Difficulties faced by students in distance learning

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Studying for any advanced degree program is already not easy. Studying from home, with distance learning courses and professors who are also still transitioning to an online-first teaching approach, is even more difficult. There are numerous factors at play that have varying degrees of influence on student learning at home – but for every challenge, there is also a solution. Read on for a few tips for overcoming typical distance learning challenges faced by students and how to overcome them: 

Time management

When you’re in school, attending classes as usual and spending time in the library, keeping up with your own routine and managing your time is relatively easy. Of course, everyone has days in which they need a break – and those are also important! Managing some semblance of a routine while you’re limited to distance learning can certainly be a challenge for many students, but it doesn’t mean it has to be for you! 

There are so many different ways to organize your time, but structuring your study time using a method such as the Pomodoro Technique is one that is popular among medical students, especially when it comes to preparing for licensing exams such as the USMLE. This technique focuses on accomplishing tasks in a block of 25 minutes with 5 minute breaks between “pomodoros.” Completing two blocks is one hour of studying; once you complete four blocks, take a longer break (20-30 minutes) then get back to work. 

The Pomodoro Technique is often used or adapted by medical students and universities alike for recommended USMLE study schedules, however, it isn’t limited to USMLE or any particular exam-focused study (or even to medical studies). Before you start studying with the Pomodoro Technique, it’s also good to have a to-do list. When creating your to-do list, break activities into blocks of what you estimate will take about 25 minutes to complete. Work through these activities, Pomodoro-style, and see how much easier it is to stay focused when you have a little time pressure. 

At-home distractions 

When studying at home rather than in the university library or in your favorite coffee shop, the distractions that come up will be different, and thus also difficult to manage (at least at first). Rather than hearing the sounds of other coffee shop patrons or a study group in the library, you may be distracted by the laundry you need to do, roommates or family members coming into your study space, a pet wanting to play, or anything else that might exist at home but not in your regular study spaces. If you usually studied at home before, perhaps you’re missing the quiet of your home when other members of your household were not also at home all the time. 

Minimizing your at-home distractions is key to having a successful distance learning study routine, and a big part of this is being able to successfully separate your study from your personal space. Though not everyone has a separate office space in their home, setting up a designated study space (e.g. a desk in the corner) and using it only for studying will go a long way in helping you to mentally separate work from play. Everyone has his or her own preferred set-up, whether this includes multiple screens, a whiteboard for drawing diagrams, or organized stacks of handwritten notes. The key is to designate your study space and make sure the others sharing your home understand that when you’re in your study space, it’s time for you to focus on the task at hand. 

Even with a designated study space, it can still be hard to concentrate with other at-home distractions around. Another way to block out the background is to use an ambient noise app (like Coffitivity or Noisli) or simply wear noise-cancelling headphones (even if it’s just for canceling the noise, not for listening to any particular music). Give a few different methods a try to find the combination that works best for you. 

Snacking 

Going along with distractions… one of the most distracting elements of being at home (for many students) is the availability of snacks, especially as compared to a typical university library setting. While taking occasional snack breaks isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it only serves to benefit you if you consider some of the effects of certain foods on your focus and energy levels. For example, instead of reaching for some chocolate or artificially sweetened snacks, go for a handful of berries (the natural plant pigments, flavonoids, can help with your memory and recall). Grabbing a sandwich for lunch? Go with whole grain bread for a steady flow of glucose (energy) in your blood to stay mentally alert throughout the day. Is it breakfast time? Give avocado toast a try, as avocados can help keep your blood sugar in the right range and boost your concentration. 

Study boredom / monotony 

Routine is a constant… but sometimes sticking to the same study routine day in and day out gets boring and you may notice your motivation decreasing. While some study methods may be tried and true go-tos for you, it can also be good to change up your routines. The Pomodoro Technique is just one of many study techniques that medical students use. One other study technique you can use to liven up your regular study routines is active learning.

Active learning can be practiced in many contexts – not just by medical students. However, it is specifically useful for medical students when it comes to focusing your learning and making sure you are forthcoming with the topics that challenge you that you need to review. To practice active learning, you’ll check in with yourself three times: before, during, and after your study session. Before you start studying, make a note (mental or otherwise) of what you’re about to learn and what you already know about the topic. While you’re studying, jot down questions or phrases to help you understand how the information might fit into a bigger picture and any keywords that come up. After you’ve completed your study session (perhaps in a separate “pomodoro”), review your notes and fill in any gaps. 

Though you are at home and likely not with your classmates, you can still get a virtual study group together via a video conferencing platform. This not only gives you the chance to catch up with your cohort, but it can help to keep you on track and motivated. 

*** 

Some fields of study, such as journalism or economics, are fairly easily done at home. Beyond going out for interviews (which can be phone calls or Zoom calls) or other typically-in-person activities, the bulk of studies and work can be done from behind a computer screen. Other fields of study, however, are not so conducive to distance learning. Medical school, for example, is very practice-focused. Though first and maybe also second year medical students are still focused on foundational sciences and aren’t yet going on rotations, all medical students are facing additional challenges dealing with the shift to distance learning. Utilizing available study resources, as well as the techniques listed above, can help you overcome the challenges posed by online-first education. 

Distance learning may not be your first choice, but it may be your only choice right now. There are many challenges that come with changing your study routines, but if you take time to address them, studying at home doesn’t have to be so hard. 

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