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Kyler Hecke, a PhD candidate in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, holds a juvenile largemouth bass during a fisheries techniques class. Photo by Kristy Keel-Blackmon

To support student success in the hybrid academic world, UT’s Division of Student Success has created an Online Academic Success Guide with useful takeaways. As a complement to those tips, graduate teaching assistants from across campus are offering helpful advice for those who are new to distant learning.

Jonathan West, master's student in civil engineering
Jonathan West, master’s student in civil engineering

Jonathan West, a master’s student in civil engineering who teaches an engineering fundamentals class in physics, says, “Don’t be afraid to schedule Zoom help sessions with TAs and teachers. One-on-one instruction can be just as vital with online classes as in real life. Scheduled Zoom help sessions allow that interactive teaching to occur that regular Zoom classes often lack.”

Julia Proctor, a graduate student in information sciences, says, “The number one piece of advice I have for anyone taking online classes for the first time is to participate! I get distracted and drift off pretty easily during online classes. Being an active participant in class by asking questions and commenting on things in the chat makes it a lot easier to stay focused, and it helps you engage with the material.

Julia Proctor, graduate student in information sciences
Julia Proctor, graduate student in information sciences

“Something else that has been helpful for me in online classes is connecting to other students in the class. Make a group chat or have Zoom study sessions. In one of my first online classes, we set up a class group chat, and having a place to ask questions, collaborate, and find partners for group projects made the class a lot easier and more enjoyable.”

Kyler Hecke, a PhD candidate in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, is teaching fisheries techniques and taking a class in teaching methods. “For me,” says Hecke, “the best tip that has helped with both learning and instructing in the online environment has been my approach to communication. This is a weird time for us all, and a lack of face-to-face communication has influenced us all in at least some way. In the online environment, though, communication is something that should be a relatively easy task—but that is not always the case.

“With teaching, I try to always make myself virtually available to students for questions and/or concerns in order to make them feel more comfortable in the online learning environment. As a student, I try to take the right approach to ensure communication takes place when it is needed, whether that be via email or Zoom. Ultimately, my tip would be to never be afraid to reach out to your instructor, professor, or fellow students for help when you need it.”

Angus Shaw, master’s candidate in aerospace engineering
Angus Shaw, master’s candidate in aerospace engineering

Angus Shaw, a master’s candidate in aerospace engineering, teaches an engineering fundamentals class in computer solutions. “I think that the slightly more anonymous nature of teaching virtually actually helps facilitate student interaction. Asking questions in front of everyone can cause anxiety, consequently discouraging students from participating. In a virtual classroom, if students are introverted they can disable their camera, reduce some of that anxiety and stress, and focus on the content.

“I encourage students uncomfortable speaking in front of people to take advantage of the text chat service built into Zoom to alleviate that stress. If a student doesn’t like to ask a question in front of everyone because they are afraid of being embarrassed if the answer is one that they think everyone knows, I encourage them to use the private message chat feature to ask the instructor a question directly, in private. Because we usually have another GTA or TA in the class, he or she can answer questions as they come up, which helps keep the class moving.”

Katie Rosenberg, a graduate student in information sciences, shares her tried-and-true tips for surviving (and sometimes even thriving) in online classes:

“I prep my materials beforehand. Several hours before class, I’ll prepare my designated area of the house with my computer, notebook, any physical reading materials, a pen and pencil. Equally important: snacks and drinks! I make sure to have my water bottle and a snack, or even sometimes my dinner.

Katie Rosenberg, graduate student in information sciences
Katie Rosenberg, graduate student in information sciences

“Managing things for online classes is a little different than for in-person classes. I find the best way for me to keep track of everything I need to do is to make a big list on a Google Doc. I use it to list upcoming assignments with their due dates and break up each day of the week to assign myself various readings and assignments to work on. As I complete something, I delete it from my list, which is highly satisfying.

“I look for ways to use online classes to my benefit. While I sometimes miss being in a physical space with classmates, I do find I interact more in an online environment. I especially enjoy and utilize the chat feature in Canvas. For one thing, I feel more comfortable asking questions and responding to questions in that format, but I also love that the chat offers a whole other component to class discussion. Oftentimes I am listening to what my professor or instructor is saying while simultaneously seeing that a person from class chatted about a personal experience that they had had related to one of our readings. Instances like that can help you feel more connected to classmates and make the online environment feel more authentic.”

Allie Johnston, PhD candidate in rhetoric, writing, and linguistics
Allie Johnston, PhD candidate in rhetoric, writing, and linguistics

Allie Johnston, a PhD candidate in rhetoric, writing, and linguistics and a graduate teaching associate serving as assistant director of the Judith Herbert Anderson Writing Center, observes, “Many students believe the best time for a writing center appointment is once they have a completed draft ready to go. But this is not always the case! Some of the most effective sessions have occurred when students are brainstorming or planning their papers early on. One of my recent sessions was working with a student refining their research questions. We were able to talk through several ideas and help the student leave with a clear game plan.”

Here are other tips gleaned from Johnston’s experience in the online writing center:

  • One of the biggest shifts from in-person to online learning is the feeling of isolation and lost community. It can be easy to feel alone and, in turn, not motivated or unsure where to turn for help. To help work through those feelings, discover what resources are available to help and where you can get connected. One place to start is making an appointment in the writing center, where you can receive email- or video-based assistance and can talk through ideas with another person. Another helpful resource is the UT Libraries website, where you can talk directly with a librarian through the 24-hour chat feature. If you have a big project, paper, or exam coming up, schedule a Zoom or Google Hangout with classmates to discuss material or have dedicated writing time.
  • Speaking of dedicated writing time, another shift in online learning is not having distinct boundaries for work versus downtime. At the start of each week, go ahead and schedule your required classes, meetings, and tutor sessions, then add in dedicated time to write, research, read, or complete homework. This can help you feel less scattered and allow you to actually relax during your time off.
  • Take frequent breaks, especially from screens. Go for a walk, stretch, or move when possible to give your eyes a break as well as your mind. It’s amazing how a quick 10-minute break can give you a more creative or fresh approach to the problem or paper you’re working on.