Unstructured Pandemic Times: Staying Engaged with your Studies

In this post, Professor Vel McCune, head of the Learning and Teaching Team in the Institute for Academic Development, discusses dealing with unstructured days and how to engage with your studies.

Most of us at one time or another have struggled to get on with things we need to do when they are not structured, or when the deadline is some time away. One of the most common concerns I’ve heard from students over the years is that when they start university they’re not used to having gaps in their timetables or were used to shorter deadlines (with parents or carers or teachers chasing up their work day-to-day). Mature students who have been in employment may also have been used to much more structured time. During the current pandemic I think all of this has been made more difficult, as many aspects of online learning can be done at any time, which makes them easy to put off.

The first thing I want to say if you’re struggling to keep up with your studies is don’t be too hard on yourself! This is a really difficult time with many worries and even experienced academics will be struggling to focus as well as they usually do! It’s up to the whole University community to work kindly together to try to make learning as smooth as possible, while accepting things won’t be ideal for a while. Also, struggle is an absolutely normal part of learning at university. Good learning means challenging your thinking and learning to learn in new ways, so even the top student in your class will be stuck and frustrated sometimes.

 

If you feel you are struggling a bit or getting behind, here’s a few things you can try:

1. Starting a small regular habit to help your studies. It’s a good idea to start really small with a habit you feel you can succeed in. Then you can build on that habit once it has become second nature. An example of this might be to write in a journal every morning for five minutes, jotting down some thoughts about your subject. Or, if you prefer, you could write about your plans for the day, and then at the end of the day review that and note down what went well. Your thoughts don’t need to be well thought out, or very formal, just start writing.

 

2. Having accountability buddies can be really helpful. For example, you could create an online group with a few friends where you each commit to doing 20 minutes a day of some aspect of your studies. Then you post how you got on and encourage one another.

 

3. Sometimes your lecturers and tutors might not realise what your transition to University is like, it may be a long time since they were in your place. So don’t be afraid to ask for concrete advice in discussion boards, from lecturers, in peer support groups, and your student support team.

 

4. Or how about remembering and learning from your strengths. You’ve done well at your studies to get into university, so can you think back to a time when some aspect of your learning went well for you. What was it that went well and why? What can you learn from that?

 

5. If you are someone who needs structure to their day – and I think most of us do – then it can help to put non-study things into the diary. That way you know when you will be working, but also know when you will have a break. That can help to stop you putting work off till later. Can you schedule a walk, a video chat, some online gaming with friends?

 

6. We have lots of good guidance on the Study Hub Time management page about how to organise your study time. So why not try out some of that and see what works best for you.

 

7. If you’ve been feeling unmotivated about most things in life for a few weeks that might be a sign that your mental health is suffering more. If that’s the case for you, you’re not alone and do please tell someone how you are feeling and look at all of the great support the University has for you: https://www.ed.ac.uk/student-counselling

 

Good luck with the Semester and all best wishes from me!


Professor Vel McCune leads the Learning and Teaching Team in the Institute for Academic Development. One area of her research focuses on how students experience learning and how they think about themselves as learners. Another focus is on how academics understand themselves as teachers. Vel has studied and worked at the University of Edinburgh since she was an undergraduate, with the exception of three years working at the University of Glasgow. Her hobbies include wildlife photography and canicross running with her two spaniels. 

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