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Making the transition to learning online can pose new and different challenges from what you're used to with learning on campus. Explore the resources below to navigate studying and learning in an online environment. Book an appointment with a Peer Success Coach for personalized help developing your approach to learning online. 

 

Get organized for online learning

Consider these questions at the beginning of the term to choose what tool to use to get organized:

  • How is the information presented to you in your online lectures? Is it voice-over, PowerPoint, equations being written out with a stylus, or posted course materials?
  • Are course notes provided to you ahead of time from your instructor?
  • How do you normally prepare for lectures?

What’s your tool?

Depending on the courses you’re taking you may choose to take your notes by hand. For others, you may want to try a digital option.

Keeping your course notes and resources in a dedicated place will make information easily accessible for reference, assignments, and studying. Much like how you can use binders to organize content, there are digital options for organizing your learning. Take some time to explore your options and find the tool that works best for you. Here are some options to consider:

  • As a student at the University of Waterloo, you have full access to Office 365, which includes OneNote. OneNote allows you to organize all of your course work for the term in one place, including adding notes, diagrams, images and tags for easy search functionality.
    • If you are new to using a digital option for organizing your learning, consider these tips for OneNote from Microsoft Office and the Microsoft Education Blog.
    • Use different sections for each of your courses. This allows you to add pages for notes from each lecture or reading all within one tab.
    • Consider inserting a template for your notes, either one created by OneNote or by creating your own to outline your note-taking style.
    • If you take notes on slides provided to you by your instructor in a different document or by hand, add the document to the pages within that course section. This gives you one area to look at when it comes time to prepare for an assignment or test.
    • Use the tagging feature to identify key concepts for easy searching. This can be particularly helpful when you’re building your study notes.
    • Colour-coding information is an easy way for you to identify definitions, points emphasized by your instructor or areas to follow up on.
    • If you have a stylus, you can write notes directly into OneNote. For math equations, there is a feature for drawing out equations and converting them into the correct symbols for typed reports.
  • Evernote is a digital platform that allows you to create notebooks, take notes, add handwritten notes and images and share information with your classmates.
  • Google Drive gives you the opportunity to use folders to organize your notes and collaborate with your peers.

Something to think about when approaching your online class is how practical it is to take notes on your laptop. Taking notes while watching an online lecture might be difficult depending on your set-up and how the instructor is delivering the material. It’s best to minimize distractions and toggling between windows can be inefficient. This might mean that you end up handwriting your notes even though you usually type them for in-person lectures. 

If you’re taking notes by hand, and not moving them into a digital format until later, consider how you can stay organized. Some tips include:

  • Always write the date and course code at the top of every paper.
  • Use highlighters and coloured pens to identify key concepts.
  • For video lectures, write the name of the video down in case there’s more than one per lecture. Include a timestamp for the information you want to remember, including key concepts or where you may have questions.
  • Keep all of your notes for each course together, including any notes that you make from readings or tutorials. This will help ensure that everything is in one place when you prepare for your assignments or tests.

What’s your style?

Taking time to get organized and set up a system that works for you, will benefit you in the long run. One of the main sources of information for your course is your lecture and the notes you take to supplement it. Although you aren’t physically going to class, continue to make notes as though you are there in-person. Set up your space and have everything with you as though you were going to class, including your previous notes and textbooks in case you need to pause videos to refer back. Find a note-taking strategy that will work best for you and the courses that you’re taking from our Note-Taking and Reading resources from the Centre for Teaching Excellence. Many of the note-taking strategies can be used whether your notes are typed or handwritten.

What to capture?

Consider what you already know. Preparing before you watch a lecture will help you to understand new information, as well as information that you might need to have clarified. Preparing includes completing your readings and looking back at your previous lecture or review notes to refresh your knowledge of the content.

Video lectures might move at a quicker pace compared to in-person lectures. You might be used to listening to podcasts or other audio clips at a sped-up pace but remember that when you’re listening to something for leisure, you aren’t necessarily aiming to learn. While it might be tempting to get through the information quickly, watch lecture recordings at their normal speed to give yourself enough time to listen, think and then write down any concepts that you think are important.

If the instructor has provided slides or skeleton notes, use them as a reference or to annotate while watching the lecture videos. This can help you practice not writing down everything while thinking critically about the information provided and considering what you need to add for your own understanding.

Pay attention to make note of where the instructor spends the most time and any emphasis they put on concepts. Use your course discussion boards for questions and circle back to supplement your notes with answers or discussion points from your peers. The next step is to connect your readings to the lecture content and make notes of key points or links in your lecture notes.

