Engaging and Learning Online

Two students in class

Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications

Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Below you will see that we strive to connect the solutions we propose to our understanding of the nature of the challenges students will be facing this semester. Each item in the list below when expanded will include a short introduction to the topic, some bulleted advice, and links to lengthier analyses of the challenges the advice is tailored to and explanations of why the advice is effective. 

We believe this framing coupled with guiding you to analyze the demands of your particular courses and tasks is, ultimately, more effective than merely providing a list of general tips. We WILL provide concrete, actionable advice drawn from a variety of sources*, but in the context of an analysis of the root causes of the challenges at hand--we’re providing both tips and roots. We will also direct you to existing McGraw online resources and materials and external ones which elaborate on particular topics in ways we believe are apt for the Princeton context.

This resource is designed to help you make more informed, systematic, and ultimately more effective decisions so you can stay engaged, learn, study, research, write, and achieve your goals—and become a more effective learner and scholar along the way.

We’ve organized our guidance under the following categories. Notice that the headings include verbs—ACTIONS you can take to engage, learn and achieve to the best of your ability. Note, also, that this document will be constantly evolving to address new challenges we hear about from students, including specific issues.

Cultivating Adaptive Mindsets

Our mindsets, our attitudes and beliefs, powerfully shape our learning. Intentionally cultivate your mental approach to the challenges ahead, including new ways of learning from instruction.

  • Growth Mindset: Remember that you are a capable learner and student. Strive for growth and improvement of your skills to achieve the results you want. Be strategic and purposeful, drawing on your own determination and campus resources. Ask yourself, “What can I learn, how can I grow from this challenge/opportunity?”
  • Engagement Mindset: Make productive engagement an objective. Ask yourself how you can create conditions for and stay mentally alert and active, and maximize attention and focus. Intentionally motivate yourself by reminding yourself of your concrete goals and objectives (for courses), and what the current assignment is intended to do and how you can maximize its usefulness to you--as well as other positive motivations, like your values and aspirations. 
  • Flexibility Mindset: You’ve adapted to many new teaching-learning circumstances in the past. Experiment, adjust, repeat. Strive to be open to new possibilities.
  • Cooperative Mindset: Seek out collaboration with peers and communicate proactively with instructors. Actively combat isolation caused by being off campus and separated from classmates and instructors. Ask: “How might working with others be helpful?”
  • Initiative Mindset: Anticipate your future needs and those of your classmates. Adopt a problem-solving, solution-oriented attitude to technological and other challenges. Think of your ‘future self’: Ask, “What will my ‘future self’ be glad that I did today?”
  • Planning Mindset: In unfamiliar circumstances, planning is even more important—and contributes to overall efficiency. Allocate dedicated time in your calendar for planning. Use scheduling, time, and task management tools. Most people under-plan or are overly optimistic. Include buffer time in your scheduling and trouble-shoot by identifying in advance what might go wrong and allotting time accordingly.
Understanding What's Different About Learning From Virtual Instruction

We’ll focus on what’s harder about virtual instruction, but in a number of ways these differences can actually be beneficial for some learners (e.g. by reducing distractions of being in a large noisy lecture hall--like McCosh 50). Keep in mind, much research shows learning remotely is more demanding of students, so be extra purposeful and strategic to anticipate and mitigate drawbacks described below. 

  • Students are physically unconnected from instructors and fellow students. There are fewer social cues to keep you on task, and your environment for learning may be less conducive than a classroom. You may not be on Princeton campus, or if so, you will still be practicing social distancing, so the context associated with academic work is different. 
  • Most interactions will be virtual, not tangible. So they may not feel as ‘real’ and for many may not be as engaging and motivating. Class sessions will be mediated by technology that can be inaccessible or glitchy. You won’t be immersed in a class, study group or tutoring session in the same way which allows for more distractions and attractions, thus placing greater demands on your attention. 
  • More learning is likely to be asynchronous (at a different time) from teaching and it may be harder to connect with others on different schedules, to ask questions of your instructors, etc. These aspects of remote learning can inhibit interactions, thus providing less active learning, leading to greater physical and mental passivity. 
  • Additionally, your learning is not taking place with the backdrop of an entire academic institution focused on research, teaching, learning and student development. In its place, you may be in a setting not particularly set up for academic engagement and learning. And, of course, there are many other obligations and concerns on your mind during these extraordinary times. Concerns for yourself and others, disappointment about what has been disrupted and what you are missing, anxiety about what’s to come, and a host of other worries can impact your educational experience. 
  • Recognize that much is out of your control and will be challenging, and at the same time focus on what you can control, your actions, engagement, attitudes and thoughts. You’ve surely dealt with adversity in the past and you can draw upon that experience, your own internal resources, and those of the campus community to persevere again.
Creating Conditions Conducive to Engagement and Learning

Attend to and intentionally create a physical and social environment that is conducive to deep engagement by minimizing distractions (and attractions). 

