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Staying On Track During Another Pandemic Semester, Part 1: Focus on Moving Ahead

Vicki Nelson


This is the first in a series of three articles about staying motivated and productive during what we all hope is the final lap of remote pandemic learning. This is an ideal time for parents and students to think about how they will stay focused during this spring semester.

Over the last ten months, remote learning has shifted from what we all thought was a temporary, emergency measure to a prolonged way of doing school. It now seems likely that this spring semester will look very much like last fall at many schools.

The good news: This may be the final lap in this exhausting race. We’re not sure when life will be normal again, or what that new normal will look like, but we’re all hopeful that it will come soon.

Fall Was One Long Challenge for Most Students.

Fall semester took many forms, with some students fully in the classroom, others fully remote either on or off campus, and still others somewhere in between — or moving from one format to another as virus numbers dictated.

A study conducted by Digital Promise, an independent educational organization, found that 42% of students said one of their primary challenges with online learning was staying motivated. This isn’t surprising. Students and parents alike are feeling pandemic fatigue, Zoom fatigue and social isolation. Another semester of the same can seem daunting.

This is an excellent time for parents and students to evaluate how things are going. We can celebrate the positives — and yes, there are positives. We’ve been able to spend more time with family and less time commuting. Many of us have practiced patience and empathy. We’ve learned to be flexible and to adapt. Some of us even learned how to bake sourdough bread!

This is also a good time to talk about what the upcoming semester may look like — and to make some decisions.

Decision Time: Do I Stay or Do I Go?

Some students have simply had enough. They are overwhelmed, sad, angry, bored, frustrated (or all of the above).

As parents, we need to honor those feelings and let our student know that it’s okay to be stressed and anxious right now.

For those students who are struggling, taking a break from school might be an option. This may change your student’s timetable, but a lot of us have had to pivot this year. It’s also possible your student can make up lost credits over one or two summer terms.

Talk to your student about whether a break makes sense. Although it may feel scary, suggest the option.

Your student may be relieved that you suggest something they were afraid to voice. If they decide to step out, your student will need to contact the school to ask about the process of Withdrawing or taking a Leave of Absence and to check about financial aid implications. Then you and your student can talk about what they will do with their time so they will feel productive. This is not an easy decision but may be the right thing for now.

Your student may decide not to take a break but to forge ahead. This affirmative decision to accept the challenge of another remote (or at least radically different) semester becomes a proactive choice that can give your student a more positive perspective on the semester.

Staying Motivated for a Successful Semester

Once your student has made the affirmative choice to continue with “pandemic school,” they may need to dig deeper than ever to find the motivation to be successful.

Recognizing that this is a choice is a good beginning.

In his book Drive, author Daniel H. Pink suggests that there are three things that help us stay motivated:

  1. Directing our own life and having control (autonomy)
  2. The desire to get better and better at something that matters (mastery)
  3. Pursuing goals (purpose)

Parents and students might work together (we probably need some motivation as well!) to find those things over which we have control, to work at becoming better at something, and to define our goals and purpose. Talk to your student about some options and suggest that they make a list of their own.

1. Focus on things you can control

Practice autonomy. It’s time to be proactive.

  • Create a schedule or routine for your days. Give yourself structure with blocks of time for class, studying and recreation.
  • Discover your most productive time of the day. Schedule your difficult work then.
  • Try an experiment for a few days and keep a time journal. Jot down how much time you spend doing the various things in your life. How much time in classes? How much time studying, scrolling on your phone, playing video games, talking to friends, watching movies, sleeping? Are you happy with what you discover? Make some adjustments to come closer to the way you’d like your schedule to look.
  • Branch out. Balance school with time spent on hobbies, creating something, listening to music, dancing, cooking. Try to do something interesting each day.
  • Manage your media exposure. Be aware of how much screen time you spend. Give yourself a break from your screen.
  • Make a list of action steps that will get you to your long-term goals. What can you do NOW to get you where you want to be when this is over?
2. Get better and better every day

Practice mastery — and remember that this doesn’t mean perfection. Aim for improvement.

  • Ask yourself some simple questions at the end of each day: Was I who I wanted to be today? Did I make today better than yesterday? How can I make tomorrow better than today?
  • Make a list of the obstacles that can get in your way. Determine how you can overcome each one.
  • Challenge yourself to do something new or hard, or to do something better. Push yourself out of your comfort zone.
  • Reward yourself for completing something or making progress on it.
  • Make a reasonable to-do list for each day. Enjoy the satisfaction of crossing things off the list.
  • Find software or an app that will help you stay focused on your tasks. Focus Booster is one option.
  • Identify 5 skills you’d like to learn or improve this semester. Make a plan for doing that and keep track of your progress.
3. Connect what you do to a larger purpose
  • Isolation is getting tiresome, but use this time to get to know more about yourself. Try journaling. Explore your thoughts and dreams.
  • Make a list of long- and short-term goals. Where would you like to be at the end of the semester? Next year? In five years? Remind yourself of where you are going and why you want to get there!
  • What can you do in the next 6 months that will move you closer to some of your goals? What positive steps can you take right now?
  • Make a motivational poster. What word or quote inspires you? Find an image to match. Print it out and hang it where you can look at it every day.

And Just a Few Practical Things We All Know...

And yet always need to be reminded to do!

  • Take care of yourself. Watch what you eat, get exercise, get sleep.
  • Try to get outdoors at least a little bit every day.
  • Open your curtains and let the sun shine in!
  • Separate your workspace from your rest space. Don’t study and attend class in your bed. Do your work in a different part of your room or house.
  • We may not know exactly when this pandemic will end, but there will be an end to this semester. Remind yourself that every day brings you closer to the finish line.

You and your student may share many of the same motivational issues. Talking about them may help both of you find new ways to fuel your motivation to drive forward.

Stay strong!

Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She has also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, in 2009 to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.

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