Refining your note-taking skills in lectures and for readings will make it easier to understand the course concepts, complete your assignments, and retain information for exams and courses that build on one another.

What do you do with the information?

Whether you’re organizing your course content physically or digitally, take some time after you finish a lecture or reading to review your notes and create summaries. Make sure these summaries are in a consistent spot in your notes (or tagged) for easy reference.

As you shift to online learning, the review stage of your course materials and notes will become more important. Reviewing will ensure that you’re able to gain a deeper understanding of the content and can commit the learning to long-term. This will benefit you in future classes that build on the concepts you’re learning now.

When reviewing your notes, consider the following:

  • What were the important points of the content?
    • What was new information to you?
    • How do the important points connect to what you already knew?
  • What were any key terms or formulas?
  • What questions do you still have?

Creating useful study notes can help you solidify lecture material in your memory, connect important concepts from readings to lecture content, and prepare for midterms and final exams.

Set up your study space for success

When you’re studying online, you’re not physically going to class and may be completing all assignments, tests and lectures from your home. Because of this, there are a few things to consider.

Designate a study space: Find a place you can use just for studying (your bed is for sleeping so that doesn’t count!) so you can focus and create a routine. Have another designated place to take breaks for leisure time, eating and sleeping. Make sure to have all your study supplies gathered in your study space to stay organized and so you don’t waste time searching for them.

Create an intentional study environment: Think about what your favourite and most effective study environment is outside of your home. Then think about what you like about it – whether it’s the seating, noise level, or any other factor – and try to recreate that in the space you plan to study in. If you need white noise, consider a white noise app like Coffitivity. Use this study area analysis worksheet (PDF) to help identify the best study space in your home.

Minimize distractions: It's also important to make sure that you're in a setting where you're free of distractions and are likely to be productive. For example, don't watch TV at the same time as going through your course modules or studying if you know that it would distract you. Social media and other websites can be major distractions. If you find yourself frequently going online and/or browsing for an extended period of time, there are applications that can help.

Setting boundaries with family or friends: You might live at home with family or roommates while taking online courses. It’s important to take time to have a discussion with those you live with and lay out what you need to be successful so that you can support each other. Let them know things like how many hours per day you need to work and when that will be, so they know not to interrupt. Let them know when you might have any tests or online discussions with a microphone so that any outside distractions can be minimized. You can also set up some kind of visual cue to let them know when they can or can’t come into your workspace.

Know what’s expected of you in your course

To be successful and able to fully engage in your online course, you first need to know what’s expected of you. There are a few things you can do to make sure you have a full understanding.

Read your syllabus to understand the expectations: Just like you would with an in-person course, read the syllabus to understand the course expectations and the distribution of your grades. Things to look for in the syllabus include:

  • How often you should be signing into your course.
  • Where information will be shared throughout the course and how often you should be checking for new information (e.g. class announcements, discussion boards, etc.).
  • If there are additional participation marks, like in a discussion board, and how often you should be contributing to them.
  • Who you should contact if you have questions and how/when to connect with them.

Watch this video from Accessibility Services to learn more about your syllabus.

Familiarize yourself with the online learning platform: Your syllabus outlines all of the course expectations, but your professor and/or teaching assistants (TA’s) might communicate other information to you through different areas on LEARN, by email, or on your other online learning platforms. Read through any class announcements, discussion boards, or other areas where additional information could be provided and check it regularly.

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How to engage and communicate in online courses

Sometimes, it might feel like online courses don't require as much engagement or give you opportunities to interact with other students. But this is a misconception about online learning. It can actually be easier to connect with your classmates in online classes than it would be in some face-to-face classes. When you engage and communicate effectively in your online course, you’re going to support your learning and the learning of others and ultimately be more successful.

How to ask good questions

Just like when you’re in class on campus, asking questions is an effective and important way to clarify your understanding. There are a few things to consider so you can ask good questions in online courses.

Know your resources: Before asking a question, think about where you can go to find this information yourself. Can you find it in your syllabus? Have you read through your class announcements? Is there an FAQ or Q&A discussion board in your course? Review your resources as a starting point and to avoid asking questions that have already been answered for you.

If you’re participating in an online discussion, be aware of how to ask questions in a virtual group discussion or lecture. Either ask them right away or write down your question and follow up afterward so you don’t forget. Review more tips for online discussion etiquette below.

Know who to ask: Has your instructor indicated who you can go to for help and how you can reach them? Whether it’s sending an email or a message through a discussion board on LEARN to an instructor, TA, or classmate, know how you should be contacting them. This will help make sure that your question gets addressed as soon as possible. This information can often be found in your syllabus.

