COVID-19 is almost certainly the major thing this year will be remembered for. It has such a massive impact on our lives, irrespective of the fact if you or your family get infected with it. For starters, it locked us all up at home. It stopped so many normal activities, like going to the park, chatting with friends over a cup of coffee in a cafe, or even going to school for god’s sake.
So now, on top of everything else, we need to worry about the academic consequences of coronavirus. This epidemic has disrupted the normal functioning of schools and colleges, and a shift towards online education has been of a mixed success. The thing is, many of us are unprepared to work on our own, without any supervision and group study environment, without concrete deadlines and vision of the bigger picture, in such a stressful time. This article is here to help you mitigate this epidemic’s damage to your educational prospects and offer you a plan for action.
Psychological attitude - resisting the doomsday apocalypse apathy
Many people are panicking now. Because this coronavirus thing is a serious thing. We do not know how deadly it is, and we do not know if we will be able to avoid contracting the virus at all, but we already know that it changes the lives of many. For starters, it restricted our access to such simple things as friends, colleagues, even parks. Our travel plans are canceled. Many have lost their job or suspended in the state of limbo. And now, we don’t even know how we are going to finish this study year. What the heck will happen - nobody knows. They say, stay at home and study on your own. Some schools and colleges try to assist and direct us with online studies; some are less prepared. And since nobody tells us what will happen with our grades, graduations, and study process, the easiest solution is just to do nothing. It’s very understandable that many of us have an apocalyptic mood. “The whole freaking society might tumble down from economic pressures and social consequences of quarantine, and here I need to worry about some silly history lesson”. You might even think, “what is the point of doing anything, we are all going to DIE”. Well, do not despair. Such thinking was there in 2000, in 2012, and on many other occasions, and yet we did not all die. Clearly, there was some point of doing something. What if what you do during your lockdown really matters? What if some students will pass the courses or tests or whatever online, and others have to retake them, prolonging their study for one more year? In this ambiguous situation, it’s better to be an optimist and take matters into your own hands.
OK, take a few days off, just sit at home and do nothing at all, until you get bored with such complete inactivity. Most likely, there will come a moment when you will want something else, a challenge, a project, a task to accomplish. And this may seem exceedingly boring, but how about including studying among such tasks? Sure many might think this is a rather foolish or boring idea. And yet, when you think about it, studying on your own will allow you to 1) take control over your attention 2) take charge of your education process and develop independence from teachers and circumstances 3) empower yourself by proving that you can do whatever you set your mind to. In the end, you know that this study stuff is an important task to be completed, whether you like it or not. So why don’t we learn to find an angle where we can just as well like it.
All this quarantine situation is very unclear, and there is a lot of uncertainty. However, slipping into apathetic passivity may not be the best answer to deal with the anxiety of a lockup. Try to do the best you can to stay on course of your studies - this may impact your future.
Dealing with procrastination and untrained attention
Now when we decided that doing something is better than doing nothing, the question arises, how do we do it? The main problem for many of us is procrastination. Even if we understand that you need to do some studying, we try to delay this moment as long as we can. Because, let’s be honest, for many of us, trying to learn new material without it being explained to us properly is a challenge. And we feel that unpleasant feeling every time we think about the need to study.
Did you know that when we think about things that we don’t feel like doing, we activate the “pain centers” in the insular cortex of our brain - the group of neurons that fire when one experiences physical pain (we have written about this in our post on study hacks). So you literally feel pain when you think of doing the unwanted task. That’s why procrastination - the desire to do something, anything - to postpone the dreadful task - seems like a very natural reaction. However, you need to know just one thing. The moment you start this unwanted task, your mental pain will subside in just a minute or two. While if you keep postponing it, you will feel this pain all the time while the thought of it floats in the back of your mind. So it turns out, procrastination is more painful than just biting the bullet.
So, find the courage to face the pain for just a few minutes, and you will notice that after these few minutes, these studying tasks are not so torturous after all. Make a game out of it: decide that for the next 20 or 30 minutes, you are going to do nothing else but read this textbook or write this paper - no distractions. Start with modest goals - two or three sessions a day, twenty to thirty minutes each. Then as your willpower and “focus muscle” grow, you will be able to do 5-6 such sessions. Initially, 20-30 minutes at a time will be enough to catch up with your subject. Don’t beat yourself up that your “home classes” are not as long as “school classes”: at home, you are fully focused on just this one thing, while at school, lots of time in the class is wasted on unessential tasks.
When you think about doing an unwanted task, the pain centers in your brain activate, and you literally feel tortured. Starting the unwanted task and persisting just for a few minutes relieves this mental pain. So bite the bullet and “just do it”. Start with 20-minutes study sessions a few times a day.
Alternate between studying and the periods of pleasant rest to activate “the diffuse mode” of learning
After you have studied for 20-30 minutes, take a break. Do a short exercise, make yourself a cup of coffee or tea, read a book, call your friend. Let your mind drift away from the thing you have been focusing on. At this time, you are alternating between the focused and diffuse modes of thinking. You use focused mode when you pay your undivided attention to the task at hand. A diffused mode is when you rest and let your subconscious mind process the information that you have just learned. You can read more on focused and diffused modes of leaning in our previous blog post.
