Tips for Remote Learning at the Brown School | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
Emily Cornett
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Tips for Remote Learning at the Brown School

When I first applied to the Brown School in winter 2020, I was so excited to move to St. Louis. I looked at pictures of Washington University’s campus, Googled nearby parks and trails, and read restaurant reviews. I was especially looking forward to getting involved with local organizations and exploring St. Louis’s amazing opportunities for community engagement.

While I am completing a St. Louis-based virtual practicum and will eventually relocate there in person, moving to St. Louis did not work out for me and many other new Brown School students this academic year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the best logistical, financial, and health option for me was to begin the MSW program remotely from Maryland. Even Brown School students who have some in-person learning this semester are completing many classes online.

​While virtual grad school wasn’t what I imagined, I found myself enjoying my classes and studies as I adjusted to this new mode of learning. It is a privilege to be able to continue pursuing a master’s degree during such a difficult time and to develop skills in social work, public health and social policy that are more crucial than ever. Here are some various tips that have helped me make the most of this online experience.

Managing Screen Time

  • When you rely on your phone, tablet or computer to attend class, do readings, work, and complete assignments, it can be hard not to feel tethered to your device. These strategies helped me break up the screen time and improve my physical and mental health. 
  • Using physical books: I found it worth it to get hard copies of my books when I could access them cheaply or or free. I had luck at my local library, and you can even ask friends who are at nearby universities if their libraries have textbooks. 
  • Completing assignments in different ways: Take advantage of the variety in assignments to change things up or get outside. For example, you have a podcast assigned, sit in the sun or go for a walk while you listen to it if you’re able. You can also sometimes use text-to-speech features to have an article or textbook read to you. Some of my professors also allow us to verbally complete assignments like journal entries. 
  • Improving posture: When you are in virtual class, you might not need to use your keyboard as much. Try elevating your device on a stack of books so that you’re not hunched over it for hours. This helped me avoid neck cramps and also helped me concentrate on class. It’s also a more flattering angle, so really an all-around win.

Seeking Support

One of the most difficult parts of the virtual experience is feeling isolated from school’s natural support systems: chatting with classmates before and after class, stopping by a professor’s office, or getting in-person guidance from places like the StatLab. Getting help requires a little more proactivity when you’re remote, but it is very possible!:

  • Contact your professors: Even when I’ve felt like a question was too small or too silly to ask a professor, I’ve found that my Brown School professors were supportive and accommodating. They have responded to my emails promptly and even opened up class time for extra office hours.
  • Take advantage of virtual supports: I’ve had really helpful online appointments with the Communication Lab and the Office of Field Education to seek guidance about writing policy briefs and interviewing for practicum. Other supports can be found here. 
  • Reach out to other students: Don’t be afraid to message your classmates, even if you haven’t met them in person. They probably have many of the same questions you do! You can also get to know your classmates through virtual opportunities with one of the Brown School’s many student groups.

Staying Organized

I found it more challenging to organize my schedule remotely without physically going to class, having access to a library, or regularly chatting with students to remind myself of upcoming deadlines. I used these methods to get organized:

  • Make a personal semester calendar: Lay out your semester through a calendar, including deadlines for class and practicum registration and due dates for major assignments. Doing this helped me see which weeks were busier than others so I could better space out my personal commitments like work shifts, class presentations, and practicum interviews. 
  • Set boundaries within your home. If possible, designate places to work (e.g. a kitchen table) and places to relax (e.g. a bed) within your space so that one isn’t constantly creeping into the other. You can also set aside certain times of day to spend on readings, assignments and relaxation.

Self Care

On that note, it can be hard enough to maintain a work/study/life balance as a graduate student, but taking classes and studying from home can especially blur the boundary. Resist “grind culture” and remember that your worth is not defined by your productivity

  • Commit to your free time! If I don’t let myself commit to taking a break (watching an episode of a show, calling a friend, or going for a bike ride), I end up taking time off anyway by doing less committal things like scrolling through social media. I end up not studying or working for the same amount of time, but I feel less relaxed. It’s healthy to honor and prioritize your need for rest. 
  • Take advantage of mental health resources. Several of the mental health services at WUSTL’s Habif Health and Wellness Center, including “Let’s Talk” consultations with counselors and mental health check-in phone appointments, are available even for students residing outside of Missouri.
  • Treat yourself as you would a friend. Try not to be too frustrated with yourself if you aren’t feeling as engaged with your studies as you would like. Between the pandemic, the movement for racial justice, climate change, and the political atmosphere, there are so many things affecting our thoughts and emotions. I’ve found that using assignments to explore the issues I’m passionate about can really help, but it’s also important to recognize that school is just one part of your experience.

Virtual classes may not have been the grad school experience we expected, but proactive organization, utilizing supports, and taking care of yourself can help make the semester as meaningful and fulfilling as possible. Your knowledge of social work, public health and social policy will be incredibly valuable as you work towards a more just world.