Note: Don't post personal or sensitive information in an open Q&A discussion board. Everything posted is public and openly available to your classmates.

Ask early: Be proactive in your online courses. It’s hard to follow along and you’ll miss out on things when you aren’t prepared ahead of time. Get started early on readings, assignments and studying. If you do have questions, you can make sure your instructor, TA, or even peers have a chance to respond or give you feedback before any deadlines. If you’re asking a question about an assignment the night before it’s due, you most likely won’t hear back! See other tips to help you manage your time.

Follow the rules of online etiquette

The way you conduct yourself online, especially in an online classroom, is just as important as the way you conduct yourself in person. You’re making connections with professors who may become references for you in the future, and networking with classmates who could support your professional growth. Because of this, it’s important to have a professional online presence and follow the rules of online etiquette.

When addressing your professor

Before you send an email to your professor, make sure the information isn’t already available on LEARN or in your syllabus. Email them from your student email account (username@uwaterloo.ca) and refer to them in a courteous manner (e.g. Professor Smith). Be concise and specific in your question and make direct reference to what assignment/topic/etc. your question is about. This will help make sure you receive the answers you need.

Here are a few more best practices for emailing your professor:

  • Write a subject line that include the course code (and section, if applicable).
    • Example: CHEM 120 question
  • Begin with a formal greeting.
    • Example: Hello Dr. Marta
  • Be direct and to the point with your email.
    • Example: I’m emailing you to ask…
  • End with a formal sign-off that includes your name (as it appears in Quest) and your student number.
    • Example: Sincerely, Jane Smith, 20712345.

When connecting with classmates

In online classes, you aren’t physically surrounded by your classmates and able to build community and connection in the same way you would in person. That’s why it’s even more important to maintain good practices online with your classmates to build those connections in new ways. Assignments like group projects and discussion boards can provide an opportunity for you to develop good working relationships, and friendships, within your classes. Good etiquette can help you to do so effectively.

In group work

Some of your courses may require you to complete group projects and assignments. When you aren’t in class together and connecting in person on a regular basis, there are a few things you should consider:

  • Clarify what your instructor’s rules are about working together. This could look different in each of your courses.
  • Meet regularly. Set up regular meeting times over video and consider setting up other, more frequent additional progress check-ins using shared documents or group chats.
  • Don’t procrastinate. Create a project plan or a list of project goals and regularly devote time to working towards them. Avoid the urge to leave your group work until right before your next group meeting, because it could take longer than anticipated.
  • Assign a note-taker for each group meeting and make the meeting minutes accessible to all team members. End each meeting with a list of action items, associated deadlines and who will be responsible for each item.
  • Try to work through differences or conflicts in an open and respectful way. If the issue is large or affecting the team’s ability to accomplish their goals (e.g. a team member isn’t showing up to meetings or contributing to the work getting done), you may want to let your instructor know. Keeping a log of specific examples will help you have this conversation.

Here are some additional helpful resources for engaging in group work with classmates:

In discussion posts

Discussion posts are a great way to make connections and can lead to more meaningful interactions than you’d get in some in-person classes. Finding a learning partner in your class can be very beneficial, especially if you’re used to studying in groups. To make the most of online discussions, it's important to consider the following:

  • Make sure you’re clear on your instructor’s expectations about how discussion boards will be used. Are they for asking questions? Will they be required for participation marks?
  • Subscribe to discussion topics to stay up to date on discussion threads.
  • Engage in respectful discussions with your classmates.
  • Learn more about online discussion skills from the Centre for Teaching Excellence. 
  • Watch the following video for tips about how to make the best use of online discussion boards.
In online face-to-face meetings

Sometimes you may meet together online for a lesson or discussion in a course. There are a few things to think about when participating in virtual classes and discussions.

Before you meet:

  • Test out the technology and meeting platform and/or download any applications to make sure you’re ready a few minutes before the start time to avoid troubleshooting once it’s already begun.
  • Find a quiet, tidy space free from distractions and sensitive personal information. Let those you live with know ahead of time that you’ll be in an online meeting so they can be mindful not to interrupt or create background noise. If you’ll be collaborating and sharing your screen during the meeting, make sure all tabs that you wouldn’t want others to see are closed.
  • Conduct yourself as if you’re face-to-face in the same room, and get ready as if you were, so you have the mindset of being in a meeting (as opposed to being in your pajamas on the couch).

