Popular locations for discourse on the learning experience at U of T include formal venues like faculty course evaluations and informal websites like Rate My Professors. This often prompts us, as students, to put most of the responsibility on professors to make a good class experience for us.

However, by placing the burden solely on professors, we are being passive and reducing our own sense of agency in how we learn, enjoy, and make the most out of our university experience. Instead, a fruitful and fulfilling classroom experience requires both good professors and good students. Let’s look at ways to help us actively play our part as students.

What to do?

  1. Get organized before class: set achievable goals and create a detailed schedule

Studies have shown that setting learning goals can increase your academic performance by 22 per cent. Before each class, write down personalized goals for yourself. You could use the ‘SMART’ guidelines to set specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely goals. 

Another way to organize your studies is to create a schedule for yourself. Since syllabi are posted at the beginning of the semester, you can tailor a unified schedule for all of your courses. Having a full picture of upcoming dates and deadlines means that you can plan and prepare well ahead of time. 

  1. Be engaged during class: actually go to class and actively participate

With classes moved online, asynchronous classes allow great flexibility, while synchronous classes are often designed with components of student participation. Asynchronous classes won’t work if you don’t watch the recordings, and synchronous classes won’t work if you don’t show up. With classes being only a click away from us, there really isn’t any excuse not to go.

Yet, joining classes doesn’t only mean having your name appear in a box on the Zoom call and putting a checkmark next to the attendance list; it also means actively engaging in the classroom conversation through careful listening and thoughtful responses. Professors have identified a lack of active student participation as the most disruptive element of teaching online.

  1. Stay reflective after class: go to office hours and have a balanced lifestyle

Research has shown that reflection and asking questions are essential parts of both learning and teaching, and office hours are some of the best opportunities to do so. When you take the initiative to approach professors and ask questions, not only can they clarify confusing material, but it can also help professors locate complex and unclear content to explain further during the next class.

In addition to reflecting intellectually, we should also reflect upon our own well-being, physically and mentally. Studies have shown that eating healthy foods, getting quality sleep, and doing sufficient exercise contribute significantly to improving our cognitive abilities, which helps us learn more efficiently. Thus, taking good care of yourself is crucial to becoming a better student.

How to think?

The above concrete actions are productive to the utmost extent if we perform them with two mindsets.

First, for any learning, embrace a ‘growth’ mindset, which entails an intrinsic motivation for learning. Countless studies have shown the far-reaching benefits of having a growth mindset, rather than a limiting fixed mindset. Believing in your unbounded capacity to learn can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for remarkable improvement.

Second, for online learning, adopt an open mindset. While the pandemic forces us to accept the difficulties of online learning, it simultaneously poses unexpected new opportunities for adaptation

Paolo Granata, a scholar on media and technology and an assistant professor in book and media studies, noted in an email to The Varsity that, in order to carry out effective online learning, students must understand that “online learning is different from in-person learning – they are two different media, two different learning environments.” 

Indeed, only after recognizing that the medium of online learning has a fundamentally different nature can we benefit from its merits, find solutions to its faults, and pave suitable paths to improve ourselves.

But why?

While this is an easy checklist to tick off, you may still ask skeptically, “But why should we take these actions and think in these ways?” 

There is one good reason: it makes everyone happier.

Straightforwardly, its immediate tangible benefits are a higher set of grades for ourselves and a considerably easier job for our teachers. In short, we can become better students who make the classroom experience more enjoyable.

Holistically, the lasting and far-reaching benefits of internalizing these good habits and positive mentalities are exponential. Not only do they teach us how to learn as university students, but they also teach us how to learn as a growing and open-minded member of the world. 

They equip us to be well-organized so that we can solve complex global challenges; they train us to be constantly engaged so that we can promptly manage unexpected changes in the future; they encourage us to actively reflect so that we can spark transformative ideas for the development of humanity.

As we begin a new semester, which of these actions and mindsets will you take? What kind of student do you intend to be in the classroom? What kind of an individual in our world do you strive to be?