PUBLISHED:September 17, 2020

Students, faculty offer strategies for succeeding in the virtual classroom


With many Duke Law classes being held online in the fall semester, students are advised to minimize distractions, practice self-care, and speak up.

In welcoming remarks to the Duke Law community on the first day of the fall semester, Dean Kerry Abrams acknowledged the challenges of learning and teaching “in new and different ways,” given that many classes are being held online due to ongoing social distancing mandates.

Faculty had spent the summer revamping courses, adapting them to new formats, and learning new teaching techniques, and would continue to identify the most effective ways to teach throughout the semester, always welcoming student feedback, she said in her first “Direct from Dean Abrams” address.

Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law and professor of law, highlighted tips from a resource compiled by the Teaching and Learning Committee that was circulated to students in advance of the semester’s start. Here, faculty and upper-year students whose classes went online in March with the start of the pandemic shutdown offer their suggestions for adjusting to and succeeding in a virtual learning space.

Take notes — but consider the method

Many students say that active note-taking, whether handwritten or typed, helps them to stay engaged and better process information during online classes.

Maryam Kanna
Maryam Kanna JD/LLM '21

“Typed notes are often more thorough than handwritten ones, but you want to make sure you aren’t just passively typing every word the professor says verbatim," says Maryam Kanna JD/LLM ’21. “Doing that probably won’t help you learn at all and will be a pain to review later in the semester before exams.”

When typing notes during an online class, some students find it helpful to have a second monitor.

“Last semester I worked only on one monitor, which forced me to minimize my Zoom to a tiny thumbnail and it wasn’t ideal,” says Jonathan Ellison ’22. “I believe I would have gotten more out of my meetings if I could see more of the other people participating. Seeing other focused faces has helped me focus, both in person and virtually.”

Minimize distractions

Students who don’t have a second monitor available say that splitting the screen between just the Zoom session and a Word document also helps minimize distractions, as they don’t feel tempted by their social media feeds, news sites, or other websites. Ellison says he also silences his phone and removes it from hist sight.

Jonathan Ellison
Jonathan Ellison '22

Adds Emmy Wydman ’22: “I get distracted really easily while I’m at my computer, so I’ve played around with a few screen-time limiting apps on my computer to help, such as blocking social media during the day or turning off iMessage on my computer.”

Some recommend creating a dedicated workspace, since it prevents them from getting too cozy in a bed or on a couch. Ellison says he bought a desk for his apartment, and he finds that switching between a traditional chair and an exercise ball helps keep him alert. He adds that changing his lighting can also help him stay focused. Kanna also says that getting a natural light for her workspace was “a game-changer,” as it helped her stay alert and focused.

Kaitlin Ray ’21 urges students to be “very honest” with themselves, their roommates, and loved ones, about what they need to do their best when they are working online: “Law school is a huge commitment, and you owe it to yourself to be ‘selfish’ with your time and workspace where you can be.”

Kaitlin Ray
Kaitlin Ray '21

Speak up

Professor Marin Levy, who teaches first-year Civil Procedure and such upper-year courses as Remedies and Appeals, emphasizes the importance of participating in class discussions. She says that students should push themselves to raise their hand and offer comments: “Doing so will add to the richness of the discussion, and will help to keep everyone more engaged.” The virtual space can make this a bit easier, she adds.

“When it comes to speaking up in the classroom, the main deterrent that students mention is intimidation,” Levy says. “It can simply feel like a lot to speak up in front of a large number of other students in a big lecture hall. When participating in class by Zoom, however, I think the intimidation factor is somewhat diminished. We are in the comfort of our own space, and I think it is easier to see yourself in conversation with just a few other people. This is certainly how I have felt at faculty workshops via Zoom.”

Meet with professors, set up study groups

Emmy Wydman
Emmy Wydman '22

When classes went online last spring, students found that their professors tried to be as accessible to them remotely as they were on campus, through virtual office hours, email, or a quick conversation online after class. And students kept their study groups and communal study sessions going. When studying with other students, Wydman recommends good communication from the outset.

“Being on the same page about things from the beginning is so, so, so important,” she says. “What exactly should you come prepared with — answers written out, questions, material reviewed, etc.? How much information will you cover in each study session? Is someone leading the discussion or are you passing the baton for different topics?”

Emma Li ’22 admits she was “a bit shy” in her first year about connecting with students to study, but she has learned that she has to “get outside the comfort zone and make conscious effort to stay connected with classmates.” Doing so, she says, will also help others get the help they need from fellow students.

Emma Li
Emma Li '22

Prioritize wellness

Students and faculty agree that caring for their physical and mental well-being has been particularly important to surviving the shutdown.

“It is especially important for all of us – students, staff, and faculty – to find ways to disconnect from screens and spend time exercising, cooking, reading, or whatever else it takes to replenish our collective control, focus, and clarity,” says Lanty L. Smith ’67 Professor of Law Joseph Blocher, a constitutional scholar whose fall semester courses include a seminar on the Second Amendment.

Li cautions against isolation. “I would not have gotten through 1L had it not for the help from my friends, classmates, and mentors,” she says. “I understand that online classes make it a lot easier to fall into this dangerous mindset that you are in this alone, and probably online socializing is the last thing you want to do after a long day of lectures and classes. But it is really worth the effort to reach out to people and let them know that you need help. And people will help. That is what makes Duke Law community so special.”