During the meeting:

  • Be aware that you’re on camera and people are watching you.
  • Try to be engaged and avoid doing other things that can distract you or others from what’s happening (eating, checking emails, checking your phone).
  • Avoid backlighting if possible, so that your face is clear and at eye level.
  • Consider muting your microphone if there are any disruptions in your space.
  • Follow the ground rules set out by the host or facilitator of the meeting (professor, TA, etc.). If no rules have been set, a good practice is to mute your microphone when you aren’t speaking, ask questions in the chatbox and avoid speaking over others.

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How to prepare for open book tests and exams

Many online courses include open book, or take home, exams instead of regular in-person tests and exams. Students often have misconceptions about what to expect from open book exams and we’ve addressed some of the most common ones below. Just like regular exams, you will need to study and take steps to prepare ahead of open book exams.  

Misconceptions about open book exams

Learn about some common misconceptions about writing open book exams.  

How to study and prepare effectively for an open book exam

Throughout the term you’ll need to do the following to be successful on open book exams:

As the exam date approaches it’s important to know what’s expected of you and what you can expect during your exam. Can you answer all of the following questions about your exam?

  • What types of questions can I expect on the exam? (ie. multiple choice, short answer, essay)
  • What materials, tools and technology am I allowed to have and use while writing the exam? (i.e. textbook, PowerPoint slides, your notes, Google)
  • Is the exam scheduled to start and/or end at a certain time?
  • Does my time zone affect the exam start/end time?
  • How much time will I have to complete the exam?
  • Will my exam be proctored? What does that mean for me?
  • What chapters, readings, topics, etc. will the exam cover?
  • Do I need to cite my answers? (i.e. references, citations, etc.)
  • Where/how do I access the exam?
  • Where/how do I submit my exam once it’s completed?
  • What do I do if I have a question during my exam?
  • What do I do if I run into technical issues?

Once you know what to expect and what you are and aren’t allowed to use as resources during your open book exam, you should prepare and organize your resources and materials. Open book exams are usually timed, and you won’t want to waste time searching through piles of information. Try a few of the following strategies ahead of your exam:

Prepare your resources and materials:

  • Create a condensed set of notes that includes brief summaries.
  • Identify key concepts, main themes and topics.
  • Create a flow chart or mind map to show how relevant topics, themes and concepts are connected.
  • Prepare a list of key formulas and/or key definitions you’re likely to need on the exam.
  • Use clear headings and make sure your notes are brief and legible.
  • Prepare any outlines and answer any test questions or practice exams your instructor provides. It may be helpful to self-evaluate your answers to check if you would receive full marks if those questions were on the actual exam.

Organize your resources and materials:

  • Use sticky notes or index cards to list key topics and identify relevant pages in your textbooks or course notes.
  • Bookmark useful chapters or pages so that you can find them quickly.
  • Tab and label tables of contents and index pages to quickly locate relevant sections in the textbooks you plan to use.
  • Organize your notes by topic and/or colour code your notes or tabs for quicker access.
  • Be ready to apply good test taking strategies.

Check your technology and be mindful of how you set up your exam writing environment:

  • Choose a quiet space that allows you to minimize distractions/interruptions.
  • Check your Wi-Fi connection, make sure that your computer has a full battery and that the power cable is accessible.
  • Set up your exam area the night before, including all of the resources you plan to use. (ie. notes, textbooks, summaries, paper, pencils, calculator, etc.)
  • On the day of your exam, log-in at least 30 minutes before the exam start time.
  • If you run into technical issues, contact your instructor right away.

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Tips for online STEM courses

Start the term with accurate expectations

Many students have the perception that online courses are easier or require less time than in-person courses, but that isn’t true. Online math-based or problem solving-based courses have similar academic rigor to in-person courses and, because the pace of lectures is faster online, you tend to be taught more in a shorter amount of time. Approach your online term with the same level of time commitment you give to your on-campus classes and be prepared to work hard.

Know your resources

Check the syllabus for each of your classes for important information, such as:

  • Assessments and their due dates.
  • Best method to communicate with your instructor or TA.
  • Technical, lab and software requirements.

Verify your browser is current and double-check your pop-up/ad blocker settings if school-related sites don’t seem to be working well. This can be especially important with some features on LEARN (such as PebblePad) which won’t accept submissions based on certain browsers/browser settings.

Check announcements on LEARN daily as this may be one of the primary ways your instructors will communicate important information to you.

It's also important to seek help with respect to finding critical information to prepare for labs, complete lab reports and other assignments. The Library has research guides to find specialized sources for chemical and physical properties and videos of lab protocols and methods, and can assist in finding multimedia and simulation resources to support labs. Many campus supports have moved online. If you’re interested in accessing additional supports see the Current Students webpage.

