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U of T memory expert offers tips to succeed in virtual learning, online exams

(photo by Cavan Images via Getty Images)

Steve Joordens, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough and a renowned expert on memory and attention, says there are three keys to doing well in online classes: find engaging courses and professors; try to process course information on a deeper level; and maintain good personal habits.


In addition to teaching a large first-year introductory psychology class, Joordens has developed several online courses through Coursera and has been heavily involved in finding ways to use technology to enhance online learning experiences.

He recently shared some of his tips on how students can best approach virtual learning, studying and taking online exams – and why something as basic as good personal habits can have a big impact on academic success.

What advice do you have for students taking required courses?

If you need to take a course because it’s a mandatory credit for your program, or necessary for grad school, and it’s a course you really aren’t interested in, there are a few things you can do.

Say you have to take chemistry, but you really hate chemistry – I guarantee that you can discover people online who think chemistry is the coolest subject ever. You can find them on forums, through TED talks, even online courses, and just by listening to them talk about chemistry that excitement and energy can be contagious. You can even try reaching out to them to pick their brain or help you understand course content better. I would also recommend connecting with fellow students who really enjoy chemistry. It goes without saying that people who love a particular topic are more willing to talk about it and share their knowledge, and that may help you become more engaged in the course content.

Why is it important to go beyond simply memorizing course content?

When it comes to learning information there are many levels: the first being memorization and the second is understanding. Understanding requires being able to go deeper and take the information and apply it to a different context. In order to test your understanding, you should be able to make connections to other knowledge you’ve learned in the course.

The third level is application, which means you’ve reached a level where something you’ve learned makes sense. So, it’s not something you’ve just memorized, it’s new knowledge that you can connect with other things you know. In order to test your understanding, try coming up with practice exam questions. Try thinking like a prof or TA and design questions that may come up in the exam.

Also, try swapping example questions with classmates. It’s possible they thought of some you hadn’t considered.

What tips do you have for students preparing for online exams or final tests?

I think what’s unique given our current circumstances is we can be more easily distracted with less structure because we don’t have to physically be in class. If we’re on our computer all the time, it’s very easy to get pulled somewhere else. So maybe fight those potential distractions by closing tabs to YouTube or turning off notifications on social media, and just focus on studying during study time.

I would also designate a space that is dedicated to studying. You can define that space in a way that you can’t bring your phone, it doesn’t have a TV or you have to turn off notifications when you enter that space. If you want to fight distractions, you can cut off those things that pull you away. 

Is there anything about the format of online exams that students should be aware of?

I think it’s important that students don’t get too hung up about the format of the exam. Since many online exams are timed, students can get annoyed because it seems like they’ve lost their ability to double check their answers, and feel like there’s more pressure to answer. Getting upset about the format is not going to help your preparation for the exam. At the end of the day, the entire class is being tested in the same way, so everyone is treated equally in that regard. My advice is to understand the format and make sure you’re mentally prepared for it – but beyond that, don’t obsess about it.  

How important are personal habits when it comes to studying for online exams?

I think this is very underrated. Nothing beats time management, self-management and work ethic when it comes to success. Keeping to a regular sleep, break and eating schedule, especially on the day of exams, is vitally important. It’s impossible to overemphasize how important good sleep is. Bad sleep, on the other hand, makes everything worse, including your ability to think, concentrate and study. Make sure you’re getting regular exercise and also make sure you’ve eaten well. If your blood sugar level is too low, you won’t be able to concentrate.

Getting the basics right is such a simple thing, but unless you do it, you won’t be at the top of your game when you study or take exams.