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Learning during COVID-19

Learning During COVID-19

This is an extraordinarily challenging time for us all. As a Northwestern student, you may be feeling stressed, overwhelmed, confused — or maybe a combination of all those feelings at once. Know that you are not alone, and that the University is here to support you.

Here we’ve put together some suggestions to help you navigate this disruption and continue to learn and feel engaged as a student.

Also check out our remote-learning and remote-lecture e-flyers.

How can I get advice from other Northwestern students?

Hear what experienced undergrads have to say about making the most of remote learning!

How can I set myself up for success with remote learning technology?

Inform yourself.

Locate the information you'll need:

  • There are plenty of student resources for remote learning available to help you navigate the remote landscape while we're in virtual mode.
  • There are emergency funds available for technology support. If you receive financial aid and need support with technology-related expenses, reach out to Undergraduate Financial Aid.
  • Your instructors will be letting you know how they plan to run classes virtually.  For instance, will class be held live? Will it be recorded and available later? Will there be opportunities for live discussions or chats? Be sure to check your email and your Canvas sites, as well your course syllabi, for this information about how to connect and what your faculty are expecting. 
  • If instructors or advisors don’t let you know how to connect individually with them (for office hours, etc.), feel free to ask. For example:

    Dear Professor X,

    I’m hoping to make an appointment with you to talk about  major planning, but am not sure how to set that up virtually.  Could you let me know?  Thank you.

  • For a financial concern related to remote-learning equipment or resources, see the Financial Aid page.


Play around with any remote-learning tools your instructors plan to use (like Zoom, Canvas, etc.), so you’ll feel comfortable using them when you need to.

Know that it's OK for your tech not to work perfectly.

Your instructors and advisors know that equipment and internet connection can falter sometimes.  If you are experiencing challenges with a class because of technology, don't hesitate to let your instructors know. The same is true of issues you may be facing in your current home environment. This will help your instructors understand your situation, and they might even be able to help you find a solution. For example:

Dear Professor A,

I am in your College 101 class, and I wanted to let you know that I have been having trouble connecting to the Zoom discussions because my internet connection goes out frequently. Is is possible for me to participate in some other way? Thank you.

Dear Professor B,

I am a student in your College 202 class. I know that you have encouraged us to leave our cameras on during Zoom sessions, and I wanted to let you know that I am sharing a space with several younger family members, which means that I can be interrupted or distracted during class. I am hoping to find a quieter space for class, but for now I think it's best for me to keep my camera off, so that I do not distract others. Please let me know if you'd like any more information. Thank you for your understanding.

How do I put myself in the right frame of mind for studying?

Be patient with yourself and others.

As we navigate this challenging experience together, be patient with yourself, and with your peers and faculty. We are all still adjusting to a new situation, and our work will not be perfect. Give yourself and others extra breathing room, take time to relax, and know that standards of excellence look different during a crisis like this: it’s OK not to feel like you’re on top of everything.

Take advantage of support resources.

Support is here for you; all you need to do is reach out. If you're feeling challenged by your academic work, contact Academic Support & Learning Advancement, where you can speak with somebody about your challenges, or take part in peer-to-peer tutoring, study groups, 1:1 coaching, and a small-group mentoring program.

For help with writing projects, connect with The Writing Place, and look to the Libraries for help with research projects.

For support with stress, anxiety, or other mental-health concerns, connect with CAPS, and try some at-home stress-relief techniques.

For support with a disability-related concern, connect with AccessibleNU.

For resources and support around identity expression, including LGBTQIA identities, visit Multicultural Student Affairs.

For support tailored to first-generation college students, students from lower-income backgrounds, and DACA/undocumented students, connect with Student Enrichment Services.

Navigate family and other commitments.

