The Covid gap year – a catalyst for change

At times it might seem difficult to find the positives in the current Covid crises but there are some. We may have had to change our travel plans but are benefiting from cleaner air and more time, staying closer to home is leading to a greater sense of community, and social media which was becoming ever more toxic has been used by many to keep in touch with friends and family. But how long will we continue to enjoy these healthy bi-products when we can jump on that aeroplane, tweet something without thinking and once again time becomes scarce, consumed by work. The downside is it can so easily revert back to how it was before.

However, some changes are likely to become permanent, people are beginning to call what comes after Covid the new norm, a kind of normality, familiar and yet different. We have all been given a glimpse of the future or to be precise the future has been brought forward not as a blurry image but with startling clarity because we are living it.

Change is easy
On the whole it’s difficult to get people to change their behaviour but if you change the environment it’s a different story. If we had asked people if they wanted to work from home they would have had to guess what it would be like, imagining not having to travel, imagining not seeing colleagues in the wok place but if you are forced into doing it, you experience it for real. And that’s what’s happened, people may not have chosen to work from home but having experienced it the change will be faster.

Neurologically a habit or learning for that matter takes place when you do something repeatedly. In 1949 Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuroscientist noted that once a circuit of neurons is formed, when one neuron fires so do the others, effectively strengthening the whole circuit. This has become known as Hebbian theory or Hebbs law and leads to long term potentiation, (LTP).

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Habits are patterns that can be thought of as grooves created over time by repetition but once formed they are hard to get out of, the deeper the groove, the less we think about it at a conscious level. But if you change the environment you are forcing the brain to reconsider those habits, effectively moving you out of that particular groove until you form another one. The secret is of course to create good habits and remove bad ones.

Many are suggesting that working from home will become far more common, Google and Facebook have already announced that they do not need their employees to go back into offices until at least the end of 2020, but who knows what that groove will be like by then. The other big changes on the horizon with potential for long term impact are, the reduction in the use of cash as appose to contactless, online shopping already popular will see a more drastic reshaping of the high street and studying online becoming a new way of learning. Education has seen one of the biggest changes arguably since we have had access to the internet with 1.3 billion students from 186 countries across the world now having to learn remotely. Even before COVID-19, global EdTech investment was $18.7 billion and the overall market for online education is projected to reach $350 Billion by 2025. (source WEF).

This is what school in China looks like during coronavirus.

Changing attitudes to study
Given the choice 1.3 billion students would not have all agreed to study online but Covid-19 has made this a reality within a matter of months. Its an environmental change on a massive scale. The argument that online learning is better remains complex and confusing, requiring a clearer understanding of what is being measured and a much longer time period under which it can be evaluated. There are for example claims that retention rates are higher by somewhere between 25% – 60% but I would remain sceptical despite its appeal and apparent common sense logic.

Instead focus on your own learning, think less of how much more difficult it is to concentrate staring at a computer screen rather than being in a classroom and embrace the process. You are in a new “groove” and as a result it’s not going to feel comfortable.

Covid Gap year
Why not make 2020 your Covid Gap year. UCAS says that one of the benefits of a gap year is that it “offers you the opportunity to gain skills and experiences, while giving you time to reflect and focus on what you want to do next”. It’s the changing environment in terms of geography, people, doing things that you might not have chosen that makes the gap year so worthwhile, and despite what people say when they return, it wasn’t enjoyable all of the time, you do get bored and frustrated but it can open your mind to new possibilities and ironically lockdown can do the same.

Online learning is a new environment, view it through the spectrum of new skills and experiences and only when you reflect back should you decide on how valuable it might have been.

The self-isolating learner – a new mindset

COVID-19 is forcing everyone to make changes, effortlessly disrupting routine and future plans, for many students the exams you have been working towards may well have been cancelled or alternative methods of assessment announced, and your School, University or College will have closed its doors for an unspecified period of time. With what could be described as a Dunkirk spirit many educational establishments have achieved what would have seemed impossible, a shift from face to face lectures and a physical campus-based mentality to a virtual learning environment.

If you are continuing to study, doing it remotely might be a brand-new experience and although it will mean some changes what remains the same is the way we learn. In fact, one of the biggest challenges is in not wasting time, something ironically because of the restrictions we now all have a lot more of. This new virtual learning can take many different forms, the platform will most likely be one of the following, Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Brightspace but there are others. Content will be delivered via any one or a combination of, live webcast, instructionally designed eLearning, video or simply tagged learning materials. All of them however require a positive approach to self-study.

Tips to studying when working from home

Prepare a Timetable – without the discipline of the classroom or a formal schedule you will need something to help manage your time. A timetable can seem unnecessary for experienced students but the process of preparing one will give you a mental picture of the tasks and challenges ahead. It should include important learning activities and tests that need completing and by when. Don’t underestimate how long something will take, learning is not an exact science so don’t forget to build in a buffer. Also make sure you include breaks and non-study time – just not too many.

Create a learning space – most students prefer a quiet place with little distraction in which to study. This may of course be difficult in a busy household but try and find a space and use the same one every day. If noise is a problem consider a headset with low volume classical or instrumental music playing in the background. Avoid listening to songs with lyrics as it can break your concentration.
Next remove as many distractions as possible. This will of course mean putting your mobile phone away, also turn off any alerts, the noise is enough to create what is called a “dopamine bump”, a short pleasurable sensation which will make it almost impossible for you not to check your messages. Contrary to popular student culture, multi-tasking doesn’t work. You may feel as if you’re watching Game of Thrones and answering a question at the same time, in reality you are simply swapping attention between two competing activities, which is tiring and reduces levels of concentration.

Don’t study for too long or cramCramming can work in those later stages of revision, the problem when learning and not revising is it overloads short term memory resulting in you forgetting something from the day before. Little and often is the secret to effective study. We don’t have any hard evidence as to the optimum period of study but most believe something around one and a half hours works best. After your session make sure you have a reasonable break, 10, 20 or even 30 minutes, grab a cup of coffee or take a walk outside, it’s important to physically move. There is a lot of evidence to show that exercise helps improve concentration and the ability to focus on specific tasks.

Question practice is key – Although attempting questions can seem a little disheartening, especially if you get something wrong it is one of the most effective methods of learning. The process of answering a question involves what we call retrieval practice forcing the brain to think back over what has previously been learned and in so doing transferring knowledge into long term memory.

Keep in contact with others – fellow students can be a real help when it comes to clarifying problems or just giving moral support. Also don’t forget your University or College, they will be only too pleased to support you, with many providing, forums, technical help and direct contact with your lecturer/teacher.

Develop a positive mindset – working alone can result in moments of self-doubt which can turn to worry and or stress. The important point is that both of these are perfectly normal reactions to a challenging situation. There is a view that worry is simply the way in which the brain moves something up your list of priorities. Lists are a great way of dealing with worry, simply write down what you are worried about and turn it into an action. Remember a certain amount of stress can also be good, its continual long-term stress that can cause problems.
Drink lots of water and as mentioned above build exercise into your daily routine, it’s a great antidote to stress and who knows you might not only pass your next exam but end up with a six pack as well.

If you would like to find out more about studying from home, here is a short video.