Writing a Dissertation During Remote Learning

Friday, March 19, 2021

Working on a dissertation study can often feel like a solitary endeavor. There is a lot of solo time analyzing the data and writing the findings. Writing a dissertation over the past year during a pandemic and during remote learning has felt especially isolating at times. Despite these challenges, I found some networks of support that were especially helpful as I was writing my dissertation. For any students working on larger projects or longer papers during this semester, these tips may be helpful for you as well.

Break up your work into small chunks with deadlines:

  • For any large project, it is important to break the work into smaller chunks. Work backwards from the due date and set mini-deadlines for yourself to complete parts of the project.
  • Leave some buffer time with the schedule and know that you may not meet every mini-deadline you set for yourself (I didn’t!). However, with the mini-deadlines, you can reschedule and reset your goals along the way to ensure you still meet the major deadlines that can’t be moved.
  • Check out these tools that may help you with breaking the work into chunks and setting deadlines:

Find your networks of support:

  • When writing a large paper or working on a big project like a dissertation, finding a writing group can be so helpful! Through the Graduate Student Center, I joined Dissertation Boot Camp and was able to meet with other graduate students across Penn who were writing as well. We met in small groups and were able to check in on our goals. It was a great form of support!
    • If you are looking to join a writing group, see what the Graduate Student Center has to offer.
    • Or, see if there are any options through your department.
  • Set up a regular appointment with a learning specialist at the Weingarten Center. Throughout the writing process, I met regularly with a learning specialist one-two times a month. It was so helpful to have the appointments to hold me accountable to my writing goals. Additionally, it was great to have someone to talk to about my ideas.
    • Remember, you can make regular appointments with a learning specialist (up to 1 appointment a week!).

Take breaks:

  • For a big writing assignment or project, it is important to set writing blocks into your weekly schedule. Aim to write for 1 – 2 hours at a time. (I found I usually worked best during 90-minute time blocks). Any longer and the writing can start to drag. After your time is up, take a break and get away from the screen. It’s a great time to stretch, have a snack, or go for a quick walk.
  • Also, take breaks from your writing during the week. Be intentional and enjoy the breaks and don’t feel guilty. When it was getting close to the deadline and I was working a lot, I still took one day off a weekend to try to recharge and step away from my work. It made me more thoughtful and intentional when I returned to the writing and helped me avoid burnout.

Celebrate when you reach different milestones in the process:

  • Celebrate moments big and small! Each time I finished a chapter I made sure to treat myself. Especially during remote learning when we can feel more isolated, it’s important to celebrate your progress along the way. Make sure you celebrate as you reach your goals and mini-deadlines along the way.

Working on any major writing assignment can be difficult and intimidating, especially during this time of remote learning. Remember you are not alone during this process and can always reach out to make an appointment with a learning specialist to discuss these tips and more!

By Kelcey Grogan, Learning Specialist & Fellow, Reading/Writing/Literacy Ed.D. Candidate, PennGSE

Preparing for Online Finals

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Weingarten Center collaborated this week with students on the FGLI Dean’s Advisory Board in the College of Arts and Sciences to offer three workshops that integrated exam preparation strategies with content tutoring for Math 104, Economics 001, and Chemistry 101. Our expert tutors shared phenomenal insights into their approaches to creating a finals prep plan, finding accountability and support through study groups, and proactively managing the stress and anxiety of taking high-stakes exams.

In the following videos, Gabe, Valerie, and Ryan ask our tutors to share their unique approaches to Math, Economics, and Chemistry finals, but many of their key insights could be applied to any course at Penn.

Thank you to FGLI DAB and our fabulous tutors for creating this resource! We also want to encourage all students to schedule appointments with our learning specialists by visiting MyWLRC and selecting “Learning Resources Appointments.” Creating a study plan for each of your courses is a great way to ensure a successful end to the fall semester.

Family Weekend: Supporting Your Student’s Online Learning

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

As part of Family Weekend 2020 hosted by the Office of Student Affairs, staff from Learning Resources, Tutoring Services, and Student Disabilities Services presented Supporting Your Student’s Online Learning.

The presentation highlighted many of the challenges that students are encountering with online coursework, such barriers to establishing a conducive workspace, disruptions to sleep and productivity due to time zone differences, and difficulty managing attention, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. To assist family members as they support their students in addressing these obstacles, our team shared an array of Weingarten Center resources as well strategies for engaging students, addressing their needs, and possibly stepping back as they figure out what works best for their learning and study during this difficult semester.

