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How Current Students Are Adjusting to Online Learning and What Can Prospective Students Learn

Coronavirus has shaken up the university experience, with students now facing the reality of their degree courses being taught digitally. But how are they adjusting to online learning? 

Safeera Sarjoo
by Safeera Sarjoo
Last Updated:
13 Nov 2020

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For a long time, online learning was regarded as an alternative; an option to fit further studies into an already established routine. However, with the events of the last few months, it has now become the primary way to ensure students are safe and able to continue their studies.

In a recent poll we conducted of 580 students, we found that 78% felt returning to school or university in September was the right decision. For most of these students, they will have to adjust to a new reality of learning, with much of this being online. Thus, students need to be as prepared as possible.

How Current Students Have Adapted to Online Learning

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (also known as the university watchdog) has said that students need to have absolute clarity if courses are going to be taught online, especially if they intend to start university in the autumn. While institutions prepare for that inevitability, most have already shifted to blended or learning online. Three of our Student Advisory Board members have been speaking to us about this change and how they've found the process of adapting to online learning.

“For me, a student of politics at Lancaster University, this year has been a bit of a rocky introduction to higher education – first, there were the nationwide strikes that disrupted teaching for much of the year and now the pandemic has caused the whole university to have to move the entirety of its teaching online within a matter of weeks; needless to say, it’s not been the smoothest of transitions,” Dylan Couperthwaite explained.

“Lectures have been turned into pre-recorded videos. Seminars have become online chats on Microsoft Teams. The act of moving a university from the campus to the internet has certainly had its ups and downs.” For Jade Melberg, a first year undergraduate Psychology student at Cardiff Metropolitan University, the move to online learning hasn’t been easy either.

“Personally, I struggle to work from home as it is my ‘comfort’ space. I usually live in university accommodation during term-time and have only ever associated this with learning and studying”

In addition to this, Melberg’s provision of course materials has been varied.

“Only one lecturer of mine recorded his lectures, the others posted power point online - while this does have some perks - you also cannot understand the information as it is very much up for interpretation.

“In psychology, we have a ‘workshop’ seminar where we are in smaller groups, building experiments and learning how to analyse results using specific software. It is also the perfect time to notify the lecturer if you are struggling with anything as you are in much smaller groups. This, however, stopped when the coronavirus pandemic reached us, meaning we had to sit the exam at home.”

For Couperthwaite however, the move to online learning has worked to his advantage.

“Having all of the content online has been an absolute godsend. The ability to do the work at my own pace is something that works far better for my personal style of learning and for many of my peers. The ability to rewind lectures or fast forward - or even skip them entirely - depending on my current knowledge of the subject has made for a much more efficient (and much less boring) way of learning.”

Face to face contact with lecturers is one downside that students can expect, as well as the “double-edged sword” when it comes to the independence online learning brings.

“Yes, you can do it in your own time, but it takes a herculean amount of motivation to do so. Having the lectures on your phone and laptop means that there is so much more potential for distraction and an attitude of “oh, I can just do it later” and then suddenly, it’s three weeks later, the essay is due and you haven’t even checked the videos out.”

For University of Liverpool student Chloe Robb, she has found it useful to keep into a structured routine and made use of the wellbeing support services in place.

"At first I was eally stressed and as I have mental health illnesses I was really worried, but uni of Liverpool gave me a therapist if I needed it and have constantly been making sure I'm okay and that everything is going well which is reasuring. I think most universities will do this but Liverpool has always been this way and that's why I chose to go here even before covid. 

Also zoom is not so bad, it took some time getting used to and you have to create a routine for yourselfso you don't just sleep instead but once I got the hang of it it's easy now. I wake up at 9am and I work until 4pm Monday - Friday as I would in  a study setting. I also get ready to feel motivated and to stop me sleeping or putting the work off. Of course in an ideal world I'd love to have been in a lecture hall but for now it's been absoloutely fine."

The shift to online learning has shown to have challenges for current students. While it might suit some learning styles, the independence that is associated with starting university is heightened where students are having to contend with little contact time with lecturers. Creating a space specifically for studying, if possible, is one way to get into the mindset of working, away from distractions.

How Are Prospective Students Feeling About Online Learning?

While current university students have done their best to adjust, prospective students have not only had to deal with their exams cancelled but may also be challenged by the new type of blended studying which will likely take place across the next academic year.

Sakhina Benkmael is due to start university this year. Despite the changes being made to exams, grading and university, she’s still staying positive about what’s to come.

 “I feel optimistic!  I think it will be an experience, something new and different. However, my optimism is also rooted in my belief that the universities I have selected are credible and do have my best interest at heart and thus will provide the best education possible. Although it is a bit disappointing, I think it is fantastic that the safety of students is the number one priority of academic institutions,” she explained.

The possibility of taking a gap year or deferring are options that students are also grappling with. The thought did cross Benkmael’s mind, but time during lockdown has changed that.

“I had applied for 2020 entry but was heavily considering deferring on results day to take a gap year and start university in 2021, however since lockdown I have abandoned that plan because I have been able to pursue some of the things I wanted to in my gap year. Nevertheless, if results day does not go as I hope I am still open to taking a gap year. This is driven by the fact that my university has communicated that my offer will be held until 2021, if I do decide to retake the exams and attain the necessary grades for entry.”

Despite the uncertainty and possibility of having to adjust to learning online, prospective students are hopeful but realistic about what lies ahead.

Couperthwaite says: “Online learning is what you make of it. If you’re self-motivated and attentive, online learning will become as natural as doing extra reading outside of a subject. If you’re (like me) not as self-motivated, it can be a struggle to really get the most out of your £9,250 tuition fee when everything is driven entirely by yourself.”

What Can Students Do To Prepare For Online Learning at University?

Prospective students starting their university course online will have an added challenge to contend with so it’s worth putting some changes in place now so that you’re prepared ahead of September.

Melberg’s advice is to focus on establishing the perfect environment and routine to maximise your learning.

“Create a suitable workspace. If the country is moving again by September, you should have an idea of where you will be living for the next academic year. Whether you are living in student accommodation or living at home, you need a quiet place to work in both.

“Research different revision methods, one I personally like is the Pomodoro Technique. Set a timer for 25 minutes and start your revision. When the timer goes off, take a short few minutes break. After the timer has gone off four times (one hour of work) take a longer break, typically 30 minutes. This helps you to completely focus on one task as they are done in short bursts.”

As for prospective students waiting for their results, preparing for online learning is a mixed bag, Benkmael observes.

“It really does vary, some of my friends are quite flustered and concerned, particularly those who applied for universities which require grades higher than their predicted or performing grades. Whilst on the other hand, some of my friends, especially those who undertake BTECs or those with unconditional university offers, seem to feel optimistic and comfortable.”

In the meantime, continue to explore your options. There are so many digital events being run by universities to take advantage of and even though you might not want to think about that inevitability, preparing for Clearing is also a wise step.

Get familiar with Clearing here and check out a number of virtual tours and events happening at universities around the UK.


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