This article is about online university for international student, what it’s like and how to do well. My eldest daughter Maya is in her first year of college studying Bio -Med at the University of Calgary, Canada; but because of Covid she had to start her university life from the comfort of her bedroom confined to the family home for some extra time. Maya volunteered to write an article to share her experience and give some tips to fellow students; she hopes those tips could be useful to those facing the same struggles that she faced when studying online. So I will let Maya take over from here.
Last year I started my first year of college at the University of Calgary in Canada. However, in the spirit of 2020 being a strange and totally insane year, all of my classes were online and, since I live in Korea, I was working on a 14 hour time difference.
In all honesty, things were pretty awful. Hopefully, the world doesn’t reach a state where students will have to go through this ever again, but while we’re here, I figured I would share my experience, what I learned, and my tips for anyone just starting; but god forbid that this kind of information will be necessary in the future.
Online University, the hardest parts/things to look out for
Any year of university is going to involve late nights and irregular sleeping patterns, but working on a time difference made this so much more pronounced. I went into it thinking it would be as simple as working through the night and sleeping through the day, but that definitely wasn’t the case. Some days I would sleep right after my classes finished in the morning, others I would get to work after my classes finished and ended up sleeping late in the afternoon, and many days I had to resort to 2-3 hour naps wherever I could squeeze them in. I tried to create a regular sleeping habit, but things just never worked out that way, and deciding when exactly I would be sleeping became one of the most challenging parts of the whole ordeal.
An unexpected side effect of my irregular sleep patterns was the amount of time I slept. I’m not someone who has struggled with sleeping in the past, but during the semester and even for a week or so afterward, my body physically would not sleep for more than 5 hours. This was my personal response to the ever-changing sleeping patterns and someone else is likely to have different responses based on their own time difference, but it’s important to keep in mind that figuring out when to sleep will probably not be as simple as you originally make it out to be.
With all the sleeping struggles I’ve just mentioned, you’d probably think that I felt awful most of the time. Strangely, I actually didn’t feel incredibly sleep-deprived or sluggish most of the time I was in classes or doing homework assignments. There were definitely days where I did, but I actually went around telling people that the sleeping arrangements and effects weren’t as bad as I was expecting. However, upon reflection and a few bad grades, I realized that sleep deprivation and irregularities did actually have an effect on my ability to focus and do my work. It’s very common knowledge that sleep deprivation will decrease performance in almost anything, and I certainly found myself making mistakes that I don’t think I would be making if I had a more regular sleeping pattern.
Something else you might need to be prepared for is how the weekends work. My sleep schedule also made weekends complicated; all throughout the week I would be sleeping sporadically through the day and working through the night and basically operating on Canadian time. However, if I wanted to do anything with family or friends on the weekend, I would have to switch my sleep schedule back to Korean time so I could do things during the day. My options were basically to be tired most of the weekend or opt to recover and not see anyone.
Online university struggles: distraction, concentration, and sitting too long
While my time difference circumstance is one that may only be applicable to a small population, the struggles of working and learning online are ones that an entire generation of students and even workers can relate to.
I found that distraction became one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome. Listening to a lecture over a zoom call from your bedroom just doesn’t compare to the environment of a classroom or workplace, and that definitely hindered my ability to focus. Regularly, and without even realizing, I would find myself picking up my phone, scrolling through other tabs, playing with my cat, fiddling with the things on my desk, or just zoning out.
Those bad habits may all sound like they’re just that: bad habits that I or you need to work to control, and although this is partly true, it’s unfair to put all the blame on oneself. Bedrooms are spaces of comfort that we strongly associate with relaxation, and suddenly having to shift that association to include learning new, complex material that we would usually hear in a classroom as well as working is bound to and does introduce difficulties.
Something else that is likely to affect your ability to concentrate is the amount of time you spend sitting in one place. Since all of my classes were online, I would end up sitting in my chair for hours and hours at a time, and after a couple of hours I would inevitably start to lose focus. A typical day in-person university would have you leaving your dorm to eat, move between classes, and more, and the difference between your typical day in online school is jarring.
Quite honestly, some of these struggles might not sound “legitimate” enough to complain about, and when they start to hinder your academic performance it’s easy to blame yourself and start to feel insecure about your academic ability or intelligence. However, as small or trivial as some of them might sound, they are valid struggles people have to deal with and it’s important to recognize them as such so they can be combated.
Online University, some of the good things
Despite all the challenges I’ve described, there are still some benefits to online school (even with a time difference) that students have to look forward to.
With my particular time difference (14 hours ahead), there was the illusion that I had an extra day to do things. For example, something due at midnight on a Monday in Calgary would be due at 4 pm on Tuesday for me. Of course, I actually had the same amount of time to complete work as everyone else did, but it felt like I had an extra day of work time and that made things just a bit more bearable. My weekends also felt longer since I would go through all my classes early Saturday morning, have time to do something that day after classes, and wouldn’t start classes again until Monday night, technically giving me a 3 day weekend every week.
Another benefit was the accommodations teachers made for the courses. Many of my assessments were made open-book, I was given a lot more time to complete tests, and a couple of my classes dropped grades they didn’t usually drop to help boost the class’ overall grades.
