Skills for Virtual Learning

As we approach the second full semester of virtual learning, taking time to reflect on your previous experiences can help you prepare for your upcoming classes. What went well, and what did not go well? What should you keep doing and what should you change? With continued time and practice, YOU can be successful with virtual learning. 

Steps on your path to virtual learning success

Believe in Yourself

The first step towards success this semester is to acknowledge that success is a possibility and that you can achieve what you set out to do. Taking online classes is different for many of us, but just because it is different does not make it impossible. In fact, facing new challenges helps to make us stronger. Approaching this semester as a challenge to overcome as opposed to an impossible scenario can help you to develop and foster a growth mindset. 

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck outlines the differences between the two mindsets, fixed and growth. Those with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and abilities are limited, whereas those with a growth mindset believe that with time and practice they can improve. According to Psychology Today, there are many ways that you can develop a growth mindset:

  • Acknowledge and embrace imperfection. 
  • Face your challenges bravely. 
  • Cultivate a sense of purpose. 
  • Value the process over the end result. 
  • Own your attitude. 
Set Goals for Success

Once you acknowledge that success is achievable, the next step is to set goals. Setting goals can help you determine direction for future actions and help to sustain motivation throughout the short and long-term. When setting goals, remember to use the SMART Goal framework and make sure that your goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

As time progresses, monitor your performance and make adjustments along the way. Sometimes situations change or obstacles appear. If, for example, one of your goals was to get a 4.0 GPA at the conclusion of the semester but one of your classes proved to be more challenging than anticipated, you may need to modify your goal. At the end of the semester, reflect on your goals, specifically addressing what worked and what didn’t so that you can continually improve throughout your college experience and beyond. 

Gather Your Course Materials and Technology

As you get closer to the first day of classes, you will want to check in on what materials you will need to be successful. Many classes will have required or suggested textbooks which you can acquire from the GW Bookstore or other retailers. Additionally, and especially in the virtual learning environment, access to technology is more important than ever. For remote learning, you should have access to the following:

  • Laptop or desktop (recommended specifications)
  • Surge protector
  • Headphones
  • Secure, high-speed internet access
  • Built-in or external web camera 

Some other tools that might be helpful are:

  • Laptop lock
  • External hard drive
  • Flash drive

For more information on what technology you should acquire and other actions to take to ensure you have sufficient access, check out the Academic Software and Technology webpage.

Navigate Your Learning Environment

Now that you have your goals, we need to explore the technical components of virtual learning. As with any class (in-person or online), the course syllabus, usually found on Blackboard, will provide vital information about how the class will function, including grading policies, assignment and exam deadlines, the course schedule, and much more. Using the syllabus, try to identify answers to the following questions:

  1. Will the class include synchronous components? Synchronous means live and real-time class meetings held over a virtual platform (later in this section we will provide an overview of different virtual learning platforms). 
  2. Will the class include asynchronous components? Asynchronous means assigned modules or classwork that you complete on your own schedule (often with a specific deadline). 
  3. What virtual learning platform will your class utilize? Common platforms include Blackboard Collaborate, Webex, and Zoom
  4. How will your professor and, if applicable, teaching assistants and/or learning assistants hold office hours? How should you access the office hours?
  5. How will you be graded? When are the major assignments, tests, and/or papers due?

As discussed above, different classes will use different virtual learning platforms to host synchronous sessions. Review these resources for an overview of the commonly used platforms:

Please note: GW Information Technology's Service Center is available to support technical issues with university sponsored platforms including Webex, Blackboard Collaborate, and Zoom. 

Review Course Expectations

Now that you are familiar with the technical components of online learning, the next step is to review the expectations for your classes. Once again using the syllabus, look for the following:

  • What is your professor’s name, email address, and office hours? How can you connect with them virtually? 
  • Does your class have teaching assistants? If so, what are their preferred communication style and when are their office hours?
  • What are the goals of the course?
  • What are the course policies? 
  • What is the attendance policy? What should you do if you are in a different time zone or country?
  • How will you be graded in the course? 