Designing Your Workspace

Perhaps the first question to consider is where to study. In addition to health considerations, you’ll want to take account—as best you can—for how conducive your environment is to productive engagement with materials and whether it is appropriate for participation in a virtual class. If possible, establish a workspace for regular use so that it’s easy to get started studying, others know you’ll be using it for this purpose, and you can maximize its effectiveness, even if you can’t control every aspect of it. 

  • Reduce visual and auditory interruptions and distractions by closing doors and windows, if you have such a space. Headphones or earplugs can help, too. 
  • Use a desk or table so you have easy access to all your materials for a class.
  • While you are studying, reduce distractions and attractions by removing anything from view that is unrelated to your course. 
  • Plan out your study times (see below for more) and let others with whom you share the space know in advance to minimize distractions and disruptions. This may require that you coordinate with others’ schedules such as identifying times when they are asleep or out.
  •  If you are working in your bedroom, make it difficult to succumb to the temptation of getting in your bed—unless you are taking a nap.
  • If possible, prepare for study periods by getting snacks and drinks in advance. 
  • You’ll be on your computer more and apart from friends more, so intentionally manage your digital workspace. Silence and consider putting your phone away. Turn off unnecessary applications, and close tabs, turn off notifications and otherwise create a distraction/attraction-free workspace. Conversely, use technology, including these relatively low-cost and free apps for maintaining focus and managing tasks and lists. (McGraw does not endorse any particular product.)
  • Before taking breaks, set up your workspace to continue working or to get started on the next task when you return. For instance, close your laptop, open your textbook to the page you’ll begin reading and put it on top of the laptop before you take your break. Knowing that it can be hard to re-start, consider writing a note to yourself about what you will do when you return to your workspace.
Adapting to New Modes of Instruction

Virtual teaching and asynchronous engagement change the demands on you as a learner in a variety of ways. Not only are you separated in space and, maybe, in time, virtual connections with advisors, instructors and fellow students are, of course, less immediate, tangible and engaging. More broadly, you won’t have the same kind of environmental and social cues and structures that motivate you, support your engagement, and make you ‘feel’ like you are studying, learning, and/or conducting research at our university. You’ll have greater responsibility for and autonomy in your learning. That is, you’ll be making more decisions about how you engage course materials and learn with them and when you do so. Here are some general strategies for remote studying, and below are some strategies expressly for remote learning and studying. 

  • As you know, your instructors will be re-designing your courses, so you will need to adapt your approaches. You might think about it as if you are starting new courses entirely to ensure you don’t ‘import’ inaccurate assumptions and expectations into these newly designed courses. Sometimes what gets in the way of learning is not what we don’t know, but what we think we know but is mistaken. So, review the new course syllabus and all other updated communications about the aims, design, and implementation of the course. Know what’s expected of you and what you can expect of the course going forward and adapt accordingly. 
  • Online courses operate in two different time frames: ‘Synchronous’ and ‘Asynchronous’. Grasp the design and expectations of  synchronous (virtually meeting at the same time) course components and asynchronous (NOT meeting at the same time course) components. Keep track of the synchronous and asynchronous components for each class by writing down when they occur/are made available. Additionally, collect relevant links in one place by course, and identify questions about how the courses are conducted in order to ask them in an efficient manner using the channels your instructors have requested.
  • Determine how your instructors expect students to communicate questions about the class and/or about the course material: During class? In office hours? Via email? Through Zoom/Canvas?
  • Outside-of-class learning, studying, completing p-sets, and writing papers, JPs and theses can be significantly different when students are widely distributed off campus and must practice social distancing on campus. Students learn a great deal from peers, and working together also provides accountability and structure to our days, increases motivation, and deepens engagement when we share ideas, explanations and feedback with one another. Taking the initiative to create partnerships and groups to tackle academic tasks collaboratively will be crucial in our new circumstances. This guide, created by McGraw Fellow Kate Thorpe, explains how to effectively run virtual p-set/writing/learning/study/strategizing groups. It’s focus is on writing, but it’s helpful framing of the issues makes it applicable to other types of groups.
Developing Effective Approaches to Learning (for various scenarios)

No method or strategy of learning is effective on its own. For example, the way you take notes in class is dependent on whether and how well you did the related reading, how well you are remembering previous lecture material, and your clarity of understanding about objectives of that lecture and the course as a whole so you can prioritize incoming information. Similarly, the effectiveness of your strategies for reading an assigned text are dependent upon how well you read previous chapters or texts, whether you are drawing upon knowledge from class lectures or discussions, and of course, whether you are both prioritizing big ideas and important details. It’s more accurate to think in terms of an inter-dependent set of strategies, a strategic approach, to learning in the course as a whole, so we’ll describe approaches below. Learn more about methods and mental processes.