If you're living with family — or even if you're not — it's important to create some separation from school life and other parts of life. Setting expectations can help you achieve that. Gently let family members know that, to be successful, you need to devote time to class and studying, as well as engaging with University life: events, organizations, and friends. You might suggest carving out time for you to spend with family (say, several dinners during the week and a movie together on the weekend), and ask that they allow you to focus other time on being a college student. This might be especially challenging if you are also trying to juggle family responsibilities, like helping out with younger siblings, or if you are dealing with family-related stress linked to COVID or other factors. If you could use some support managing these kinds of stressors, consider reaching out to resources such as CAPS, Student Enrichment Services, and your academic advisor.

Continue to improve your learning skills.

Nobody is ever "done" figuring out how to learn, and in this new hybrid/remote-learning environment, we all need to figure out how to learn in new ways. Know that you can always increase your capacity for skills and knowledge, and brush up your study strategies so that you feel on top of your academic game.

How do I stay organized?

Plan out your tasks.

Staying organized is always important, but will be critical while we are in this less-structured mode of operation. Use a planner, electronic or the old-fashioned paper version. People tend to overestimate their ability to remember, so even if you have a terrific memory, you most likely will forget something if you try to keep track of assignments without noting them somewhere — and this is especially true during a stressful moment like the COVID-19 outbreak.  Putting your to-do tasks down in words can also help you feel less stressed and more on top of your game.

Review your syllabi.

Go through each course syllabus carefully, noting all due dates, and add those to your planner.  Then, work backwards and note when you'll need to start a project or assignment in order to meet the deadline successfully.

Also, find out what virtual opportunities there are for help in the class, for example virtual office hours, virtual TA sessions, and so forth.  If these are not noted in the syllabus, check with the instructor. And take advantage of academic-support programming such as the services of The Writing Place and ASLA’s study groups, tutoring, coaching, and staff consultations, which continue virtually.

Create structure for yourself.

You won’t have many of the usual in-person meetings and events to add structure to your daily life, so create your own structure by mapping out a schedule. Try to get up and dressed at the same time every day, and schedule dedicated class time, study time, break time, and meal time. Get outside, if you can. Your daily schedule might look something like…

schedule example

How do I stay focused?

Be mindful of multitasking.

In a remote environment, it’s even harder to avoid the trap of multitasking — as in listening to a lecture video and texting simultaneously, or participating in a class chat and checking email or being distracted by phone alerts. Research shows that
  • People overestimate their ability to multitask well.
  • When you multitask, it generally takes longer to complete each individual task.
  • While you may feel more productive, multitasking often leads to mistakes.

Try monotasking.

It’s easy to multitask without being fully aware of it, so try to pay attention to where your attention is going. If this is a challenge, try some mindfulness techniques. To move yourself toward “monotasking,” try these techniques:
  • Chunk your studying — say 30 minutes of working and then a 10-minute break for stretching, taking a walk, chatting with a friend, grabbing a snack. Need more structure with this? Try the “pomodoro technique.”
  • Keep a list of the things you need to do. Putting them down on paper can help free your mind to focus on one of them at a time, and might help reduce any stress you may be feeling.
  • Keep your potential distractions at bay. If you’re working on your laptop, put your phone in another room. If you are watching a lecture, close other tabs and apps.
  • Block yourself. If you find avoiding electronic distractions to be especially challenging, consider using a distraction-blocking app.

Boost your motivation.

Now that we’re in hybrid and remote modes, it may feel harder to stay engaged with your academic work. We’re operating with less structure in our lives than usual, a general increase in stress around the COVID-19 outbreak, and less contact with others than we normally have. All of this can make it hard to stay motivated. Putting some thought into how motivated you feel, what motivates you, and how you can enhance your motivation will help. Think through some key questions and make a motivation plan for yourself this quarter.

Create an environment that works for you.

