your academic network. Develop new connections or strengthen existing learning networks (with your in-class peers/those in your major or discipline, faculty, academic and research mentors, librarians, and academic advisors). Consider staying connected with your social network beyond UChicago (friends at other colleges and universities, peer group organizations around the nation and world, scholarly or research groups at other types of higher-learning institutions, such as research institutes, museums, collections, and libraries).

Create a space for successful learning

To the extent that you can, identify spaces that are conducive to learning and return to those spaces. This reinforces the practice of establishing a “canonical” workday with a beginning and end. Make sure your learning space does the following:

  • Supports the technology you need for lectures, discussions, and meetings.
  • Is consistent and reliable. This allows for the adherence to a routine, even if you vary that routine and your space. Establishing spaces (possibly different) for Zoom, reading, writing and studying for exams, will reinforce the work you need to get done in each space and also allow you to focus your energies on those tasks.
  • Quiet and well lighted. This isn’t just for reading. A quiet and well-lit space will also enhance your participation on Zoom; it will be easier to concentrate, and your instructor and classmates will be able to see you well, which enhances the virtual classroom experience.
  • If it is difficult to establish a quiet space, especially if you are sharing it, make sure you have headphones with a microphone. Use the mute button when not speaking. Establish a workable schedule ahead of time with your dorm or housemates that allows for quiet study time and effective listening on Zoom.
  • Limit distractions to create a productive digital workspace: silence and put away your phone, close extra tabs and programs on your computer.
  • Vary your activities, in addition to your space. If you have a series of Zoom courses, discussions, or meetings back-to-back, spend the next stretch of time reading, studying, or writing that will allow you to take a break from the screens.
  • If you live in an agreeable climate, consider spending some of your time reading, writing, or studying outside. A park or garden or backyard can provide not only a change of scenery but also can offer certain sensorial environments that can aid in learning. Nature’s “background” noise can often help focus the mind and fresh air is restorative.

Virtual classroom etiquette

Everyone is learning how to have discussions virtually. It helps everyone in your virtual classroom, not just the instructor, if everyone strives for maximum participation.

  • Keep your contributions focused, clear, and allow for others to contribute to the discussion. If you find it difficult to contribute effectively, let the instructor know. They will benefit from feedback that may help the entire course, not just your individual performance.
  • Adhere to the same standards of behavior virtually that you follow in “real” life. You should do your best to act within established classroom norms whenever you enter “cyberspace” (or a “virtual” classroom). Just as you would not behave rudely face-to-face or cut someone off with whom you may disagree, you should not do so in the virtual world.
  • Know how to “raise” your hand – either virtually or live with your video on. If you are unsure about your instructor’s preference, ask at the beginning of class.
  • Be thoughtful about what you are sharing via chat or in break-out rooms. These pieces of information may be recorded or distributed. Your instructor should disclose if the lecture or discussion is being recorded; if you are unsure, ask your instructor.
  • Be thoughtful about uploading your own documents, intellectual property, etc. to Zoom or other open web-conferencing sites. Only upload your assignments to your course Canvas page or UChicago Box (as instructed by your professor). Do not upload anything with personal, identifying information (this includes phone numbers, physical addresses, social security or national identification numbers, birthdates, etc.). If you are sharing assignments and materials in a peer-working group, discussion or lab group, consider using UChicago Box, which is more secure than Google Drive. Get more information about storing active data.

Know where to go for help

Good communication is necessary in every educational and professional environment; it is even more vital in a virtual learning environment. As we all continue to adapt our learning and teaching styles, it is important to know when and who to ask for continued support. Information on other resources and avenues for support can also be found on the Learning Resources page.

