Building good habits for off-campus learning

Director of Teaching and Learning, Andrew Baylis, outlines strategies for maximising outcomes when learning through this educational model.

These are unprecedented times for us all and working from home is not a normal occurence. Several professions have used working from home over the last decade, and there are some reliable findings of the benefits and issues that can arise. In this piece, I am trying to distil their advice within the context of the understanding we now have of the brain and how we learn.

We are all creatures of habit. This automation of normal, routine tasks allows us to focus our attention on the irregular or surprising happenings around us. The routine also helps us set the mood and disposition for the day. When things become non-routine, we need to spend more energy on managing the situation, which stops us learning effectively.

Disruption of School Routine

The regular breaks between classes, the time of day we eat and play and socialise have all built up a pattern in our heads for when we need to focus and when we can relax. Working at home can disrupt this, particularly if we allow ourselves to slip into “holiday” mode with irregular hours. This will affect motivation, the ability to focus deeply and overall productivity.

Advice – establish a standard pattern of times and activities (use the normal school timetable if practicable). As there won’t be the normal school bells to prompt a change in activity, maybe use your phone alarm to remind you to take regular breaks (there are apps available for this as well). For older students, you should also schedule a regular homework session, but this can be more flexible.

Mindset

Being at home and being at school establish quite separate mindsets as the location and setting very much impact our mood and readiness to learn. A positive and constructive mindset is important – the times ahead provide opportunities rather than problems.

Advice – establish a suitable mindset by trying to keep to a normal routine. Random changes to days lead to anxiety. Dress properly as if you were going out. Don’t bring food or drink into your workspace as this makes it seem less formal. Use to-do lists and other organisational tools to map out each day and give yourself a ‘reward’ when you complete everything. Some like to plot a chart of hours completed or number of questions done. The key is having some visible sign of progress – otherwise, the days can all blur into one and the mindset shifts to a numb sense of sameness. Build exercise into each day and try to vary the activity to maintain interest.

Workspace

The subtle messages provided by school, classrooms, environment, peers and teachers all contribute to your readiness to learn. While you cannot replicate the exact environment, you can establish a new space at home which is just for working. Have all the resources you need handy, have a message board or pinboard in your normal line of sight – you can put key notices, goals and motivational quotes on this. Using the same setup as you currently have for homework can be a mistake as this will keep you in the “evening, set task, slightly tired” mindset.

Advice – keep your current set up for homework if you wish but create a separate “home school” location (could be your dining table or just a table in another room). Move here when you are ready to do work and go elsewhere to eat, relax and exercise.

Comfort

Temperature, seating and lighting can all have a significant impact on how long you can remain working and how deeply you can focus. Studies have shown that an average temperature of 20-22oC works well for males (22-24oC for females). If the space gets too warm, your thinking will become sluggish. If it gets too cold, the discomfort this creates will become a distraction.

Advice – find a way to have good ventilation and a balanced temperature environment. In winter, small fan heaters can be a trap as they create a localised hot spot. Choose a chair which gives you good posture and is firm rather than too soft. Ensure the chair height and table height are appropriate so you are comfortable working for extended periods in this space.

Pace and Sequence

One significant advantage of working at home is that you have far more control over how quickly you work and how much time you spend in any one session. Varying pace and having some deep and some lighter sessions will help the brain learn. Too much of any one type is not effective, nor is working too long on any one day – the brain needs a sleep cycle to digest what you have learnt during the day.

As with sport training, sometimes it can help your brain to work in sprint mode where you push yourself to achieve a certain number of items answered or tasks done. At other times, the longer endurance training is needed.

Advice – part of your daily to do list should specify sections of intensive work (maybe one a day) and other parts should give you the chance to spend a long chunk of time on the subject (maybe read and summarise the section in your textbook in one go). Also, consider that you could be working this way for a number of weeks so ensure you pick a daily pace that you can maintain (it can be easy to have an initial rush of enthusiasm which quickly wanes and then turns into a grinding slog).

Work with others

We are social beings and a large part of our learning comes through human interactions. It is vital that you continue to interact with friends and family. Your teacher will no longer just be there if you need, so take the time to make contact (email or contribute in a course discussion) so that you can feel part of the class “team”. A simple “Hi, how’s it going” can make the world of difference to your morale and energy levels for the rest of the day. Deeper thinking is also only possible if your ideas can be challenged or stimulated with outside input.

Advice – keep a regular part of your routine for catching up with friends. At least a couple of times a week, make a personal contact with your teacher (ask a question, offer a comment and get some feedback on your work).

Feedback

All good learning requires feedback. Just checking the back of the book for the answer is not good feedback! Your course will require certain items of work to be submitted for feedback, but you should also find other ways to get affirmation or support. Suggest possible answers, read widely and offer a comment on something you have seen. Each time you do this, there is an opportunity for feedback from peers or your teacher. The emotional part of the brain kicks in when we get feedback, and this enhances the learning and memory consolidation.

Advice – ensure you utilise all the various opportunities for regular feedback in each course. Go beyond just doing the minimum and see if you can explore the ideas a bit further and then offer comment or ask questions that give you feedback on this.