We invite both students and family members to check out our recording of this presentation and to email weingartenlrc@vpul.upenn.edu with any questions. All of the materials referenced in the video can be found on our Resources for Online Learning page.

Online Study Groups: A Quick Guide

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Making the adjustment to remote learning has not been easy. Even though our experiences may differ in significant ways, we all may feel a lack of motivation or loneliness at times. At the Weingarten Center, we are fortunate to have weekly meetings where we can maintain a connection with our colleagues and hold each other accountable. Given the circumstances, I would like to offer some advice for doing something similar: online study groups.

What You Need to Get Started

Before you start a study group session, it’s a good idea to lock down most of the logistics. A strong logistical foundation helps to keep the group moving!

  • Start your online study group with 3-5 people. A group of this size is easier to manage logistically and avoids the intimidation that we may experience in large groups.
  • Identify the online resource you will use for meeting together. You are welcome to use any video conferencing software you’d like, but BlueJeans, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams are popular choices.
  • Get organized virtually. We suggest keeping the contact information of your group members in a shared digital folder (OneDrive, Google Drive, etc.). This folder can also be used to store meeting notes, resources, and any products created in the study session.
  • Make sure everyone is aware of the time, location, and purpose of the study group. Since finals are just around the corner, your study group may decide to discuss practice problems or talk through important diagrams. Just remember to keep the sessions productive!

Now that we’ve covered the logistics, let’s move on to creating a safe space!

Developing a Good Group Dynamic

Part of developing a good group dynamic involves setting clear expectations about how the group interacts. When everyone is on the same page, we often feel more motivated to get to work! Here are a few tips:

  • Take some time to introduce yourselves and lighten the mood with an icebreaker or two. Even if finals are approaching, taking 10-15 minutes to shift the atmosphere can ease everyone’s nerves.
  • In order to create a safe space, spend some time creating a group contract that outlines the values of the group (being helpful, giving constructive feedback, respecting boundaries, etc.) and how to handle potential conflicts.
  • Create buy-in by including everyone on important decisions and through assigning roles. Some important roles are a group coordinator, note-taker, resource organizer, and discussion facilitator. The group coordinator sends emails and meeting invitations out and the resource organizer maintains the shared digital folder. Feel free to rotate these roles once the logstics are in place and allow everyone to pick a role that works for them. The bottom line is this: share responsibility.

Creating a Space for Learning

Once you all are clear on the expectations you have for each other, it’s time to create a space where learning can thrive! In a virtual environment, you may decide to get a little creative by using online applications like Coggle, BitPaper, and YouTube, but our advice below is still applicable:

  • Work with your group to develop a growth mindset toward your course material. The mindset of your study group is important for maintaining motivation as you work through course content. Even amidst the challenges, it’s important to think constructively about your course material.
  • Identify material that makes for good discussion. One of the benefits of study groups is the opportunity to check your understanding by talking to each other. Take some time to identify the concepts, relationships, or important equations in your course and discuss them together.
  • Choose study activities that will train higher order critical thinking skills. It’s likely that you will have to apply, analyze, and evaluate ideas on your exam, so practice these same thinking skills with your group. Annotating diagrams, explaining solutions, drawing concept maps, and creating study guides are great ways to improve your critical thinking skills! Feel free to get a little creative as well!

Final Thought: Social Accountability is Key

Aside from the opportunity you have to multiply your resources, develop higher order thinking skills, and become a more effective learner, study groups are great for maintaining a sense of connection with peers and for improving motivation. As long as the goals and expectations of the group are clear, every student is likely to achieve because they are heard, valued, and held accountable.

Feel free to talk with any of our learning instructors about how to get a study group started and work collaboratively toward your learning goals by calling us at 215-573-9235!

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Instructor

Strategies for Online Learning

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Treat Online Coursework Like a “Real” Course
When it comes to online learning, you need to have the discipline to sit down and say, “I am going to work on this,” as well as a plan to follow through. Though online courses provide more flexibility, such as allowing you to decide when to listen to lectures or review PowerPoint slides, you can’t constantly push off doing these things. A recommendation is to try to stick to your traditional, in-person class schedule, and engage in your online courses at the same time that you would be attending class on campus.

Hold Yourself Accountable
When taking an in-person class, the instructor will often remind you of due dates for assignments, exams, papers, etc. This might not always be the case when taking online courses. Be proactive and look ahead in the syllabus to identify any important due dates. This way you will be able to avoid starting papers/projects at the last minute, and also give you time to communicate with your professor about any questions you may have about the assignment.

