In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the University of California, Irvine (UCI) quickly transitioned to a remote campus environment at the end of Winter Quarter 2020. This sudden shift left UCI’s student body reeling as they hurried to relocate and adjust to their new normal.

Among the many UCI students who moved back home to finish out the 2020 academic year was fifth-year Human Biology major Rachon Sweiss. With graduation one quarter away, the pandemic was an unwelcome hitch in his plans.

“This is my last year,” Rachon explains ruefully, “And at this point, after you have spent so much time on campus, the campus itself has become a part of your life and daily routine. Having that taken away was really hard.”

While Rachon was sad to see his time at UCI come to such a strange close, he didn’t have time to dwell on his disappointment. As president of Nu Rho Psi, UCI’s chapter of the National Honor Society in Neuroscience, he had more pressing concerns to attend to.

UCI’s Nu Rho Psi is dedicated to creating a community of students interested in the field of neuroscience. With the goal of increasing public awareness of neuroscience, its applications to everyday life, and how it can serve the community, Nu Rho Psi offers its members immersive experiences and opportunities for professional success.

As a mentor to other Nu Rho Psi members, Rachon had to find ways to adapt to the new remote environment in order to offer the guidance and reassurance his mentees needed. He explains, “I’ve had my two mentees reach out to me and say ‘How do I do this?’ and ‘I’m really confused right now,’ and I’ve been helping them work through that, while also working through it myself.”

Rachon also had to quickly adapt Nu Rho Psi’s upcoming schedule of events to account for COVID-19. This included converting a planned lecture series to a remote format. While this was challenging, Rachon reports that the virtual lectures went very well. He says that the lecture series offered a valuable opportunity for the group to stay connected and involved with the neuroscience community.

The idea of community is one that Rachon returns to again and again. Because he understood that many of Nu Rho Psi’s members are feeling isolated, he made staying connected a priority.

I’ve always placed a strong emphasis on scientific communication and building that skill up for our members. Maintaining some form of connection with each other right now is crucial, because we are all feeling alone — my goal was to make sure everyone knows that it’s possible to be connected with the Nu Rho Psi community we’ve built together, even virtually.

As Rachon and his Nu Rho Psi family adapted to UCI’s new remote environment, they shared their challenges as well as the strategies they were using to cope. With their background in neuroscience, Rachon and his team leveraged their expertise to develop several tactics for academic success. While these tips were conceived for current UCI students, they are also excellent advice for UCI’s incoming freshman class, who will face a remote environment this Fall. Here are some of Rachon’s suggestions for new Anteaters.

Tip 1: Define Spaces for Work and Play

According to Rachon, one of the best strategies for staying focused while learning in a remote setting is creating a designated workspace. He points out that having a space solely dedicated to school doesn’t necessarily mean converting your entire room into an office—it can be something as small as designating a chair or a section of your desk as your school space. 

Rachon says that it’s less about the actual space you choose and more about creating a mental distinction between work and play. He explains, “You’re signaling to yourself that ‘This spot is for school, now I’m in school mode.’ Just doing this can change your whole mentality, and it can really get you back into the flow of things.”

Tip 2: Give Yourself Time Limits for Finishing Assignments

Another strategy that Rachon and his fellow Nu Rho Psi members have been utilizing is setting time limits for their various school assignments and tasks. He says, “There’s a specific psychological effect where humans have a tendency to expand the amount of time it takes to do one thing if they give themselves more time to work on it than necessary.”

Self-imposed deadlines can help keep you on track and away from your phone and other distractions. Rachon explains that deadlines provide structure and motivation in an otherwise unconstrained time period. He suggests giving yourself 30 minutes to work on an assignment and, if you don’t finish in this timeframe, then taking an additional half hour to work. Rachon emphasizes that setting deadlines isn’t about rushing to finish a task; rather, it’s a smart way to keep yourself focused.

Tip 3: Schedule Study Hours When You Are Most Alert

Without fixed class and lecture times, many students are left to schedule their days as they please. For incoming freshmen who are accustomed to rigidly structured school days, this freedom can have negative effects on their productivity. To address this challenge, Rachon suggests creating a school and work schedule based on your personal study preferences. 

“You should take some time to be introspective and understand when you are naturally most alert and let that guide your study habits” he advises. For instance, Rachon explains that he is most productive between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Knowing this, he tries to sit down and get his schoolwork done during this time.

Rachon points out that blocking out your most productive times of day is a helpful tip regardless of where you are studying. He says, “It’ll help you focus on your work virtually and can also extend when you come back to campus.”

Tip 4: Practice Spaced Repetition and Active Recall

Another major challenge that new Anteaters will likely face in a remote campus environment is having to be more independent when it comes to learning. Many incoming freshmen and returning UCI students rely on their instructors to provide all the knowledge they need on a given subject. Then, when it comes time for exams, students try to memorize everything their instructor has said.

However, Rachon points out that this is not really learning. “Cramming or trying to memorize every detail might feel like it’s working in the short term, but it’s not,” he says. Instead, Rachon recommends proven learning strategies such as spaced repetition and active recall.

Spaced repetition is a strategy for long-term retention of new information. Rather than reviewing information all at once, spaced repetition calls for revisiting material at various intervals to ensure that it is cemented in your head.

Active recall is a technique for remembering and applying information. If you are trying to answer a question or studying for an exam, you should try to remember the information on your own instead of immediately turning to your notes. By engaging your memory, you are training yourself to memorize the information and also understand it on a deeper level.

Rachon says that together, these two strategies can help students amass a cache of information that they will be able to remember and apply as time goes on. He asserts, “You will be able to make more connections with the knowledge and carry that knowledge with you throughout the years.”

Tip 5: Be Proactive and Seek Out Opportunities for Success

Finally, for incoming freshmen who are feeling discouraged by the remote campus environment, Rachon emphasizes that being remote doesn’t prevent students from finding ways to connect and succeed. He says, “You have to seek out opportunities for yourself, and you have to be the one that’s actively putting yourself out there.”

Rachon states that his best advice for incoming freshmen is to attend their professors’ office hours. While this may seem uncomfortable in a virtual setting, professors are there to help you, and you will receive valuable guidance by connecting with them directly.

Outside of lectures and office hours, Rachon encourages students to build a wider support network. He urges, “Interact with your peers in class. Don’t be afraid to message them or set up discussion sections on the Canvas website and say, ‘I’m having a zoom study session at this time, let’s study together.’ It really is about you being proactive.” 

While Rachon offers these tips to help incoming freshmen and returning UCI students be more productive, he also stresses that it is okay if you are struggling or feeling down. When asked to offer one final piece of advice to students, Rachon reminds:

You just can’t expect to be at the same level of productivity or the same level of activity as you were before. It’s just not possible. So I think setting realistic goals and not putting too much pressure on yourself is important. Just make the most of what you have, and make the most of what you are able to experience right now.

Looking for help as you adjust to remote learning? Then explore some of the helpful resources, tools and tips available at UCI Learn Anywhere and the Remote Student Success Guide. To find out how other UCI students are finding ways to thrive amidst the pandemic, click here