Alternating between short periods of intense concentration and pleasant breaks enhances your learning, as it engages your unconscious to incorporate the information through “diffused mode of thinking”.
Use online study sources and materials
You probably have the textbooks on all the subjects, and you can use them to guide your study sessions. However, sometimes it’s hard to understand some concepts only from the textbook. In the class, you had a teacher who explained some things to you and perhaps even demonstrated some. What can you do to replace the teacher at home? Well, there are lots of high-quality websites with educational materials and videos. If you are in high school, definitely check out Khan Academy. It has courses on all subjects that you study at school and even some college-level courses. These video lectures are structured, easy to follow, and you even have some tests to check your understanding. If you still struggle with some topic, you can just go ahead and search in YouTube. Chances are somebody has made an educational video on it. You can just google for articles and books - you will be studying and improving your “research skills” at the same time.
Then there are websites like Coursera, EdX, and Future Learn with college and university-level courses, although they have courses for high school as well. You can apply to all these courses for free. Moreover, at this moment, Coursera offers more than 85 certificates for its courses for free. Check this offer here, as it expires soon. Many of these courses have teacher support, in that you can ask them questions and they will reply to them. Thus you can get a world-class education on your computer for free. You can browse a comprehensive list of free online courses on different subjects here.
Need to learn languages? Try Duolingo. It’s a completely free language learning app (you can use desktop version as well) that has the biggest amount of language courses in the world, even including such languages as Esperanto, Navajo, and Welsh. Duolingo uses a gamification approach to learning, so learning a language feels like an interesting game. It also has the biggest online community in the world, hence, your questions are likely to be answered by knowledgeable people. I used Duolingo to improve my Spanish, French, and Polish, and to learn Italian and Greek - I have a first-hand experience that the app alone is enough to learn a new language (like Italian for me) on a sufficient level to be able to read books in Italian. Speaking of reading books. If you want to read a book in a foreign language but find it difficult because you need to look up a lot of words, try Readlang - this website allows you to read foreign books and websites and get a translation of words just by clicking on them. What’s more, it remembers the words you looked up, and then you can practice flashcards with them.
Use online libraries, MOOCS sites (Mass online open courses), and apps to expand your learning. We recommend Khan Academy, Coursera, EdX, Future Learn, and language apps like Duolingo and Readlang.
If you are still struggling with understanding of some subjects, don’t be shy to reach out for help. Everybody understands that the current quarantine situation is extraordinary, and your teachers should be available to you at a certain time of the day or week to advise you on things you have difficulty with. Check with your school about the schedules or contact details of the teachers, and use this opportunity to receive a consultation from them. Many people do not want to “bother” their teachers with “silly questions”, but I have experience in teaching, and I promise you, normal teachers like when children are interested in their subjects. Your teachers will appreciate your curiosity and effort, and moreover, they will remember your initiative. So do not hesitate to get consultation or help from your teachers, or, for that matter, from your peers or even parents, who are also likely to stay at home at this time. You can always arrange a conference call with your coursemates or classmates to discuss the tricky parts of your studies.
When you encounter difficulties, seek help and consultation from your teachers, parents, or peers.
Make a point to complete all the writing tasks: tick the boxes
In some schools and colleges, you have access to your school/college account, and you have some writing tasks, quizzes, tests, and assignments to complete during the quarantine. Make a point to do all those. Some people are so frustrated by the epidemic and uncertainty surrounding it that they just decide to do nothing and wait for some moment of clarity. But how well you do the homework during your quarantine may be a deciding factor between you completing this year successfully and having to repeat some courses or even entire year again. So make sure you do all your tasks. If you need help, contact your teachers or colleagues. If you still struggle with some tasks, you know that you can rely on our custom research and writing service for tutoring, researching, and helping you write academic papers (check our prices here).
Exercise to pump your brain
Did you know that exercise makes you smarter? Even 10-20 minutes of physical activity stimulates BDNF, a neurotrophic factor in the brain, which is a molecule that nourishes, protects, and repairs your neurons, facilities establishing new connections, and even neuronal growth. So, exercising helps you grow your brain and learn better. We have previously written about studies that showed that exercising before a learning session significantly improves the retention of material. Exercising is even more important at this time when we are stuck at home and probably sit too much. So go ahead and make a few pushups or squats, or jump as high as you can for ten times, or make a plank, some crunches. If you have some kettlebells or dumbbells, make use of them, swing them for a minute. Look for a short at-home workout on YouTube for more inspiration. You will move the blood around, improve your energy level, and even pump your brain with such simple exercises.
When you exercise, you stimulate the brain neurotrophic growth factor - a molecule that protects, repairs, nourishes, and grows new neurons. So make a short workout (even 5-10 minutes is OK) before your study session.