  • Adapt your learning and taking notes during virtual lectures. You may have experience with video lectures from courses, TED Talks, or elsewhere. Recognize that you should engage with a course lecture much more purposefully and intently than, for instance, a TED Talk. Use the following advice to get the most from class while also creating useful notes for future study: 
  • If at all possible, attend online classes at the regularly scheduled time. If you must watch recorded versions, establish a routine, enter a specific time block in your calendar and ‘attend to’ them as you would an in-person lecture.
  • Lectures are challenging because they demand a great deal of sustained attention and lots of cognitive processing to keep up with large auditory and visual loads often delivered at a rapid pace. You can decrease the cognitive load during lecture by using the syllabus to preview the lecture, by reviewing previous lecture material, and by reading or familiarizing yourself with relevant texts. 
  • Take notes intentionally to capture both what is being presented and what thoughts that are sparked on your part—be more than a stenographer—as well as questions or gaps in your knowledge. If you have access to slides consider printing them out and annotating them as the lecture unfolds, or annotating them digitally. If you believe physically writing in a notebook is more effective for you (you are not alone), take notes by hand.
  • Active participation in online learning is imperative to remain engaged, feel connected and process information not merely receive it. Proactively ask questions by the means your instructors specify during lecture, if possible, and come to break out sessions/precepts with questions.
  • After lectures, take a few minutes to fix up your notes, by adding missing information (e.g. complete half-written sentences), noting connections among topics or segments you hadn’t grasped during the lecture, and connecting what you learned with other materials (e.g. readings, previous lectures) by writing a few sentences immediately after lecture when it’s fresh. 
  • Revisit your notes (and any notes/comments on your notes) before the next lecture if at all possible to aid retention and reduce later study time and prepare for the upcoming lecture. Regularly engaging and processing lecture material/notes is one the single most useful study strategies.


  • While you can make your learning and studying most effective by employing, spaced repetition and active recall (distributing your study time for a course across multiple days) each week, interleaving working on multiple subjects in a single study session, actively creating personalized study tools (e.g. “cheat sheets,” flash cards, mind maps), capitalizing on the benefits of dual coding (representing information both verbally in words and graphically in diagrams and other images), all of these strategies are enhanced by gaining a clear, detailed understanding of the course as a whole, its themes and objectives, and weekly/daily topics to guide your mental processes, choice of study methods and overall strategic approach. Use McGraw materials and the following advice on How To Study:
    • Many of the methods you’ve developed and now use for studying are of course applicable to your learning from remote instruction, but this document highlights some general strategies for remote study. 
    • Use the “Pomodoro Technique” to stay focused but also ensure you get adequate rest and recuperation time. It’s like interval training, you work for a relatively short burst (usually 25 minutes) and then take a brief (usually 5 minutes) break from studying. For each period of work, identify a task and set a goal for what you want to complete. Reflect on what you accomplished or not, and adjust your goal-setting going forward. Take a genuine break; avoid more stimulation from videos or social media. Instead, get up and stretch, listen (or dance) to music, have a snack, meditate or just be still and rest your eyes and mind. Intersperse longer breaks after each set of three to four 25 minute bursts.


  • Before using outside-of-course resources, check with your professor and any stated policies or best practices before pursuing resources other than those assigned. Some resources can be very helpful, but remember they are not designed for your specific course and may not be pitched to the level of Princeton instructors’ expectations. Consequently, it’s usually best to think of these external resources as complementing, but not replacing course texts, lectures/discussions, etc. 
  • Principedia articles for specific courses often include information about external resources and how best to use them. NOTE that because the instruction (how you are taught) of current courses will probably be drastically different than in previous semesters, and the curriculum (what you are taught) may change too, keep these differences in mind as you read Principedia course analyses.
Planning, Organization, and Time Management

The ultimate purpose of time management, from our perspective, is to reduce stress, increase efficiency and productivity, and ensure that what you value and what makes you happy is included in your daily and weekly routines. Keep those and other positive aims in mind as you plan and schedule out your class time, study time, time to get academic support, down time and fun time. 

You can schedule an academic consultation to discuss virtually all these topics. 

