Hey Students! Here's How to Deal With School in a Pandemic

By Rhett Allain

I think both faculty and students can agree that this Covid-induced learning environment isn't ideal. I would even go so far as to say that it absolutely sucks. But here we are. We are just going to have to deal with whatever situation we are in. I suspect that just about all students are in one of three instructional modes:

  • Completely face-to-face classes with some type of social-distancing limitations.
  • Completely online (some people like to call it remote) learning.
  • Some type of hybrid model that includes both in-person and remote learning.

At Southeastern Louisiana University, where I teach physics classes, we are mostly in the hybrid mode. I have a "lecture" class that has 90 students enrolled. However, only 20 students can be in the room and maintain social distancing. That means the other 70 students participate in class remotely. Some students want to only be online and so the others just rotate between in-person classes and attending via Google Meets. It's almost impossible to keep track of the two groups of students (remote and live) at the same time. My Classical Mechanics class has only 12 students enrolled, and we can all fit in the real-life classroom.

I suspect that no one would have high exceptions for an online or hybrid course. But even the "face to face" class is depressingly limited. My favorite thing to do in class is to have students work in groups and interact with each other. That's pretty difficult to accomplish with 6-foot student spacing. Oh well. We just have to carry on and get through this. Maybe there are ways to do something similar online, but it still will add an extra layer of technology that hinders communication.

Last spring I wrote a post focusing on the instructor side of this pandemic-based learning. Now I'm going to give some tips for students. Here is some advice to make sure that you (the student) get through this with your education intact (hopefully).

Communicate and Make Connections

You might think the most important part of a class is the content. I mean, yes—but no. In physics there are some really important ideas to cover. There's the Momentum Principle, the wave equation, Schrödinger's equation, and a whole bunch of other stuff. But really, all of that material is either in the textbook or online. You know there is a YouTube video for every one of these ideas—and some of them are even useful (some are not).

So, if you can learn all the physics by just watching videos, you should be all set. Alas, most human learners (not sure about other species) can't just figure stuff out by reading or watching a video. The majority of students learn by interacting with the instructor and other students. We often think of education as a thing that instructors do to students—but it's not really like that. The vast majority of students have to learn by doing, not by seeing. That's why we have class, so that we can work together and build a community of learners. This community is sort of like a built-in support group to help everyone understand the material a little better. If it was only about the content, the instructor would just stand at the front of the room and read the textbook to you. Clearly, that wouldn't be helpful.

But what about this pandemic learning? This is where you need to be very careful to not lose this communication link between you and the instructor or you and the other students. Even during classes (if they are remote and not prerecorded), you can find ways to interact. Use the text chat on Zoom or Google Meet to ask (and answer) questions. Don't just sit there and treat the class as though it were a movie in a theater. You have to engage yourself.