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Jul 08, 2020

Every new college semester is a transition: New classes, new teachers, sometimes even new friends. This coming fall, however, will compound all of those changes with another one: A new way of learning. Yes, students do have a few months practice with the skill of learning-during-a-pandemic, but the spring semester was cushioned by lenient (and sometimes required) pass/fail options. With a much clearer picture of what to expect this fall, those safety nets will not be quite so forgiving.


So, how should students prepare for the upcoming semester? Different schools are taking very different approaches to the Fall 2020 term, each with its own benefits and potential Executive Functioning challenges. I’ll cover the major options below and let you know what to expect and how best to prepare for that style of learning.

Online, Asynchronous

With this approach, instructors will post lectures, materials, and readings online, and students will work through them at their convenience ahead of a deadline. While every college student who’s had to wake up for an 8 am class has wished for the opportunity to learn on their own time, the flexible benefits of this approach bring along with it significant Executive Functioning challenges. One such challenge is developing the motivation to get started: Deadlines are often a week apart and — if you’re the sort of student who needs the rush of the deadline to get started — you might find yourself struggling to finish a week’s worth of work in a few hours. Less well appreciated is the social motivation that’s often missing in this format: Students are sometimes spurred to action by the fear of heading to class unprepared and encountering a disappointed teacher and better-prepared peers. The flexibility of asynchronous online learning unfortunately shaves away much of that social pressure that can motivate you to get work done.

Fortunately, there are ways to deal with these challenges to thrive in asynchronous, online classes. You can use a calendar program (like Google Calendar) to break up work throughout the week. You can set up an online study group with classmates to restore the social motivation. And you can often sign up for online office hours with your instructor to snag that little burst of motivational serotonin that comes from hearing and seeing them say you’ve done well.

Online, Synchronous

This approach attempts to mirror the traditional approach of regular classes at regular times — except that the students and instructor all meet in a video conference, rather than a classroom. With more regular meetings, motivation and consistency can be easier to achieve than with fully asynchronous classes — but there are challenges here, too. Since you’ll be using your computer to access the class, you’ll be tempted by all the fun things that your computer offers (like Facebook, Reddit, pictures of animals dressed as people) when your motivation to focus on learning the Krebs Cycle dips. And focusing on people in video conferences is harder than focusing on them in person, so you might find your willpower depleted more quickly and more in need of that lemur in a hoodie.

These are challenges that are manageable with a proactive approach, though. You can use a website blocker like StayFocusd or Freedom to keep yourself from forfeiting your focus to Instagram. And you can use a small, healthy snack to counterbalance and replenish the additional mental energy that video conferencing requires.


About one fifth of colleges have announced a hybrid approach to learning in Fall 2020, with some instruction taking place in the classroom and some taking place online. The exact shape of this will vary widely from college to college and from course to course — and therein lies the challenge. It can be tricky enough to get used to a new campus and a new schedule and to memorize all your classroom locations. It gets that much more complicated when Bio is online on Tuesdays but in person on Thursdays, but history is online Thursdays but in person on Tuesdays, and English is online on Monday and Friday but in person on Wednesday except for every third week when that flips. 

The organizational challenges of hybrid in-person/online classes can be beaten with a proactive approach, too. Setting up a calendar of classes and locations at the start of the semester can be helpful — even more so if that calendar is set up with reminders with enough lead time to allow you to unhurriedly walk to or log in for your class. 

In Person

Of course, you might not have any of these problems if your school is one of the many that are opening up this fall for in-person classes. But just because you’ll be going into classes in person doesn’t mean nothing will be different. You might find classmates in masks, mandatory one-seat gaps between students, or professors lecturing from behind a plexiglass shield. You might find that the constant presence of signs reminding you to keep six feet of distance or to wash your hands frequently — while well intentioned — add to a feeling of anxiety an already-anxiety-provoking college experience. And, of course, you may have to deal with a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases that shifts your classes back from in-person to some form of online learning.

Given all these factors, intentional focus on emotional regulation might go a long way this fall. Guided meditation programs like those on Calm, Headspace or iZen could become especially valuable. Keeping tabs on your mental health by journaling or using an app like Daylio can help you better ride out the ups and downs of the semester. Having Relax Online handy could make a big difference for moments in the semester when stress is high. In more serious cases, outside support for mental health may be the best option. Luckily, there are many options for mental health care that go beyond simple emotional regulation (many of which are available online.)

No matter what your Fall 2020 semester looks like, it’s a safe bet that it’ll be unlike what you (or anyone else) have experienced so far. Rather than diving in unprepared, you can better set yourself up for success by taking proactive steps to manage predictable challenges — perhaps even with the guidance and support of a skillful and empathetic Executive Function coach.

Photo by Panos Sakalakis on Unsplash

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About the Author

Dan Messier

Dan Messier is an Executive Function coach with Beyond Booksmart from Holbrook, MA. He received his bachelor's in English from Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass., and his master's in English composition from the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he has taught first-year writing as a member of the English department since 2010.


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