Depending on where you are, you may or may not have a physical set up that is perfect for your own needs and preferences. But there are some simple techniques that can help you create an environment conducive to learning and studying:

  • Create as much privacy as you can. This will not always be possible, but try to find a space relatively free of distractions. If you are sharing a space with others, let them know that you need quiet time at certain points during the day to focus on class and studying. Some people find that "white" or other background noise can help them focus for certain kinds of tasks, especially in a distracting environment; if that's true for you, look for free apps that can help.
  • Be comfortable, but not too comfortable. Position yourself in a way that feels right, taking into account good ergonomics — but avoid getting so cozy that you are apt to lose focus or even fall asleep! And avoid backaches by following good practices for laptop use and posture.
  • Take frequent breaks. You are probably sitting for much longer periods of time than you normally would, so stretching and moving around every so often will help prevent sore muscles and injury. To avoid eye strain, give your eyes a break, too.

Acknowledge external stressors.

We are living in an exceptionally stressful moment, and the various stressors impact us all in different ways. You may find yourself particularly affected by fear or grief related to COVID, by racism and racist violence in our society, by extreme domestic political tensions, or simply by the chaotic and unsettling nature of living through a pandemic. If this strikes a chord for you, know that the stress you feel is real and has real impact on your ability to focus on your academic work. Take time to decompress, and engage in activities that replenish you. Allow yourself some academic latitude: your papers or quizzes or homework might not be up to your usual standards, and that's fine. Use the strategies on this page to help stay on track. And reach out for help when you need it.

How can I stay engaged with remote classes?

Make video lectures work for you.

Watching a video lecture doesn’t need to be a passive experience. Make it your own by interacting with it and making use of it in the way that works best for you. Take notes to help yourself stay engaged, and note points that are confusing so that you can follow up on them later. If you are watching a recorded video, consider watching it in chunks, pausing every 10-15 minutes to review notes and connect the content to other course materials. If there is a chat function, post your questions or points of confusion. It’s highly likely that others have the same questions!

Find your comfort zone in remote classes and discussions.

Different students have different preferences and comfort levels in live discussion, and it’s no different in the remote environment. Try to stretch a little beyond your natural state. If you’re somebody who tends to contribute very actively, continue to engage, but pull back a little to allow others to contribute. And if you normally tend to listen actively and speak less, look for places where you can contribute your thoughts. Starting in the chat can be an easy way to warm up, and then speak later when you feel more comfortable. Taking a few notes before you contribute can help you feel more confident when you do. Support your classmates, and know that while some people feel at ease in online discussions, others may find it anxiety-producing. Offering a quick thumbs-up or “Interesting point!” can make a difference for a fellow student.

Be a good online citizen.

We're all facing a challenge in adapting to this new way of connecting, so help out your fellow students!  Some things to keep in mind:

  • Give the class session your focus. It’s hard to stay present in a remote session when other electronics are distracting you. Closing other tabs, turning off notifications, and putting your phone face-down or in another room will help you keep your attention on the class or meeting.
  • Use good online etiquette, like avoiding all caps and lots of exclamation marks, using emojis to show good intent, and never putting anybody down.
  • Participate in class chats with on-point ideas, demonstrate respect for others' contributions, and offer encouragement for classmates.
  • Be a little more explicit about your meaning or intent than you might usually be, since people may not be able to read your nonverbals as easily. For example, if you mean something in an ironic way, make that clear.
  • Embrace silence. Silence can feel awkward, but it’s often more necessary in the remote environment, because people may be reading and processing while they’re engaged. Allow those silences to happen, and know that they are productive.
  • Show patience and support for your classmates (and your instructor!). They are all learning this new medium, too.

Set yourself up for success in remote groups or team-based projects.

The core principles of good teamwork don't change in the remote environment, but the difference in medium means you need to attend to group communication a little differently. Adhering to best practices in remote teamwork will help ensure a successful group experience.

Let your instructors know if you're experiencing challenges.

