When I was completing my master’s degree at age 25 I did much of my own coursework online. My first thought after my first month of classes was – “I’m not sure how well I would have been able to handle this kind of learning in my first few years of university.” When I attended Wilfrid Laurier University to complete my bachelor’s degree, it was a requirement that every student must take one online course. I took this course in my third year and it happened to be one of the hardest courses I had ever taken, Biopsychology. When I received the syllabus and textbook for the course, my anxiety and self-doubt immediately began to build. Thoughts of – “What do I do when I don’t understand something? Will the professor be there to answer questions? Do I even know anyone else taking the course that I can maybe meet up with to study? What if I have tech/computer issues? I was terrible at biology in high school, so how am I going to pass this course, let alone online?” Etc. Many factors come into play in terms of being able to successfully and confidently take and complete online courses in college or university, including: Differing learning styles, technology/computer capabilities and possible issues, communication with school administration and professors, completing group work and presentations via video, writing exams using ‘digital proctor’ technology, among several other factors. All of these potential issues and roadblocks can, very understandably, lead to increased stress, anxiety, procrastination, frustration, low mood, focus and energy. But what can we do when this is the case? How can we ‘get back on track,’ feel better and stay confident in our ability to be successful in the world of online learning during COVID-19?
Demand Help and Guidance
Remember, YOU pay tuition for not only a quality education, but to be provided the appropriate tools, assistance and guidance to be successful in completing your studies. A number of my clients who are currently in college or university have voiced to me their frustration regarding such things as course disorganization, feeling stressed and/or scared to ask professors questions about course materials, their ability to complete assignments with tight deadlines, other assignment difficulties and/or upcoming tests and exams. Not only have I found that a number of students aren’t aware of the resources available to help them be successful during this school year in particular, but I’ve also found many students are experiencing significant stress, anxiety, apprehension and even a sense of dread in seeking help or guidance.
Many of us have run into several situations, since the start of COVID-19, in which we had to wait much longer than usual for questions to be answered, issues to be resolved, and solutions to be provided (E.g. long lineups, being stuck on hold on the phone or waiting several days or weeks for emails to be answered). Such situations have not only tested our patience, but have led to a sense of helplessness, dread, carelessness, and, for the lack of a better term, ‘care.’ And while it may be an uncomfortable task to ‘demand’ help or answers (E.g. Feeling overwhelmed by course material and not receiving timely help from a professor), practicing what is called assertiveness will be essential for having a smoother and less stressful online schooling experience. Assertiveness is a key skill that will not only lend itself to having more confidence in completing online schooling, but a skill that will lend itself to more confidence and success in life after post-secondary education (E.g. At the workplace).
Assertiveness is basically a healthy way of communicating where one speaks up for themselves in a fashion that is respectful and honest, but is also perceived by others as confident and strong. For example, if you’re finding that you have a midterm exam coming up and you’ve been waiting 5 days for an email response from a professor regarding your understanding of a theory, and you now only have 2 days before the exam, you will find being assertive (while remaining respectful) just might get you the results you were hoping for. In this situation, you could write in the subject line of another email to the professor: ‘URGENT: Question Regarding Upcoming Exam’ and in the body of the email, keep your question concise while making sure to state your concern and central question while also offering other ways the professor can successfully communicate with you – For example, providing exact times they could call you on the phone. This tactic can also be used with school administration and any other supports available to you.
Communication, Group Work, Trust & ‘Zoom Fatigue’
As I see many college and university aged clients in my office, I’ve received much information and feedback from them regarding their personal experiences with online ‘Zoom school.’ One client in particular, who knew that I was writing this article, made it clear to me that their online ‘Zoom school’ experience has likely been very similar to the experience of many of you reading this right now. I think it’s very important to discuss not only what has been portrayed in the media regarding student struggles with online schooling this year, but what I have heard first hand from clients such as the one mentioned above. This student made it clear to me that their stressors with ‘Zoom school’ this year have included:
- Difficulty communicating and connecting with fellow students when doing assigned group work/projects.
- ‘Zoom fatigue’ and the mental and physical effects of continuous screen time.
- Issues related to grading of assignments and exams (E.g. Computer grading programs).
- Lack of social interaction and networking opportunities and abilities with peers.
