What to expect when you’re learning remotely: Tips for incoming undergraduate students

Starting an undergraduate program is a big transition, accompanied by many uncertainties. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has added to the number of unknowns facing incoming students, through the switch from on-campus to online courses.  

Recently, the Office of Science Education (OSE) and Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) hosted two panels to support U0 and U1 students admitted to the Faculties of Science and Engineering, as they prepare for their first year at McGill. Course instructors and students broke down what incoming students can expect from the Fall 2020 semester: delivery of courses and evaluation of students’ work, advice for student success, and tips for finding community.   

What does remote learning look like? 

Course instructors Laura Pavelka (instructor of CHEM 212 and CHEM 222), Nik Provatas (instructor of PHYS 102 and PHYS 108), Pallavi Sirjoosingh (co-instructor of CHEM 110), and Ken Ragan (instructor of PHYS 131) shared that their courses will include: 

  • Asynchronous learning components. This refers to course content you can complete flexibly on your own time (for example, pre-lecture activities such as concept videos, readings, practice questions, or commenting in a discussion forum). 
  • Synchronous learning components. This refers to course content you complete at a fixed time, such as attending a lecture or tutorial over Zoom. All instructors emphasized how these sessions will be heavily interactive, using tools such as the breakout room feature to create smaller groups. Instructors will use various strategies to accommodate students in different time zones, such as recording lectures and hosting multiple tutorials at different times. 
  • Flexible assessments. Evaluation of course content may include online quizzes, participation-based grades (e.g., for posting comments to discussion forums), and take-home finals. Flexible grading schemes, as described for PHYS 131, allow you to shift the weight of certain assessments to customize your learning experience. 
  • Resources for support. Available resources include online office hours held over Zoom and discussion boards in myCourses. Teaching Assistants and course mentors (upper year undergraduate students) will be available to answer questions in tutorials or during lectures through the Zoom chat feature.  

What are strategies for success with remote learning?  

Student panelists shared their first-hand experiences with remote learning from the Winter 2020 semester, describing how the format challenged their time management skills. They provided the following tips to help students succeed: 

  • Make a daily and weekly schedule. “It’s a slippery slope to start saving lectures for later,” described Emma Friesen, a U1 Chemical Engineering student. Sticking to a pre-planned schedule can help you stay up to date with your course content. 
  • Create a routine. “As tempting as it is to sip your coffee in bed in your PJs while listening to your prof lecture, I suggest you treat this as a normal school day. Get up, get dressed to impress, and put on your school brain,” said Sam Richer, who recently completed his Bachelor’s degree in Physiology. 
  • Tailor your workspace. Imane Chafi, a U3 Software Engineering student, advised that you should make sure your workspace is properly set up for remote learning, such as by downloading the programs needed for your courses and creating an environment that allows you to be productive. (Sam suggested hiding your phone to prevent distractions.) 
  • Make use of the resources available. “I know it can be nerve-wracking to log into that first Zoom call for office hours,” described Emma, as she highlighted how engaging with the available support is crucial to making the most of your online learning. She recommends asking questions in the chat, contributing to class discussions, and attending office hours. 

How can I find community while learning remotely? 

Both panels emphasized the importance of connecting with others in the program to create a sense of community. Although it may seem difficult to engage with others while learning from home, “everyone is in the same boat right now,” explained Emma. The student panelists highlighted the following ways to get involved: 

  • Work with your peers. Sinan Abi Farraj, a U3 Materials Engineering student and manager of the Engineering Peer Tutoring Service (EPTS), described how forming community can also help you academically. Attending drop-in office hours, through EPTS or your courses, can be a great way to work together and learn from your peers.  
  • Get involved across McGill. “McGill has many online workshops and webinars that help you with a variety of things,” described Sam. For example, Skills21 is a workshop-based skills development program for undergraduate students, and Campus Life & Engagement offers many different programs and services to support students. 

While starting your undergraduate program with remote learning may seem daunting, McGill has many resources to virtually support incoming students. Welcome to the McGill community, and enjoy your first year!  

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