Staying on track in Year 12

If you’re a Victorian Year 12 student, COVID-19 means schooling at home has become a reality. We share some tips and tricks from experts at the University of Melbourne to help you thrive in challenging times.

By Joe Sullivan, University of Melbourne

Finishing secondary school is a rite of passage for many, and brings with it a series of rituals and celebrations. Adjusting to a ‘new normal’ is going to provoke some big emotions.  How can you be clear about your goals? What can you do to get yourself through a tough year? We asked our experts for tips to help you continue on your way towards VCE or VCAL.

Establish a routine

Dr Sean Kang, a senior lecturer in the Science of Learning, says now more than ever is a time for you to be clear about what your goals are and how to achieve them.

“With online learning now the norm for the foreseeable future, having a schedule will help overcome some of these challenges,” says Dr Kang.

“A schedule will help keep your learning activities on track and minimise distractions. It’s important to incorporate regular breaks and opportunities for revisiting previously studied topics – spacing out your practice can help promote consolidation of learning.”

Educational psychologist, Dr Chelsea Hyde, agrees and adds that setting up a designated work zone can help you to work to a structured day, where possible.

“For students studying online, a school timetable will still be in place, but you also need to ensure that your daily schedule includes a balance of academic, creative, physical and social activities,” she says.

Matthew Harrison, a lecturer and researcher in autism inclusion, is working to support neurodiverse VCE students in the transition to remote learning. He suggests that if you are a student with social-emotional differences, like autism, the disruptions can make a difficult year even harder, but there are strategies you can put in place.

“Away from synchronous instruction, students benefit from building consistent study routines. Students should create a study plan with set hours for each subject, “he says.

“This includes regular sensory breaks away from screens or bright lights.”

Focus on what you can control

Associate Professor, Aaron Jarden from the Centre for Positive Psychology, says that during periods of change, stress, grief or adversity, there are strategies and skills that you can develop and deploy to buffer negative impacts.

A key factor is the importance of focussing on “what is most important right now”.

“That’s not likely to be meeting particular learning outcomes, but rather looking after your physical, emotional mental health, and that of your family and friends,” says Associate Professor Jarden.

One step, according to educational psychologist, Dr Chelsea Hyde, is to focus on what you can do. “A positive mindset is going to help students cope with changed circumstances,” says Dr Hyde.

VCE and the final year of school will look completely different but there are things you still have control over. Keeping up with schoolwork and setting goals for the future will help with motivation. Look ahead and don’t give up.

When it comes to supporting neurodiverse students, Mr Harrison says “My first piece of advice is discussing with your teachers some of the challenges you might experience in communicating through video conferencing tools.”

“Ask teachers to explicitly state their expectations and instructions, avoid sarcasm, and allow enough processing time.”

Associate Professor Jarden says it’s also important to identify your strengths.

“Think about what energises you, then plan to intentionally use them more. Think about what is meaningful for you in your life right now. Think about what is purposeful. This can help increase levels of hope, which also buffers against the bad and increases your resilience.”

Manage your expectations

Dr Hyde emphasises how important it is to keep perspective.

“You can take solace from knowing you aren’t alone. Students both nationally and internationally have had to rapidly adapt to a radically different 2020 school year,” she says.

The bigger picture is that students worldwide are all in this together.

To help keep this perspective, Associate Professor Jarden recommends trying to work on having realistic expectations.

“You aren’t just ‘studying from home’ but trying to learn and study in a time of pandemic crisis,” he says.

“Stop comparing yourself to others or judging yourself based on how you are coping. Effort still counts, but outcomes such as success should be minimised during this time. It’s also important to be kind to yourself, and others. Kindness builds bonds and social connections, which are needed during times of crisis.”

Dr Kang adds that there are practical steps you can take to help yourself.

“As you study, periodically pause and take a moment to reflect, summarise, or test yourself,’ says Dr Kang.

According to Dr Kang, summarising not only improves the organisation of the information you are trying to learn, but it helps gauge comprehension of the material.

“Similarly, testing yourself – using flashcards, quizzes – not only enhances learning, it helps you figure out what you do and don’t know. Good monitoring of your progress means you can adjust your strategy or focus as you need to.”

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Take advantage of tech

Dr Joanne Blannin, senior lecturer and digital learning leader at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, says digital technologies can really help in this challenging time.

“Although technology can’t replace human interactions, making considered choices about technology can help learning,” she says.

There are a number of really helpful tools available.

Trello, for one, can help you get organised by creating a board for your studies.

“Trello is a virtual whiteboard with features that take advantage of multimedia. Check your board each day and update it as you need,” says Dr Blannin. “You also might be asked to work in small groups on a project. Microsoft Teams is free software that you can download and offers discussions, file sharing and collaborative online writing.”

Then there are apps that keep track of your study time.

“You can use Marina Timer and the Pomodoro Technique to keep yourself on track. Work in 25-minute chunks and reward yourself with five-minute breaks after each one.”

Dr Blannin also suggests sharing your timer with your friends, so you can all work to the same time.

To be sure you get the most out of online learning, make a plan for taking notes.

“It’s still so important to take notes and focus on making connections between ideas and concepts. Using some of the online mind-mapping software out there means you can co-create a map of notes with classmates,” says Dr Blannin.

Leveraging technology can help you make sense of what you are learning, provide a structure for your learn-at-home school day and create a secure record of your learning. With learning moving online, it’s also imperative to back up your work.

“With changes to exam times and ongoing discussions about how to measure your learning this year, be sure to keep all your work in a safe place,” she says. “Check your cloud storage and this article offers some good suggestions about how to get started.”

Mr Harrison says although technology is helpful, there are extra considerations for neurodiverse students.

“Ask teachers to use the highlight functions available through digital tools rather than give verbal directions such as ‘to look at the top left’ or physically pointing. For many (neurodiverse students) integrating verbal and non-verbal communication is difficult,” he says.

Ask for help

All students should be able to count on teachers right now for guidance in terms of their learning goals as well as any criteria for determining successful learning, says Dr Kang.

It’s also important to know when to seek clarification and feedback along the way and it’s vital that you have a clear line of communication with your teachers.

Associate Professor Jarden agrees. “It’s important to connect more regularly with those that support you. Asking for help is a skill that predicts who comes through a traumatic experience better.”

It’s that connection that can also make a difference emotionally, says Dr Hyde.

“It’s critical to maintain points of connection to avoid feelings of isolation and loneliness,” she says. “Keeping in regular contact with your peers and teachers can help you feel grounded and provide a sense of normality.”

Parents and friends can also play a critical role in managing stress.

“Talk about your feelings with a trusted adult. Acknowledge negative emotions but avoid ruminating on situations outside your control as it will only create more anxiety, “ says Dr Hyde.

There is no rule book for how you should feel right now, but it’s important to monitor your mood, share your emotions with others and seek professional support if you need it.

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