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Making the Most of an Uncertain Semester During Coronavirus

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The COVID-19 situation can look wildly different even between cities within the same state. Across the country, universities have been crafting safety plans including a mix of reopening in-person and online-only classes. 

Harvard University, for example, has announced that all classes will be remote, allowing only 40% of undergraduates to return to campus to promote social distancing. Faculty have made their classes more Zoom-friendly and even created lab kits so students can run experiments from home this school year. Other schools, like Elon University—my alma mater—are doing health screenings with students and faculty upon arrival back to school and requiring face masks. But whatever the plan is, the first day of classes for college students may look entirely different from how you end up closing out the semester.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been talking about college life constantly with a friend who happens to be an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University. Dr. Matt Motta studies public opinion and has recently been conducting polling to answer questions about Americans’ faith in vaccines and support of mail-in voting, among other topics. OSU will be returning to campus in person this fall, with a mix of in-person and online classes. 

Motta’s always very quick to point out that what works for him might not work, or even be possible, for faculty or courses in other disciplines. He doesn’t have children, for starters. Your professors may be in totally different situations. But his bottom-line advice for how to approach this academic year is solid: Be flexible, patient, and stay engaged, and you’ll come out of this well. I asked him to share his thoughts on how you can make the most of whatever this semester brings you. 

Matthew Motta

The college experience is going to look so much different this year. How do you think this will affect students’ academic careers?

I think it is entirely possible to get a quality education that is not face-to-face. It’s possible to learn a lot from courses in a variety of fields, offered with either a mix of in-person classes and online learning, or fully online learning. I think what students need to expect is not necessarily that the quality of their education will change, but that there will be a change in how they expect to be educated, and how they participate with their education.

If you’re taking an online-only class, how can you make a genuine connection with a professor you’ve never met in person?

This is an area where students are often in the driver’s seat. If your professor offers the opportunity to attend class virtually, synchronously—meaning that you watch it live, while it’s happening—you absolutely, if you’re interested, should take them up on that. Ask questions, participate in online instruction. That way, your professor absolutely has the ability to get to chat with you, know your name, learn your academic interests. In some universities, faculty are setting up online comment features where you can participate virtually without having to Zoom into a class or turn on your video camera.

Although office hours are going to look a bit different—they’re probably going to be virtual for most faculty—you still, in all likelihood, will have the ability to converse with your professors that way as well. Take these opportunities for one-on-one time with your professors, whether it’s via email, Zooming, or calling into a scheduled meeting.

How do you advise students to mentally prepare for this semester?

Know that your university and faculty care about you and what you get out of the class. But there may be disruptions. Maybe there won’t be any—no one would be happier than me, if that were to be true—but be open to the possibility that your instruction style may have to change if you start the semester in an in-person class. Prepare yourself now by getting comfortable with that possibility. You can also look into the mental and behavioral health resources that your university may have, so that you know how to access them if you need them.

How can students let faculty know what they’re going through?

I want my students to be open and honest with me about what’s going on in their lives. I don’t necessarily need to know the specifics, but I can promise to be understanding when it comes to grading and deadlines. There’s no attendance requirement in my classes. If you can’t attend class because you’re afraid of what conditions are like in person, I wouldn’t expect you to show up in person. This will vary by professor and institution.

When it comes to deadlines and staying on top of readings, I think it’s important to express concerns early on if you’re worried about your ability to submit work on time. We have grading deadlines, too, but we might be able to be generous. 

If you have inadequate access to wifi and classes move online-only, share that concern with your professors sooner rather than later. There may be less wifi-intensive ways for you to receive the course material. 

How can students deal with Zoom fatigue?

I think one temptation with all-online courses, especially if those courses don’t require you to attend lectures synchronously, is to wait till the last week of class to watch the lectures and do the readings because there is less of a schedule. One really important thing I would advise is, if your situation allows you to, try to stay on a schedule.

I am someone who finds routine very helpful. I know that some of my students also find routine very helpful, so to the extent that I can as a faculty member, I’m happy to help implement a routine by setting deadlines and scheduling weekly synchronous meetings. That’s not possible for every professor, so it may be up to you. Watching lectures at the same time every week, for example, and working on regular assignments on a schedule—that would help me a lot if I was in this situation as a student. 

How can you show up as a good student?

Higher education faculty and students are both going to be under a lot of pressure this semester due to the coronavirus pandemic. There are going to be a lot of changes and to some degree we’re going to be learning together. The best thing you can do as a student to help your professor and yourself is to familiarize yourself with the course syllabus. It’s likely going to look quite different from years past, and include information about how to learn and submit assignments online. 

If your university uses Canvas or Blackboard, become familiar now with how that works, especially if you haven’t used it before. Make sure your live-streaming capabilities work, and that you have the necessary software and sufficient broadband.

Understand that this isn’t going to go off without a hitch. In the spring, I discovered that my lectures took an hour to upload, so at first I wasn’t able to post them exactly when I said I would. Try to be patient with us, and I promise we’ll be patient with you.

Finally, follow the social distancing and contact tracing instructions from your school or campus housing. Schools are trying to avoid a coronavirus outbreak on campus as students return. The rules may feel cumbersome, but they are there to try and keep everyone healthy. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.

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