This is always a good idea, and it is especially so now that we are in remote learning territory. The remote format is new to the vast majority of faculty, so they are figuring it out alongside you. If you are finding it hard to understand course concepts, or engage in discussions, or access materials, send a polite note to your instructor to let them know, and try to provide as much information as you can to help them find a good solution. A couple of examples:

Dear Professor X,

I'm in your M-W-F 2pm class. I watched the online lecture and have read the chapter, but I am very confused about [concept/method/etc.]. Would it be possible to talk with you outside of class?

Dear Professor Y,

I'm a student in your T-Th 9am seminar class. I am having trouble participating in class discussions because there are many people who have their hands raised in Zoom, and I haven’t had a chance to speak. Is there any other way I could contribute?

Dear Professor Z,

I'm enrolled in your M-W College 303 class. I am currently living in a much different time zone, so the class takes place in the middle of the night for me. As a result, I've been having trouble focusing during the class periods. I wanted to let you know so that you would not think I am disengaged. I'm also wondering if it would be possible to have recordings of the lectures so that I could view them when I am feeling more alert. Thank you.


How can I feel connected?

Reach out.

We’re more physically separated than usual, so we need to make extra effort to connect with one another. Try to take whatever opportunities you can to stay in touch with your instructors, TAs, advisors, and peers. Reach out to your professor directly with a question. Attend in-person or virtual office hours. Set up an advising appointment. If you’d like to talk with somebody about your study strategies or academic work, sign up for a virtual consultation with ASLA.

Join or start a study group.

Connecting with other students in your classes is especially important while we're more physically separated than usual.

ASLA offers in-person and virtual Peer-Guided Study Groups (registration required) and Drop-In Peer Tutoring (sign-up required only for the virtual version), both great opportunities to connect with classmates!

If that isn't right for you, ask your instructor if they can help facilitate informal in-person or virtual study groups by setting up sign-up sheets in Canvas.

Or start your own study group with friends!

Connect with offices that bring students together.

Many offices and organizations around Northwestern provide ways to connect, in-person or virtually, with other students. For example, check out

Also see the Student Affairs Student Update for opportunities to connect virtually.

How can I take care of my own wellness?

Be kind to yourself.

This is an extreme situation, and none of us will be operating as we usually do. Take care of yourself. Allow yourself extra room for error, and if you stumble, give yourself a break and know that you are in good company, and that support is available. We’re all in this together!

Reach out for help.

It's more important than ever to reach out if you're struggling with personal or academic issues. These resources can help:

Your academic advisor is also a great source of support and information.

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Angwin, A. J., Wilson, W. J., Copland, D. A., Barry, R. J., Myatt, G., & Arnott, W. L. (2018). The impact of auditory white noise on semantic priming. Brain and Language, 180, 1–7.

Beaman, C. P. (2005). Auditory distraction from low‐intensity noise: a review of the consequences for learning and workplace environments. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 19(8), 1041–1064.

Bowman, L. L., Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M., & Gendron, M. (2010). Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading. Computers & Education, 54(4), 927931.

Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2009). A stability bias in human memory: Overestimating remembering and underestimating learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 138(4), 449.

Law, A. S., Logie, R. H., & Pearson, D. G. (2006). The impact of secondary tasks on multitasking in a virtual environment. Acta Psychologica, 122(1), 2744.

Niles, A. N., Haltom, K. E. B., Mulvenna, C. M., Lieberman, M. D., & Stanton, A. L. (2014). Randomized controlled trial of expressive writing for psychological and physical health: the moderating role of emotional expressivity. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 27(1), 1–17.

Scullin, M. K., Krueger, M. L., Ballard, H. K., Pruett, N., & Bliwise, D. L. (2018). The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 147(1), 139.

Wolters, C. A., & Benzon, M. B. (2013). Assessing and predicting college students’ use of strategies for the self-regulation of motivation. The Journal of Experimental Education, 81(2), 199–221.

This page draws from the excellent content developed by the University of Michigan, Cornell University, and Duke University.