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 pre-recorded), you can find ways to interact. Use the text chat on zoom or Google meets 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 just 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 over 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 Meets? 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?