On the note of grades, there are many different types of assignments in online classes. While each individual class will be unique, the following section provides and overview of some of these assignments. The presentation included in this section discusses  online tests, discussion boards, and online presentations. Some additional assignments often found in in online courses include:

Research papers
Much like in in-person classes, many courses require you to research an area of subject and compose your findings. The GW Writing Center is offering virtual consultations to students at any stage in the writing process throughout the virtual learning period. 

Voicethread is a tool that allows for asynchronous discussion on subjects covered in class. Using this tool allows you to verbalize your responses, thoughts, or ideas and post the audio file often (though not exclusively) in place of written discussion boards.

Group projects
Working together on group projects is still possible (and encouraged) in a virtual setting. Instead of meeting in a common location, you can set up a virtual meeting using either an assigned or preferred platform. Much like you would under normal circumstances, make sure to review the task carefully, assign roles, and come to all group meetings prepared.

Manage Your Time and Responsibilities

Now that you are familiar with the technical components of online learning, let’s discuss another important component of success: time management. Time is a finite resource; we all have the same 24 hours in any given day, and how we use that time matters. In order to manage your time effectively, it is important that you prioritize your responsibilities. In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons for Personal Change, Stephen Covey discusses that tasks and responsibilities can be broken up into one of four categories. The example below is how a college student might be able to break down their tasks in those four categories (please note: every individual has different levels of responsibilities in different areas, so some aspects of this example may not pertain to every individual):

Important and Urgent

  • Helping family
  • Upcoming exams, assignments, etc.

Important and Non-Urgent

  • Exams, assignments, etc. (later in the semester)
  • Establishing connections with faculty, TA’s, peers, etc.

Non-Important and Urgent

  • Some emails, texts, phone calls, etc.
  • Some social get-togethers

Non-Important and Non-Urgent

  • Busy work
  • Social media

Without a clear sense of prioritization, we will be consumed by the urgent regardless of importance. By prioritizing and incorporating best-practices in time management, we can start to focus on the important and avoid feeling rushed and overwhelmed. Some best-practices to help improve time management include:

  • Writing to-do lists for the day, week, month, and semester (understanding that the further out you plan, the more you will have to adapt and update as things change). 
  • Using a planner or calendar to organize responsibilities. There are also many forms of technology that can help, including the Google tools you have access to as a GW student. 
  • Allow yourself time to take breaks. Working for an hour and breaking for 10 minutes, for example, can help you recharge and recuperate for a more productive second hour. 
  • Learn to say no. If you have too much on your plate, it can be difficult to maintain balance and produce quality work. 

For more time management strategies, follow along with a member of the Academic Commons team as they plan their readings and assignments for the week.  

Study Smarter, Not Harder

There are many strategies you can use to study smarter, not harder. While there are some considerations for online learning, it should be noted that many strategies work in both settings. In her book Teach Yourself How to Learn: Strategies You Can Use to Ace Any Course at Any Level, Saundra McGuire discusses how learning is a skill and, with time and practice, anyone can learn how to learn. She also discusses the importance of metacognition, or thinking about your own thinking. Those who are able to identify their thought processes, monitor their learning, and evaluate effectiveness have strong metacognitive abilities.

To develop these metacognitive skills, take a step back the next time you are reading an assigned chapter or working on an assignment and ask yourself: what are my learning and performance goals? Am I going to be able to retain this information? What questions do I have that would enhance my learning? Other learning strategies include:

  • For synchronous classes, preview class material before live meetings to prepare for learning and review notes after to synthesize information and identify questions. 
  • Start assignments and asynchronous classwork early so you can process information and produce quality work. 
  • Try to come up with an answer or identify what step/component is challenging you before seeking the answer. 
  • Use focused study sessions, where you set a goal (or multiple goals) for what you want to accomplish. Monitor your progress along the way and evaluate at the end. 
  • Teach the material to someone else to reinforce what you have learned and identify learning gaps. 