An effective way of tackling communication issues with classmates and group members is to immediately suggest connecting outside of the project and/or anything class related. Discuss with your group members your individual strengths, what everyone’s expectations are and set a schedule for reasonable times to work on the assignment. A great point my above mentioned client also made was that they, and their housemates, all ran into issues regarding trust when doing group work online. Much of trust is gained during in person interaction where we can get a sense of others’ ‘energy,’ mannerisms and behaviour… and with these aspects missing during COVID-19 restrictions, it can making gaining trust a difficult task. A good tactic to use to ‘gain trust’ when only Zoom video calling is available to communicate, is to set up a ‘games night’ with your group mates. Not only will everyone’s ‘guards be down,’ but when people are relaxed and not feeling pressured or tasked with something stressful (E.g. group project), we see each other’s ‘true selves’ which allows for a ‘real,’ natural way of trust forming.
Another major obstacle my client stated that I should speak about is ‘Zoom fatigue’ and excessive screen time. We have seen major tech companies like Apple and Samsung implementing Blue Light filtering technology into their phones and computers in an attempt to address not only eye strain, but ‘fatigue’ from hours on end spent staring at their screens. While tools like ‘blue light filters’ are a great concept that may address eye strain, the issue of mental fatigue and stress remains. ‘Zoom fatigue’ has been brought to the forefront since the COVID-19 pandemic began and has been highly reported on by the media, but what can students do to help combat the negative effects of so much screen time? The following are a few effective tips that I’ve been sharing with my student clients.
- Take BREAKS! Of course, this can’t really be done during a live video lecture, but when doing research, studying, group work or working on an assignment, etc., breaks are a Our brains can only handle so much time spent focusing, being stimulated and processing and retaining significant information before it actually becomes counterproductive to ‘push through’ when working online. A simple rule to implement is to set a reminder or alarm on your phone to go off every 1.5 hours to remind oneself to stop and take a 15 minute break to go for a walk, chat with roommates, listen to music etc. This will allow your brain to recharge and rest so that it can keep functioning optimally throughout the day.
- Watch what you are eating and drinking while doing school work online. Snacking on high calorie/high sugar carbohydrates like crackers, chips, pop or (if of legal age) alcoholic drinks like beer can gives us a feeling of relaxation when stressed, but they actually lead to a lowered ability to focus, process information and lead to an eventual ‘crash.’ Consume these things as ‘rewards’ after ‘Zoom school’ is done for the day. Choose healthier options, high in vitamins, minerals, fibre and proteins while online and you will notice ‘Zoom fatigue’ having less of an effect on you!
- TREAT YOURSELF! Practicing self-care is always important for our physical and mental health, but practicing this is more important than ever during COVID-19. DO NOT feel guilty or ‘bad’ for treating yourself to a night movies or games, getting a massage, taking a nap, cooking a fun meal, etc. Remember, by doing this you are being kind to your brain! When our muscles ache or cramp, we know it is time to rest and recover. The same goes for when our brains are feeling stressed, drained and unfocused!
- Lastly, ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE. I can’t express this enough in terms of how important it is during the time of COVID-19, especially for students. With our ‘normal routines’ no longer being a reality for many of us today, this has resulted in significant mental and physical distress for many. It has become very easy for us to slip into ‘bad habits,’ procrastinate and feel stressed, anxious, hopeless and tired. While not easy, the answer to this is to create a NEW routine that is conducive to being an ‘online student.’ I often recommend to my student clients to simply purchase one of the large, erasable wall calendars from their schools bookstore or STAPLES. I suggest to them to, each week, use a few different coloured markers to make a ‘legend,’ breaking one’s day down into different types of activities/’tasks.’ For example, blue could be used for scheduling online lecture time, green for studying time, red for assignments, orange for breaks, black for fun/entertainment and so on. Having a solid routine and structure is not only essential to ‘keeping on track’ with school, but to your mental and physical health as well.
If, after implementing the tools and tips above, you are finding that you are struggling to a point where you are finding it unbearable, extremely draining, and overly stressful and anxiety provoking, I encourage college and university students to use the mental health resources available to them. All provincial (regulated) colleges and universities provide counselling services. If you have found these resources unhelpful, there are long wait times for service or you have ‘used up’ your maximum amount of counselling sessions with your school, private services like my office, Brant Mental Health Solutions, are available. We provide high quality, quick and effective services both in person and online. By reaching out to us, as I have heard from many college and university students, I want students to know that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with them. When we are struggling, it can at times be an insurmountable task to ‘help ourselves’ and this is when the help and guidance of a trained counsellor or therapist can be the answer!
Jordon is a counsellor and coach at Brant Mental Health Solutions, located at 139 Grand River St. N. in Paris, Ontario. Jordon holds a Master of Arts in Counselling, is a Certified Coach Practitioner and is currently working under the supervision of a Registered Social Worker. Jordon specializes in helping clients manage stress, overcome anxiety, low mood, interpersonal issues and difficult life transitions. www.brantmentalhealth.com