  • Virtual office hours: if you need support in your course, communicate directly with your instructor. Consider using virtual office hours as you would traditional office hours – seek your instructor’s counsel on additional resources you may be able to consult, further training from which you may benefit, and so forth. Additionally, if you find your own academic interests parallel those of your instructor, use office hours as an opportunity to expand your relationship by seeking counsel on research interests, future plans for graduate studies, or professional development.
  • Academic Advisor: Undergraduates at UChicago should be in regular communication with their academic advisors about adjusting course-schedules, submitting required forms, managing institutional policies, and other matters related to their course-based academic success. In advance of your virtual advising appointment, make sure you have all of your questions ready in advance to take full advantage of your limited time together.
  • Faculty and Research Mentor(s): Students engaged in undergraduate research, independent BA or BS thesis research, or graduate students working on thesis or dissertation research should stay in close communication with their faculty and/or research mentor(s). Please visit our student resources on virtual communication strategies available at the companion site, Remote Student Research Experiences for more information.
  • Library Resources: Library experts are available for consultations regarding research assignments or projects. You may also contact a librarian for live, online research help using the Ask a Librarian service.
  • Tutoring, Individual Support, and Peer Mentoring: Information on support offered by the Writing Program, the Social Sciences Core Writing Program, College Core Tutoring, and more is available on the Tutoring page More specialized writing, research, and advising support is provided by the College Center for Research & Fellowships (CCRF) and UChicagoGRAD. Incoming first year and transfer students can take advantage of the College Programming Office’s UChicago Mentoring Program.
  • IT Helpdesk contact information: If you need IT support, please contact IT Services at itservices@uchicago.edu, 773.702.5800 or service-now.com/it. Additional guidance related to technology supporting related to remote learning, please consult the “Getting Started” page. Academic Technology Solutions (ATS) is also available to support students with canvas and course-specific software; please refer to their student resources information for more details.

Managing Your Courses

Strategies for success in discussion-based courses

Success in discussion-based courses hinges on your participation. This includes advanced preparation, active listening, and engaging in discussion. Notably, the same nerves that may have made you nervous to speak up in class may still exist in the Zoom environment. But, as with an in-class experience, here are some tips to help you succeed in your virtual course discussions:

  • Prepare in advance. Make sure you have done all of the assigned readings and have carefully reviewed your notes and class materials. This may include videos, discussion board content, previously distributed slides and presentations, etc.
    • Do more than just re-read, re-watch, or re-visit your notes in preparation. Consider taking new notes on the materials, working through additional sample problems, or write additional summaries or outlines. The more often we replicate information (through notetaking and writing, in particular), the more likely we are to retain information. And, the more information retained, the better able you are to contribute to a discussion.
  • Come with questions. This will aid in your participation; you won’t have to think of questions or discussion points “on the fly”. This is especially helpful for students who may find it difficult to speak up in class or who feel certain anxiety at being called on. The more advanced preparation you do, the more comfortable you will likely feel. Write lists of questions, highlight sections of a text you would like to explore further, or present problems that you didn’t quite work out but would like to tackle together.
  • Get comfortable with multiple platforms for discussion. Virtual learning allows for a variety of modes of engaging in discussion and new ways of “active” learning that extends beyond the digital “walls” of your classroom. Make sure you understand how to use the chat function of Zoom, how to contribute to discussion boards in Canvas, and through other channels your instructor may suggest or employ (such as break out rooms). 
    • Discussion boards and breakout rooms offer opportunities for more in depth discussion and different types of contributions to discussions than those that will occur during class. These can also be particularly well-informed discussions because you can build on ideas introduced in class, but advanced through your own reading, lab work, and research.
  • Be prepared for different tasks. Your instructor might ask you to do different activities in advance of your discussion to help aid the in-class virtual discussion. These may include pre-reading exercises, set activities, or other tasks assigned in Canvas. These are designed to prompt reflection, make connections between class sessions, and get everyone prepared to contribute to the virtual in-class discussion. Don’t dismiss them. They are important pedagogical tools to enhance the quality of your learning once you are in a larger group.
  • The most important thing you can do in (any) discussion-based learning environment is to listen carefully. Listening is one of our most important life- and learning skills; and, it is the least “taught” activity. Use your virtual discussion courses to practice good listening – including paying careful attention to every person as they speak, writing down important ideas that they share, and allowing them to finish their ideas completely before offering your own comments. You have a lot to learn from your instructor and your peers; you can only do so if you make every effort to hear what they say. This is why it is so important to minimize other distractions while in class.
  • Be respectful of others views and ideas. Ask thoughtful questions that exemplify how well you have listened to others. Collegial discourse is grounded in thoughtfulness and careful study of course materials; it should not be based on mere opinion or aim to make the speaker feel less worthy.

