Dr. Whissell headshotMany of U of T’s students and instructors have now had the opportunity to both give and take classes in a virtual format.  We asked Dr. Paul Whissell from Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health, who taught in both semesters over the summer, to offer some advice for students who are adjusting to an online learning environment. 




Learning how to feel engaged without the in-person interaction we are accustomed to is one of the biggest challenges while interacting virtually.  How can students feel engaged and connected to their courses, instructors, and peers and participate in their courses while learning remotely? 

One major reason online learning is challenging is that the personal connection between the student and professor is lost. This problem, thankfully, is easy enough to fix. My biggest advice is to attend virtual office hours regularly and/or email the instructor (TAs) often.  

Most professors, even the ‘evil ones’ like myself, are nicer than you think. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Professors (secretly) love it when you ask questions. Who doesn’t like feeling smart and useful? Other students also enjoy it when someone else asks questions. Many other people in the room might be concerned about something but be too afraid to ask. Be the one to break the ice! Once the first question is asked, the room loosens up and becomes easier to manage.  

As an aside, asking questions during office hours is the best way to get the most knowledge in the least amount of time (efficiency)! A short, five minute conversation during office hours is better than an hour-long dialogue via email or a three hour long (often fruitless) search through the course materials.   

With respect to questions, do not limit yourself to the course material, either. Provided all students have gotten the care they need, go ahead and ask a question which is not about the course specifically. If you wanted to know about a particular topic… and you think the professor could provide insight… ask away. Again, professors love answering. And your curiosity will be satisfied. And it’s curiosity that drives the academic institution. It’s good for everyone. I often end up re-writing my lectures after conversations with students.  


Do you have advice for students who are feeling anxious about this new form of learning about how to best approach/manage their course load? 

My first piece of advice is to set a schedule. That schedule should include study time for all courses, as well as ‘me time’ where you do things that are good for your mental health (e.g. exercise, read, hang out with friends). This is the way my life works, at least. It also includes ‘him time’ (for my feisty son) and ‘family time’ (for everyone else). Try to aim for the most reasonable schedule you can manage. If you can only do six hours of studying, work with that. Six high-quality hours is better than nine, half-hearted hours with Netflix on.  

If you miss your quota for a day, that’s fine! You’ve still done a lot of great work. You’re still better off. As long as you get things back under control quickly, you’re alright. Myself, I read two textbooks every summer. I aim to read a chapter or two a day. Most days I succeed, some days I fail. But by the end of the summer, I always know a lot more than when I started.   

Second, I’d look for group resources for the courses you are taking. Many courses have facebook groups/chats, discord chats, reddit threads and the like… they’re often easy to findIf you google your course code, you’ll quickly find there are a lot of other people like you. Learn from their experiences. You’re likely to make a few friends in the process. That camaraderie can help you through a tough term. Now that University is almost fully online, these groups are more numerous and rambunctious than ever.  

Third… and I’m biased in this regard, as a cognitive neuroscientist… but I’d recommend looking into better study methods. Here is a link to a pretty cool paper that goes over the research into learning.  Credit goes to a colleague of mine (thanks Paolo!) for making me aware of the paper.  

A fourth point would be to treat online learning just like on-campus learning. You might feel more confident with lecture recordingand open book testthan you do with standard, on-campus course material. That may lead you to under-invest. The difficulty of most courses, however, hasn’t changed…it’s either the same or higher. Learning online is more convenient, but it is not easier. Make sure to put in the same amount of study time, do the same amount of note-taking and the same amount of re-writing assignments.  

Final point – as I said earlier – try emailing the professor and attending the virtual office hours. Make the time for it, if you can. It’ll actually save you time in the long run.  


While much emphasis has been placed on the challenges of online learning, can you identify some advantages to this method of teaching/learning? 