The most significant perk I saw was students being able to ask questions comfortably. I haven’t been to a large in-person university class, but I’m sure that people aren’t jumping up and down to ask their professor a question in front of everyone. However, over Zoom, students are much more eager and willing to ask questions, whether it was over the chat or speaking over the microphones. It’s simply much less anxiety-inducing to unmute yourself over a call where you can’t even see your classmates compared to speaking up in a quiet class of 200, and this was genuinely helpful. Students, myself included, were able to ask quick clarification questions that would probably not be asked in live lectures as well as feel more comfortable speaking up in the first place.
The benefits you might experience will be different depending on your time zone and professors, but there will surely be at least one aspect of online school that acts as a perk. I also know a good handful of people who found online school better than traditional schooling, citing the convenience of not having to commute to classes, the benefit of academic accommodations, and more.
Online University. How to be successful (time difference or not)
Sleeping habits are different for everyone and the best sleep schedule for online school will depend on someone’s normal sleep patterns, the exact time difference, and more. My most applicable piece of advice for sleeping would be to invest in black-out curtains or a sleeping mask, because trying to sleep in the brightness of the day is not always easy.
I do, however, have tips for improving the other aspects of doing online school with a time difference.
- Create a study space: If possible, having a room separate from your bedroom designated for studying, working, and attending class would be ideal. For most, this will not be the case, but it’s still worth setting up your study space as a study place. I tried to keep my desk clear, facing away from my bed, and free from distractions. Doing this, or anything similar, will help combat the relaxed associations you are bound to have with your bedroom and hopefully help you maintain concentration.
- Do not, under any circumstance, try to study in/on your bed: The bed is tempting, but anyone who has tried this knows that as soon as you make the decision to move you and your books to the bed, you’ve already lost the battle. This tip goes hand in hand with creating a study space. Don’t mix your comfort and your studying.
- Keep your phone in a different room or where you cannot see it when you’re working/attending lectures: This was a difficult habit to enforce on myself, but I noticed a significant difference in my ability to concentrate when my phone was out of sight or not in the room. Phones and all our social media apps are designed to grab and hold our attention, and they do it extremely well. The only way to stop yourself from getting distracted from notifications or succumbing to the lure of doing literally anything other than listening to your professor is to remove the threat altogether.
- Triple check all your due dates and timestamps: Even though I tried to be very conscious of this, there were a number of times where I forgot to think about time differences and missed or had to rush something. It’s likely that the school platform you use doesn’t change their due dates to match time zones, so it’s up to you to figure out when you have to complete them by. There was an international student in one of my classes last semester that miscalculated when her exam was and was not able to make it up. Always check.
- Write down everything: Having a planner was probably one of the best decisions I made for last semester. One thing many other students and I hate about online school is the feeling that assignments pop up out of nowhere with no warning. After a few panicked submissions and a missed test, I started each day by checking all of my courses for assignments and due dates and writing them down in my notebook adjusted to my time. It’s a tedious step, but will definitely save you a lot of headaches.
- Take walks: I mentioned earlier that sitting in the same spot at my desk for hours and hours at a time became draining and hindered my concentration. You’d be surprised at how much moving around for a little will wake you up. It doesn’t even have to be a walk outside, you could just go to your living room for a while to stretch your legs. Getting your blood flowing for just a couple of minutes will genuinely help reset your mental state.
- Make time for yourself and to see other people: Throughout the semester I got a bit lonely. I would often not see my family for very long since I was awake while they slept and vice versa, and with school and my sleeping patterns, it was basically impossible to see any friends during the week. There is already so much that is difficult about online university, and loneliness is not a struggle you want to add. Go see your friends. Take breaks. Don’t forget about your mental health.
- Go easy on yourself: I know for a fact that a lot of people have found online school during these times challenging and have seen those difficulties manifest through less-than-satisfactory grad performance or just the feeling of being burnt out and exhausted. It’s too easy to be hard on yourself and say that you should have done better because exams are open-book, or whatever other reason but don’t feel bad in admitting that what you’re doing is hard. It’s completely okay for you to not perform as well as you might have wanted or to give yourself some leeway about what you need to complete. I dropped my physics class this semester that’s usually completed in the first year and is a re-req for my major. After I dropped it, my school started approving students to mark specific classes as pass or failed and omitted from GPA calculations. I will have to retake the class and it will count towards my GPA, but I’m glad I decided to drop because I was burning out, the time I spent trying to figure out what was happening in that class was affecting my other class grades, and I realized that, with everything going on, I deserved to catch a break.
My semester was rough, but I actually finished with pretty decent grades, and I would genuinely attribute my late success to those exact tips I have just gone through. As soon as I dropped my physics class I had the time to put much more effort into doing well in my other classes. I made sure to see my friends every weekend, eat with my family, write down all my due dates, and even managed to keep my phone out of my way for the last few weeks of the semester.
If you’re a student, I hope this has prepared you for what you might encounter. If you’re a parent, I hope this has shed some light on what my generation is dealing with.
In conclusion, let’s just hope and pray none of this ever has to happen again.
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