  • In general, assume tasks will take longer than expected, especially at first as you acclimate to new platforms, tools, etc. Also, with the amount of stressors we are experiencing, allot more time for regular breaks so you don’t burn out. Rest is essential to productivity.
  • One of the biggest challenges you will face is that you have far more unstructured (not to say ‘free’) time. So, you’ll need to make more purposeful plans, more productive routines, and more good decisions if you are to be efficient, meet your goals and do other things besides academics (see below for more specifics). 
  • It’s useful to think at three levels when mapping out your time and tasks: Daily action items or to do lists, regularly weekly schedules, and semester-long planning which captures important assignments which require considerable preparation. We’ll address each level in the next three bullet points. This McGraw resource addresses the three levels discussed above and other materials provide advice on additional aspects of time and task management. What tools you use—paper, phone, google calendar, etc.--is less important than planning at these three levels simultaneously. 
  • Limit your daily to do lists to include only your top priorities or actions items for the day. Write them out as concrete actions--not the large and vague item“thesis”, but rather “draft intro to methods section of thesis”. To make such lists of action items even more effective, rank their priority, allocate a specific time and place (if possible) in which you will do them, and avoid adding small tasks to them which can more easily be fit into gaps in our schedules. Enter them into your calendar and/or phone to get reminders.
  • To increase structure and predictability in largely unstructured and uncertain time, strive to establish a regular weekly routine. Enter into a calendar or planner realistic, routine, non-negotiable commitments--not just class meeting times--like office hours, tutoring, and dedicated blocks of reading, writing, study time for each class which you determine. Enter in downtime just as strategically, commit to time for playing guitar, exercising and connecting with friends, and the like. 
  • Create a “big picture” calendar for the entire semester. Enter in due dates for p-sets and papers, written responses--anything that will take preparation time. Notice whether particular days of the week, or weeks in the term, are particularly busy. If so, make your own due earlier dates and consider adding ‘start dates’ for larger projects. 
  • Use the “Pomodoro Technique” during the blocks of time you devote to studying in order to stay focused but also to ensure you get adequate rest and recuperation time so as not to overtax yourself mentally. This popular technique is like interval training, you work for a relatively short burst (usually 25 minutes) and then take a brief (usually 5 minutes) break from studying. For each period of work, identify a task and set a goal for what you want to complete. Reflect on what you accomplished or not, and adjust your goal-setting to be more accurate going forward. Take a genuine break; avoid more stimulation from videos or social media. Instead get up and stretch, listen (or dance) to music, have a snack, meditate or just be still and rest your eyes and mind. Intersperse longer breaks after three to four 25 minute bursts.
Wellbeing, Learning, and Engagement: A Cycle

Your physical and mental wellbeing are essential to productive engagement, deep learning, and meeting your personal and academic goals. However, it’s all too common on campuses like ours to sacrifice wellbeing in the pursuit of scholarly achievement, even though this is not sustainable. Fortunately, the concept of “thriving” - academic, psychological, and interpersonal wellbeing and engagement - can expand how we conceive of student “success” beyond metrics such as GPA, number of all-nighters, or accepted conference abstracts. It can also remind us that achievement and wellbeing are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  

Indeed, in order to experience wellbeing, we need to have a sense of accomplishment, to do “well” (whatever that means to us) academically, meet our own expectations, and learn things that we find valuable - all while maintaining connections with friends, family, and mentors. Wellbeing, learning, and achievement are interdependent—they can and should be pursued simultaneously. This is all the more important when there are significant external stressors and potential barriers to our wellbeing. 

Princeton alum and renowned Psychologist Martin Seligman is considered one of the founders of ‘Positive Psychology’  – the scientific study of the strengths that enable people and communities to thrive.  He has articulated a theory of wellbeing or thriving - grounded in extensive empirical research, and captured by the acronym PERMA, below. We propose keeping these five core concepts in mind as you transition to virtual learning and scholarship, as they can help you to persevere and achieve your goals under unprecedented circumstances.

  • Positive Emotion: Seek fun and enjoyment, create light moments when you can and do prioritize happiness among other aims.
  • Engagement: Immerse yourself in activities that you enjoy, whether physics problems, skateboarding, or listening to music. Put aside academics for other interests and vice-versa. Get into things fully and with intention.
  • Relationships: Cultivate significant, meaningful interactions and relationships. Connect with others as part of and outside your academic pursuits.
  • Meaning: Tap into your values and purpose. Do things that matter to you and if things do not feel engaging, reflect on why you are doing them, how they might lead to valued outcomes, and whether they are aligned with your priorities.
  • Achievement: Strive to improve and grow. Invest time into enhancing your skills and strategies—the methods and processes that lead to results—so you can attain your goals. Bring someone else along with you.

You can see that the above concepts are linked on many levels, and that they reinforce each other. Positive emotions, for example, are often the result of interacting with friends, engaging in a project that affords a sense of meaning or purpose, and/or challenging ourselves to learn a new skill. Alternatively, positive emotions can lead us to call a friend, or motivate us to learn something new; one positive psychologist went so far as to say that “happiness brings success.”

It’s not necessary or realistic, of course, to experience all five of the PERMA wellbeing concepts all the time, but having them in mind and incorporating them meaningfully throughout the day - particularly when practicing “social distancing” - can boost our learning and our lives.

*External Resources

Below are a few (of the many) resources available from other institutions also undergoing this transition which informed this resource and may be valuable to you.