Learning through recorded lectures and content (Asynchronous)

Although it can be difficult to learn from pre-recorded lectures and discussions, it can also aid in learning in unexpected ways. Asynchronous learning allows you to control how you take in the material. Before you had one opportunity to attend a 60- or 90-minute lecture, now the content you need to learn is captured in a recording, giving you the opportunity to pause, reflect, take better notes, and review the material presented to help you master it in new ways that may even improve your understanding. Below are some strategies on how to take full advantage of asynchronous learning:

  • Watch the recording from start to finish in one sitting, taking notes just as you would in class. You do not need to re-write everything verbatim. If necessary, pause the video briefly and make a notation of a section you may wish to return to at a later time.
  • Following your complete viewing of the lecture, go back through your notes. If there are sections that you wish to review, build in time (ideally later in the day or the next day) to go back and review those specific sections. It is unlikely that you will need to view an entire recording again; treat a recorded lecture much as you would a book, identifying just those sections that merit review and will enhance your absorption of vital information.
  • Make sure that you have reviewed any handouts or materials prepared in advance by your instructor while you watch the video. These may include a list of key words or terms, questions to consider, or supplemental pieces of information that they will not address specifically in the lecture but want you to know about.
  • Consider writing a summary of the lecture or portions of the lecture. Instructors may require you to do this, but you may benefit from making this a regular practice. We retain information better if we have encountered it in multiple formats – visually, audibly, and kinetically (writing). Recorded lectures provide the visual and audible learning. Writing a summary will provide the final step in absorbing fully the information provided. Consider collecting your summaries into a study guide; this activity allows you to incorporate reflection as part of your learning process. It will also help you prepare for your exams, lead to strong learning by increasing retention and understanding of the material, and even contribute to your essay writing later on in the quarter.
  • Asynchronous learning can be advantageous. It allows you to learn at your own pace, provides you with the opportunity to revisit material that you may have found difficult in your first encounter with it, and it provides an “archive” of learning materials. However, you will not benefit from its advantages if you try to “cram” all of your recorded lectures or activities into one day (while it may have short-term benefits, “cramming” does not translate into the long-term retention of material). Similarly, “skipping” pre-recorded lectures is as disadvantageous as skipping class. You will miss out on important information that has been carefully curated by your instructor.
  • As you prepare for mid-terms and final exams, consider spacing out your review of pre-recorded materials. And, take advantage of your original viewing note-taking system, allowing for a strategic review of videos rather than a blitz of re-watching everything. You wouldn’t re-read an entire book for an exam; you would review key portions. Approach your review of recorded materials the same way. Research has shown cramming material does not lead to long term benefits.
  • Use the technology to your advantage. In other words, use the buttons! Stop, rewind and replay when you don’t understand something that was said or if your concentration has lapsed. Hit pause to record notes, to think of a response if the lecturer has posed a question, or to reflect on something said. You may be able to turn on captions while you are watching the video or, in many cases, a transcript of the video will be available at a later time. All of these things can be used to terrific advantage in your virtual learning environment.
  • Try pre-recording your own “lecture”. Remember those summaries we just mentioned? Consider taking time to build your own lecture based on your summary material and record a session of yourself teaching on the subject. As the adage goes, “by teaching, you will learn”. Organizing your notes into a coherent whole, speaking those notes aloud, and re-listening to your own presentation may go a long way as you prepare for exams or final essays.

Academic integrity applies to virtual learning

The University of Chicago Student Manual includes the University’s position on academic integrity. The College has an academic integrity statement specifically for undergraduates. Academic integrity is at the core of the educational and research mission of the University. These expectations do not change in a virtual learning environment; students will continue to be held to the highest standards.