Learning online is different than learning in-person

Online content delivery varies from in-class delivery in several ways. Instructors can typically cover the content from a 50-minute in-person lecture in a much shorter time online. In pre-recorded lectures students aren’t able to ask questions or clarify concepts on the spot, and instructors aren’t able to gauge their students’ understanding of the content through non-verbal cues as they would in an in-person class.

Additionally, as instructors prepare to record their lectures, they’re able to refine their message and deliver their content in a much shorter amount of time. A problem that may take five minutes to explain in class may take one minute in an online lecture. To adjust to this new method of content delivery and ensure you’re learning the material, try the following:

When you’re being taught the steps to solve a problem, stop the video after each line and ask yourself:

  • Do I understand why this is the next logical step in the process? 
  • Do I understand the assumptions made? 
  • Do I understand why this is being done?
  • Can I try to figure out the next step or write the next line myself before continuing with the video?

When learning a new concept, you can actively participate in your learning by asking yourself:

  • Why was this done? 
  • Why was this defined this way? 
  • What do I know? What don’t I know?
  • Why does this work?
  • Where else can I apply this information?
  • What test questions can be asked about this?
 

You can also review tricky concepts by supplementing lectures with material posted online in your course, your textbook or resources you find online. It will help to connect with your peers or instructors online to ask questions and/or discuss concepts in more depth.

Make time to practice

Mathematics is learned by doing mathematics. Watching someone solve problems and expecting that to be enough to “learn” the material is like trying to learn how to swim by watching other people swim. Practice often but remember that you’ll learn better when you space out your learning over time.

  • Treat studying like a job. Schedule in time for each of your classes, for studying, for tasks and for assessment due dates. Learn about how to manage your time in university.
  • Remember to break up study periods and take small, frequent breaks. Let your mind work through the concepts/problems subconsciously during these breaks. You may find that you come back to the material with a new understanding of difficult problems.
  • Space out learning for each course throughout the week, rather than assigning a course per day.

Asking questions

Asking math-based questions in online formats such as discussion boards or through email comes with its own set of challenges. You may have some courses that use Piazza (or other math-editing platforms) which make equations (and questions) easy to input. For other courses you may have to rely more heavily on articulating your math questions in words.

Approach this as an additional learning experience rather than as a burden. Concise and precise use of language is a key mathematical skill that you can develop by learning to frame your mathematical questions in sentences. Communicating through written or verbal modes is actually a higher form of learning and will help you hone how you frame your thinking/processes/assumptions. Thinking through your question may even help you realize where you’re stuck.

If you have questions about an example your instructor taught online, make note of the time stamp in the video where your confusion arose, along with the line(s) of the equation you’re asking about. When you receive your answer, enter it in your notes so the information is in one place.

Always seek help when you need it. Be socially interactive in your course and participate in the LEARN discussion boards. Math difficulties tend to build from week to week so get help right away if you’re stuck. Many of your courses will have TA’s, virtual office hours or online help sessions. Record these times in your calendar or schedule and don’t be afraid to ask for help – your instructors are expecting to hear from you!

Taking notes

Taking notes in an online environment will be different from the way you normally take notes. You have a few different options. You may choose to continue using the method that normally works for you in class, to annotate slides or to add notes to posted course material that you print off. Whichever method you choose, try to develop a consistent system for keeping your materials together in one place for ease of reference later.

  • Stop videos often to “keep up” with the lecturer. A 15-minute recording may capture an hour’s worth of material – don’t expect to learn the content in 15 minutes. Stopping videos to take notes, capture additional points that are mentioned verbally, or to do some deep thinking about the problem are important parts of the learning process.
  • If you’re learning from posted material (PDF’s, other static documents) you may want to develop a set of master notes in which you consolidate learning from a number of different sources (textbook, posted material, supplemental material).
  • Whichever note-taking method you choose, create a concept summary to help you organize the important concepts needed to solve problems. Concepts make up the main topics in a course and express general ideas in key formulas. A concept summary includes:
    • Title
    • Key formulas
    • Definitions, units and symbols
    • Additional important information
    • Explanation in your own words

Self-assess

Many students find it challenging to accurately assess their own learning. To avoid the “I thought I knew this” reaction after seeing your results on a test, try treating your coursework as a self-assessment:

  • Can you solve problems without referring to the solutions?
  • Can you solve problems at the easy, medium and hard levels?
  • Can you solve a problem within a time limit? (i.e. 15 minutes per problem to simulate a test environment)
  • Are you keeping track of difficult problems associated with each concept?

Group work

Many STEM courses, particularly in engineering, will still have large group-based course components even with remote learning. Review our tips for completing group work in online courses.

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