Since you won't be physically going to class this fall, setting up an effective space conducive for studying and learning will be important. Everyone is in a different setting, so base your study space on your individual situation. Look for a place that is either removed entirely from distractions, or at least somewhere where you can limit distractions as much as possible. If possible, use this space exclusively for school work, including synchronous class meetings, asynchronous class responsibilities, homework, reading, studying, and anything else related to your classwork. Ideally, this space should be close to the wifi source so that you can maintain a strong connection.

Be a Problem Solver

Even if you take all of these precautionary actions, inevitably you will experience some challenges throughout the semester. When you experience a problem, one important first step is to identify the root cause. From there, you can start to brainstorm possible solutions. Have you ever experienced something like this before? If so, what worked and what didn’t work? We are in a unique situation, but look for parallels in your past experiences. You can also reach out to others for their perspective. Your family and friends can provide insights, but also remember that there are many resources at GWU that are here to support you, including (but not limited to) Academic Commons and the Office for Student Success. Check out the Attend a Live Workshop section to review workshop offerings open to all GW students. 

College Magazine provides additional insights on how to problem solve while in college:

  • Try to prevent a problem in the first place (if possible).
  • Weigh the pros and cons. 
  • Use the process of elimination. 
  • Solve problems piece by piece. 
  • Be dependable. 
  • Be open-minded and accepting. 
  • Communication is key. 
  • Utilize your school’s resources. 
  • Look to others for help. 

Throughout the virtual learning period, you may encounter technology problems. You might have questions about navigating the Blackboard Learning Management System or experience issues accessing your email account, for example. GW Information Technology should be your first go-to if you need technology assistance. You can contact the by phone (202-994-4948), email (, or through the support portal.

Thriving in Virtual Learning

In his publication “Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education,” Alexander Astin defines student involvement as “the amount of physical and psychological energy the student devotes to the academic experience.” Involvement is an important part of success in college. Though many of us are operating and learning remotely, there are a number of ways to either get or continue to be involved in your GW experience: 

  • You can engage with your professors through their virtual office hours where you can discuss course concepts or learn more about their research.
  • GW Libraries offers several remote and virtual resources and programs to enhance your academic experience. 
  • You can utilize Career Services to schedule a virtual career coaching appointment or check out open on-campus student employment positions. 
  • Student Life is providing students with several opportunities for virtual connection. 

These are just a few of the resources available to you for continued involvement throughout the virtual learning environment and to make the most out of your experience. You will still have opportunities to continue to seek new connections, engage with those with different perspectives, and pursue your interests remotely and virtually. 

Attend a Live Workshop

Academic Commons is offering several live virtual workshops to help students succeed in a virtual learning environment. All workshops are free and require no prior registration.

Check the library website to see a full list of fall 2020 Skills of Academic Success workshops.

Use Free and Available Resources
  • Peer tutoring is available in courses across the curriculum through Academic Commons. Students can schedule one-on-one appointments, access drop-in tutoring, or attend structured review sessions in select courses. 
  • Student Success Coaching, a program offered through the Office for Student Success, is provided to all undergraduate students to help equip students with the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to successfully navigate their undergraduate experience. 
  • The Writing Center offers students with one-on-one consultations to work in dialogue with writers at all stages of the writing process.
  • Study groups are a great place to discuss course concepts, review for upcoming exams, share notes or resources, complete group projects, and much more. As a GW student you have access to a variety of platforms, such as Zoom, Webex and Microsoft Teams, that you can use to meet with your classmates outside of the virtual classroom. Contact us at if you are looking for assistance connecting with your classrooms in a virtual environment, would like to discuss virtual study group best-practices, or have other questions pertaining to virtual study groups.