Organizational Strategies and Co-Curricular Research Support

Virtual learning has created an abundance of resources. Effective learning in this environment also means developing new ways of keeping track of all of this material. Think about how to best store and catalogue documents, data, slide presentations, films and recordings. Consider whether you will need new ways of storing and sharing your work, and extracting data, resources, and commentary from your instructors or research mentors. Do these items need special labels or metadata for future access? How will you keep priority information secure?

Storing notes, important communications, and resources

Your usual practices of organizing information and documents that support class discussion are valuable and can be applied to your virtual learning experience. But you will need to enhance these practices to aid in tracking the abundance of information available virtually. Consider the following questions and how you might store vital information:

  • Will you have access to material posted on Zoom chats or shared in breakout rooms once that course session is over?
  • Can you download and store materials from the course Canvas site, including pre-recorded lectures?
  • Is there a time-limit on how often/when you can access these materials?

Once you have a sense of all of your course materials, develop a plan for organizing all of the relevant information for each course. Create separate folders on your desktop or in UChicago Box, develop tracking spreadsheets for relevant websites and other resources shared by your instructor, and keep your syllabi within easy reach. You may or may not like using Canvas for everything; consider developing a parallel organizational system that allows you to create your own responsive system for organizing deadlines, notes, handouts, and preparatory materials.

Successful research strategies

Effective research, in any environment, requires planning, time-management, and active communication with research mentors. In a remote setting, it is even more important to establish strategies that will ensure your success. Visit our Remote Student Research Experiences site for more guidance:

Establishing and maintaining your academic community

Continue to build a network with your own peers, your instructors and faculty members, graduate students and preceptors, and academic partners. Think about all of your formal and informal collaborators, including the people upon whom you rely, and who rely on you, every day. Build “time to connect with my academic community” into your formal schedule. They are vital partners in your successful virtual learning environment.

Adaptability, Connection, and Knowing When to Ask for Help

As we focus our attention on the logistics of learning virtually, it is easy to forget the larger context in which we are all living. We are working remotely in response to a global health crisis that impacts not just our own lived experience but those we love and care about. Attend to your own safety and sense of security, and that of your family and friends. Be gentle with yourself and realistic in your expectations for academic performance. You will adapt but such adaptation takes time, merits connecting with others, and may require that you ask for help. Reach out to your instructors and academic advisors if you are finding your virtual courses challenging and take advantage of UChicago’s Health and Wellness team. We’ve provided additional resources below.

Developing new skills and adapting

  • Understand your own learning style. As you practice new strategies for learning, stay conscious of what you’re doing and how well it is working for you. The technologies you will be using and the structure of your courses and assignments will be very different from the on-campus experience. The timing and tempo of your work may shift, which may enhance your capacity for critical analysis or creative problem solving.
  • This is an opportunity to learn how to be better learner and scholar. As difficult as it may be, the skills you are learning in your virtual courses are immensely translatable. In your future career, as a researcher, scholar, or professional, you will be expected to engage with others via Zoom or other conferencing platforms, access resources that may be half a world away, and/or manage your time well. You will need to organize and access information effectively, synthesize information, and translate it for others.
  • The ability to adapt, rebound, and reimagine are the key principles of innovation. You are cultivating a skillset that will enhance your success not only as a student but as an active participant in an increasingly complex world.

Mindfulness and allowing for learning through mistakes

There may also be structures of support or patterns of interaction that you have become accustomed to while on campus. In a virtual environment, they may not exist and that can be frustrating.

  • Pay attention to yourself. Stay mindful of your physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and social needs. By doing so, you can anticipate support and are more likely to identify new or existing systems of support, access them more readily, or even create new modes of engagement.
  • Be open to failure. It is often the best way to learn well and it is never fatal.
  • Give yourself and others some grace. This is a challenging and new moment for all of us. Patience and clear communication will go a long way.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help. You have an entire university committed to your academic success. We are all in this together, but we can’t know what you need if you don’t reach out.