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Students, this year’s distance learning does not have to be passive learning

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Bethune-Cookman University student Gege Baptiste uses a computer in the school library in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Aug. 21, 2020.

Scott A. Miller, for the Deseret

Back to school has never been so… bizarre. As a professor, September would normally find me on campus, printing out syllabi, teaching classes and trying to figure out who needs what type of support. Instead I am miles away from USU, sitting at a computer, using technology to approximate closeness in an attempt to counter the feeling that my teaching is remote — literally and figuratively. 

I worry, not just about my students, but all students. In the U.S., the overall dropout rate for undergraduate students is 40%, with approximately 30% of college freshman leaving before their sophomore year. And women students in Utah are at a higher risk for having some college but no degree if they are married or have kids under the age of 5. 

How do we keep students in college — even though learning has changed? Lecturing alone, of course, has not been shown to be incredibly effective as a tool for deep learning. Research suggests that most students only remember about 10% of what they read from textbooks or hear in lectures, 50% from a discussion, and up to 90% of what they learn through teaching others. Teachers must interact and engage students so they can discuss and wrestle with the topics. Although I am integrating lots of interactive tools and teaching my Huntsman School of Business students during class time on Zoom, ultimately, to get the most out of learning, students must take responsibility for their education and learning.

Here are a few tips from Northeastern University on how students can own their learning experience. 

  • Hold yourself accountable. While there’s flexibility in many courses about when you watch lectures and turn in assignments, resist the urge to leave it to the last minute. Make assignments a priority. If you’re struggling to keep up, connect with a fellow classmate and keep each other accountable. Put major assignments into your calendar (and many platforms, like Canvas, will let you sync with a smartphone), and set aside specific times each week to study. And treat them like you would a real appointment. 
  • Have a dedicated study space. If you do your work there repeatedly, your routine will help you be productive. Figure out what boosts your productivity. Music? Snack accessibility? Natural lighting? Silence? Know what you need to stay on task and create an environment that promotes not hurts this goal.
  • Minimize distractions. We are surrounded by chaos. Even when we are alone in a room trying to study, our devices still bring us texts and social media alerts, begging to be dealt with, making a 20-minute assignment into a an hour-long game of “I’ll just respond quickly” and “wait, where was I?” Remove temptations by silencing them. And if you study in a public space, invest in pair of noise blocking headphones so you can be “alone” even in a crowd.
Ultimately, learning is about changing something in ourselves, and that is work worth doing.

  • Participate and connect. Take discussion boards seriously and engage with classmates. Create virtual study groups. Remember that discussions and explaining content to others dramatically increases retention and cements the information. This can include parents, friends and spouses. You can also “visit” professors and teachers during office hours and ask questions as they arise. 

In the current academic climate, it can be tempting to think that remote, online or in person but distanced is passive learning. But if teachers and students are willing to take measures that create accountability, good habits and connection, I am confident we can actively create an environment where we can learn how to learn even better, despite the challenges. Ultimately, learning is about changing something in ourselves, and that is work worth doing.

Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.