Online University: tips for staying motivated and organised

I’m currently in my second year of a psychology degree at Bangor University, and like everyone else; I’m studying online. Also like most everyone else, I’ve been feeling unmotivated, demoralized and like I have no idea what’s going on the vast majority of the time; in a way I can only really express through horrendously pixelated memes like these..

But, I have been picking up several different tips and discovering various productivity tools to make the Covid-19 academic world a little less bleak, and I’m happy to share them here!

First, I’d like to introduce the app I primarily use for my organisation, which I’ll be referring back to often, called Notion. Notion describes itself as “an application that provides components such as databases, wikis, calendars and reminders. Users can connect these components to create their own systems for knowledge management, note taking, data management and project management, among others.” The app is available for mobile and desktop, so it’s accessible anywhere, but best of all; if you sign up with your academic email, you can get a free premium plan. Here’s a look at my notion homepage, from mobile. then from desktop, just to paint a clearer picture..

Personally, I recommend keeping separate sections on your homepage for personal pages (if you choose to include them) and university related pages, but the beauty of notion is that it’s so customisable, you can explore whichever format works for you. Now, onto the tips and tricks!

1) Write your own uni timetable. Trying to remember which module time slots are live lectures/seminars and which are asynchronous prerecorded lectures can be frustrating, so rewriting it yourself in your own words can be helpful. For this, I used notions table feature, and added it to the bottom of my dashboard for ease of access on the go. All you need is a day/time column, a module column, potentially a column for your lecturer/tutor, and then the location – which will probably just be blackboard, teams and zoom, but can also tell you whether its live, pre-recorded, attendance checked or non-compulsory.

2) Compile your reading lists together into one notion table, with specific textbook chapters or article links embedded to make your access quick and easy. I set mine up so that the ‘type’ column has numerous categories to select from, as well as the module and status columns. The status column is something I particularly recommend, as you can log your progress, or whether you need to get access to the material before you can start it.

3) On the subject of textbooks, with a lot of people lacking library access at the moment and many academic journals charging extortionate member fees, it’s easy to just use this as an excuse not to do any of the required course reading. (Trust, I get it). But if you do really need to read a text and have to resort to buying the book; I recommend downloading a chrome browser extension called Honey to save money automatically on any online purchases. Save your pennies for the pubs reopening!

4) If you’re stuck studying in your box room like me, try to separate your sleeping and relaxation space from your study space however possible. This trains your brain into recognizing that you’re in ‘work’ mode, not sleep mode, to avoid you falling asleep during lectures. However if you don’t have a desk (or if like me, you use yours as a TV stand) don’t worry; consider investing in a bed desk, and try sitting up against the wall with it over your lap. I found mine cheap on Ebay and it really was a game changer! I’ve added an example I found on amazon below..

5) Try to get out for a walk once a day. Staying in your room to study for hours then having your downtime in that same space can be both claustrophobic and demoralizing, whereas getting out for a stroll breaks up the day, dusts off the cobwebs and gets you moving, which can refresh you for that second lecture you’ve been dreading.

6) Get dressed. This again may seem obvious, but it can be very tempting to just spend the day in pajamas when you don’t have to leave your room for class. This may be just fine on your days off, but I’ve always considered pajamas to be a state of mind. Much like being in bed, wearing pajamas tells you that you’re going to be relaxing (and even taking a nap). If you get dressed, it helps establish a normal routine and tell yourself firmly that you’re going to work now. Personally, I’ve never had much success trying to nap in skinny jeans.

7) With lots of uni modules using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous teaching, it can be hard to recall which notes you’ve taken and which you still need to do. For this, I created an organised notes page in Notion, which is easy to copy. Some people choose to type their notes into notion directly by double clicking the titles to make a page for each weeks notes, but I prefer to take my notes in Google docs. This is just a personal choice, as I find the format cleaner, and can still keep the notes for each module organised in a Google drive folder. I then embed the links into notion to refer back to in the correct order for exam efficiency later.

8) Create an assignment schedule in Notion, with your overviews for each assignment copy and pasted into the title pages to refer to easily. You can have your due dates neatly inputted, and a progress list using categories such as ‘not started,’ ‘planning’ ‘writing’ and ‘completed.’ You can also use these multi-select categories to organise each assignment by module and type (eg: essay, exam, portfolio, presentation, etc..) I find it really helps me to see everything I need to do in one place, sorted by due date.

9) Consider downloading a study timer, which blocks you from accessing any other apps on your phone or laptop other than those you’ve white-listed. You could set this for the duration of a lecture to avoid the temptation of sitting back and browsing the 15 Tiktoks your mate sent you, or for shorter periods just to focus on an assignment or notes page. My personal favourite is forest, which grows a virtual tree while your timer progresses, which will wilt if you click off. It’s a pretty successful form of emotional blackmail in my opinion, especially if you get the premium version of the app, in which for every number of trees you grow in the app the developers will plant a real tree somewhere in the world.

10) Enlist the help of a friend. To avoid the sense of loneliness around studying by yourself rather than the usual commonality of lecture halls and seminars, set up video calls with your favourite classmates and study at the same time together. You could also ask them to check in and hold you accountable for how much work you’ve done towards a specific task or assignment. (I recommend sending passive aggressive memes like this one, personally.)

I really hope that some of these tips or resources can help someone! Remember to stay safe, but to also take care of your mental health as the number one priority. Never focus so hard on university or anything else that it’s detrimental to your well-being.

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