Practice Time Management
Create a weekly or daily schedule that you follow, designating certain hours each week or day to reading, watching lectures, completing assignments, studying, and participating in discussion groups/posting on discussion boards for each of your online classes. Set reminders in your phone, planner, or Google calendar to help you stay on track. Ask yourself the following questions as self-assessment: How much time am I dedicating to course reading and assignments? Am I regularly underestimating the time it’s taking me to get things done, forcing me to cram the nights before the exams? A little self-reflection and adjustment can go a long way.

Create a Regular Study Space and Stay Organized
It’s very tempting to stay in your nice, comfortable bed while watching an online lecture. But ask yourself: is that really the best setup for active learning? Setting up a dedicated space to complete your school work will help you stay focused on the lessons, keep your materials organized, and get you into the right frame of mind for active learning. This space could be a home office, the kitchen table, or any other space that will discourage you from getting distracted…or dozing off.

Make sure your study space includes the following:
• A high-speed internet connection
• The required books, materials, and software for the course
• Headphones for listening to lectures or discussions (especially important in shared spaces)

Eliminate Distractions
Netflix, YouTube, text messages, and social media are just some of the many things that can be a significant distraction while taking online courses. Identifying your distractors will help you plan how to avoid them when working on your online classes. One suggestion to lessen these distractors is to turn off your phone before starting your coursework. This way you won’t have to worry about it buzzing with a notification every few minutes. Another tool to combat online distraction is to install website blockers on your internet browser. Two programs you can consider are Cold Turkey and Freedom which can help eliminate distractions by blocking the apps or websites that tend to compete for your attention, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Figure Out How You Learn Best
Not everyone learns the same way, so think about what types of information help you best grasp new concepts and employ relevant study strategies. If you’re a visual learner, for example, print out transcripts of the video lectures to review. Learn best by listening? Make sure to build time into your schedule to play and replay all audio and video-based course content.

Utilize Your Network
You may feel that you’re on your own when taking an online class. Keep in mind that the same students you were taking in-person classes with for the first half of the semester are also taking the class with you! Don’t hesitate to form study groups using platforms like Skype or FaceTime to keep in contact with your classmates.

Meet with a Learning Instructor
Learning Instructors are available to meet with you, either by telephone or virtually through BlueJeans. Learning instructors can help guide you through the transition to online classes, and also help you with time management, study skills, project management, etc. Please call 215-573-9235 to schedule an appointment.

By Staff Writer: Jordan Yanoshik, Learning Instructor for Students with Disabilities

Structure the Unstructured Time

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

During a time of uncertainty, it can sometimes feel like the whole day is open, and that being on-task does not really make a difference because there is always the next day. During such times, there are ways to stay focused, productive, and mindfully engaged.

MAP-out Your Calendar as before. Allocate times for classes, recitations, and labs. Use the allocated times to study, work on projects, and practice problems, even when progress is slower than usual.

LESS Can Be MORE: Sometimes, time does not seem of the essence. When this happens, try not to entirely postpone academic work for tomorrow. For instance, if you had planned to solve 10 problems today, don’t postpone for tomorrow. There are other things that will need to be done tomorrow. Do 3 problems or 4, don’t NOT do any. Similarly, read 2 pages of an assigned article, rather than NOT reading at all. You never know: once started, you might find that the efforts to stay engaged will meet up with your perseverance to do more.

During a Mood Swing: Pick smaller tasks, such as gathering citations, creating the opening slide for a presentation, and sending a pending email.
Try sending an email to your learning instructor. Let them know how you are doing.

Virtual Check-ins: Whenever possible, schedule brief appointments with your academic advisor/learning instructor/faculty/TA to discuss your study plans or course content. Even brief appointments will assist in creating self-accountability. And it will make your calendar exciting while providing reassurance that you have things to do.

Virtual Group-study: In a similar vein, set up time with classmates to discuss class material. You will find out what you know and what you need to work on.

Eat Healthy Snacks. Indulge in treats with moderation.

Favs and Reruns: Try to avoid continuous streaming of favorite shows/movies. Use them as a reward to take breaks; however, be attentive to the length of the breaks. Don’t let watching one episode become one too many. Hold out some for tomorrow.

Friends & Family: Stay in touch with them. Let them know that you are well and staying focused on your work.

By Staff Writer: Dr. Rashmi Kumar, Associate Director of the Office of Learning Resources and Specialist in STEM Learning