Become solar-powered: boost your brain function with sun
We’re all stuck at our homes now, but if you have a balcony, a yard, or even a south-facing window which you can open, you can use 10-15 minutes of daily sunshine to stimulate your brain function. The thing is, when your skin is exposed to direct sunshine, you produce vitamin D, which is essential for your bone and cardiovascular health, immunity (quite relevant now), and brain function. It turns out that vitamin D activates and deactivates the enzymes in the brain responsible for neurotransmitter synthesis and nerve growth. Moreover, vitamin D decreases inflammation and protects neurons from damage (check the source here). Vitamin D is so important that now some experts in endocrinology and neuroscience believe that increasing incidence of neurodegenerative diseases and impaired brain function may be due to vitamin D deficiency coming from obsessive and excessive use of sunscreens. Thus, this scientific review found that vitamin D deficiency may be among causal factors in dementia, depression, autism and schizophrenic-like disorders, hypoxic brain injury, and other mental illnesses. (here’s an interesting lecture from Michael Holick, the pioneer of Vitamin D research on this fascinating topic). And no, you cannot get vitamin D from food in any adequate amounts unless your diet consists exclusively of salmon roe and cod liver oil.
Just 10 minutes of direct sun a day may boost your immune and brain function. Just be sure not to suntan behind the glass as glass blocks UVB rays that induce vitamin D production.
Uncover your intrinsic motivation: know why you are doing it
Now you’ve already heard our arguments why it is good to study during quarantine, and you even tried a few times to overcome your procrastination and study for continuous 20-30 minutes at a time. And still, you do not feel particularly excited about the next learning session. You feel that it’s something imposed on you by the system or expectations of others. If these feelings are familiar to you, most likely, you have mostly extrinsic motivation to study. Extrinsic motivation is a type of motivation that comes from outside of you. You do something because you might get a reward for it, or you might get punished for not doing it. This is a classical Pavlovian conditioning approach to the motivation, “carrot and stick” method. According to it, you study because you want to 1) get good grades, and perhaps parents reward you for good grades 2) avoid parents’ punishment for bad grades 3) avoid the embarrassment of being considered “stupid” by your peers 4) increase your chances of being accepted to a good college 5) avoid the threat of being uneducated workforce because you failed your SATs 6) finish your college as you have already invested so much into this education 7) pick your option.
However, there exists another type of motivation, and it’s called intrinsic. When you are intrinsically motivated to do something, you derive pleasure from the activity itself; you do not even need to be rewarded for the activities’ results. For example, some people just like skateboarding. They do not get parent’s approval or college credits for it, and yet they spend a lot of time practicing. Other people are fond of music, or rapping, or dancing, or photography, or ping-pong, or biking, or freerunning (insert your choice here). They invest lots of time in becoming better in their particular activity, and most of the time, it’s just because they LIKE doing it. According to Daniel Pink, intrinsic motivation has components of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. That is, you like doing your favorite activity because you are not forced to do it, it’s your free choice. Then, you feel that you are in control, and actually you are getting better, which expands your feeling of mastery. And also, you might see a purpose in doing your activity: you have goals that you set to yourself, or you find internal meaning in what you are doing.
So for many people, studying in school or college is not an intrinsically motivated activity, first of all, because we are forced to do it and because often we do not feel mastery - we do not understand some things very well. And then, many people do not see the purpose of studying so many “useless” subjects. Now, the quarantine has the potential of changing this dynamic. First, nobody can force you to do anything now. You can CHOOSE to do it, exercising your autonomy and free will. Second, you can pay more attention to subjects that interest you and make use of additional online resources we outlined above to get much better in your grasp of the material. And third, you can come up with your own purpose of why you study. For example, you may study to improve your focus or patience, or autonomy (ability to do things without external supervision or enforcement), or you just want to do an experiment and see how well you can actually do without external help.
One good way of increasing intrinsic motivation is the gamification of activity. One example is the language learning app Duolingo that makes a game out of the studying process. You earn points, get rewards, and you compete with your peers while you do the lessons. So maybe you can gamify your quarantine study time. Start a competition with your friend on who faster or better learns some topic, or come up with specific rewards you will give yourself after completion of some tasks. Try to find angles in your study materials that stimulate your curiosity. How does the stuff that you learn about apply to you? Can you observe this stuff in your life or draw some comparisons? Also, you may want to stimulate the feeling of mastery just by noticing how your understanding improves every day, merely by paying attention to some stuff for 20 minutes. You may understand a simple rule of life that mastery comes from practice, and feel empowered by it.
We tend to be more efficient if we are intrinsically motivated to do some activity. This intrinsic motivation creates enjoyment and fun, which is a nice way to spend your quarantine. In your study sessions, try to find the angles that reinforce your autonomy and mastery. Stimulate your curiosity and playfulness, complete with your friends. Try to come up with the personally significant meaning of what you are doing.
Good luck with your study, let us know how it went by leaving a comment here. And be sure to contact us in case you need any help with academic tutoring, research, and writing.