The convenience is great. That’s probably the biggest advantage. All the lectures are on video. Some professors post their lectures in advance, but other professors will deliver them online at specific times (i.e. synchronous courses). In the event of live lectures, you can conveniently record them with consent of the professor. This being the case, you don’t have to worry about bringing a recording device to class.  

In the event you have recordings, things get much easier… You can also pause and rewind videos to ensure you get what the professor is saying. I would definitely do this when possible. As a student, one of my biggest barriers was taking notes quickly. In the current paradigm, that’s not an issue.  

The final thing I can emphasize is that, at least on the student end, the time investment is lower. You do not have to commute. The professor’s time investment is usually lower too… unless they are like me, making bumpy videos that require much editing. You can use that time saved to take care of yourself in other ways. Walks, talks and good eats. Whatever is your thing! 


What are some avenues of support if a student is struggling in an online course? 

Many students are not aware of this, but many support services are still available even in the current situation. New College has a lot of programs (e.g. Writing Center) that you’ll want to look into. Also – as before – email the professor. Many professors are more willing to help given the current situation.  


Can you give us some insight into your personal approach to online teaching that may be helpful for students to know?

For all my courses, I prepare lecture recordings. Students can then download and view these recordings at any time. I have an amateur recording set-up for this purpose. I read material, write the lecture and finally make the lecture recording (alone, in the dark, late at night, like a terrible podcast). I then edit the recording. Sometimes, there’s a lot of editing. My son and my washing machine both love making spontaneous unannounced appearances (uncredited cameos) in the videos.  

I strive to have all the recordings available well in advance. Sometimes this is not possible, but usually everything works out. 

I regularly hold virtual office hours on BB collaborate (through Quercus). I think it’s extremely important that students have as much access to me as they would during the normal term. They paid their full tuition. They deserve my time. For each course, I normally hold a 2 – 3 hour session each week. I will also hold extra sessions near assessment deadlines. I also hold BB collaborate sessions during online assessments, so that students have the same opportunity to ask questions as they would during the regular term. 

I answer all emails that I receive (with very few exceptions). And for whatever reason, I tend to receive a lot of them. For example, I had an assignment last year in a course with 500 students… over the two days before the assignment was due, I received 150 emails. Every fifteen minutes, there was an email alert. I had to turn the sound off. That was certainly an adventure, but we all survived intact. Again, it’s very important to me that students can reach their professors and get the care they need. Especially in the current situation… email is more important than ever. Many students prefer email interaction, even though office hour interaction is more efficient. Never be shy about emailing me, if you need to.  

My final note…for assessments, I use a combination of synchronous, time-limited tests and flexible assignments. It really depends upon the course. I tend to use more written questions now than I did before. This is not because I love them (I do not). The current structure requires we adjust our assessment methods in order to ensure that students are getting a fair, consistent experience. Written answer questions, though imperfect as a tool, are one great way to assess student knowledge.  


We know this transition has been stressful for students, but it has also been a time of change for faculty. How have you maintained your own wellbeing during the shift to online working?  

A personal question! Fun. I admit that this is a dark and dreary situation I’d rather not be in. None of us want this to go on and all of us want it to stop. Having said that, there is an opportunity here to transform your life in some pretty significant ways.  

For example, by not having to commute every day, I now have an extra three hours added to my life. I can take long walks/runs/stair climbs while listening to bad podcasts. I can get caught up on reading. I can return to my failed career as a cartoonist. I’ve reached out to friends/family I have not spoken to in a bit.  

My point: there’s much joy to be found in other ways. Ask yourself what you have not had time for previously and try doing it now.  


Dr. Paul Whissell is an interdisciplinary academic whose teaching program focuses on science, science communication, and the intersection of science with society.  He is the winner of the 2019-2020 Kathleen O’Connell Teaching Excellence Award. This award honours outstanding teaching and recognizes the important contributions made by sessional instructional staff to the teaching mission of New College in its academic programs, interdisciplinary courses, and Writing Centre.