Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.
Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.

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How International Students Can Succeed in the Digital Classroom

virtual classroom
advice for students

If you will be taking most of your classes online this fall, these helpful practices can help any international student stay focused, engaged, and connected.

A male international student sits in front of a laptop for his online class

What will my Virtual Start look like this fall? How do online classes differ from traditional courses? What can I do to take advantage of this new digital classroom experience? As an international student, you probably have a lot of questions about taking online courses and continuing your US university degree remotely. 

We spoke with two Shorelight higher education experts to learn their tips for how international students can make the most of learning via a digital classroom. 

Tip #1: Expect a period of adjustment

Distance learning is a new experience for most college students. Since grade school, you have been used to sitting at a desk, taking notes, and chatting with your classroom neighbor. This semester will be different, but temporary. Allow for a period of adjustment as you get familiar with your courses, professors, and new environment. 

“Give yourself the time and space needed to understand the platform, each professors’ style, and virtual classroom setup,” says Lindsey Garbenis, director of admissions at UDayton Global, Shorelight’s international student partnership with the University of Dayton

Read more COVID-related updates from Shorelight >>

Tip #2: Engage during class 

Be proactive and participate, says Robyn Stewart, associate academic director of the International Accelerator at American University. “In higher education in the United States, we value student participation. In fact, we often assign a grade for participation in class. Professors want to hear from students. We want to know what questions you have, what you think about the ideas we put out for discussion, and what you can contribute to move the subject forward.” 

She recommends that you ask questions, raise your hand, and volunteer for e-board assignments, much like in a regular classroom. This will also likely increase your overall learning and decrease distraction. 

Tip #3: Read the syllabus on day one

“The most important document in any class is the syllabus. It’s like a roadmap to success in the class,” suggests Stewart, who is also an adjunct instructor at American. 

On the syllabus, professors will detail your course’s reading assignments, quizzes, essays, and exams, along with due dates and grading weights. Add all due dates to your calendar (see tip 6), then “set aside time for studying, attending professors’ office hours, meeting with groups, and uploading your work, [maybe even] a day early,” says Stewart. 

Tip #4: Connect with your classmates offline, too 

Whether it’s making lifelong friends, finding career connections, or having a study buddy, socializing in the classroom is a major part your college experience—and, yes, it will be a little different in a digital classroom. 

“When you are studying in person on campus, you do this naturally by just saying hello to the person sitting next to you in the dining hall, or asking to borrow a pen from the student in front of you,” says Stewart. “Online, you will not have these chance encounters to meet your new best friend or the future founder of the next big company—you need to create them.”

Stewart highly recommends attending study groups, conversation clubs, review sessions, and any other opportunity: “Sign up for everything. When you see an email inviting you to the first meeting of the new English conversation club, say yes. When you get a message from a professor asking if you’d like to attend a review session for class, say yes. When Student Services invites you to meet for virtual coffee, your answer is yes. Through saying yes to every opportunity, you will create more opportunities to become an important member of the community of students.”

Are you an international student looking to keep your degree on track? Explore American Collegiate Live options for studying in your home country.  

Tip #5: Take advantage of office hours 

Getting to know your professor can be more of a challenge in a virtual classroom. You may have questions you forgot to ask in class, or you could be struggling with an assignment or reading. That’s where office hours come in. 

“This is the place to say hello, let us know how the class is going for you, and ask any lingering questions,” says Stewart. She adds that every professor offers blocks of time on Zoom (or a similar videoconference tool) each week. “When you get involved in your classes, and get to know your professors, you will have a much more exciting learning experience.” Attending office hours can also be a way to find a mentor or ask for letters of recommendation.

Additionally, when you attend office hours, there is a strong possibility of getting better grades: researchers at the Journal of Political Science Education found a positive correlation between office hour attendance and GPA. Sounds like A+ advice to us!

Tip #6: Develop your time management skills with a detailed schedule

All those plans—all that saying yes—means you will be looking at a full calendar, which can be a good thing, but also requires organization. Stewart’s advice is to master your time management skills by starting with a schedule. “I like using colored pens and an old-fashioned paper calendar,” she says. “Project deadlines or exams are written in blue, study time is in green, and meal time is in black. Then you can start filling in social events. Keep all the information you need in one place: where, when, and what time.” Adapt the structure and techniques however you like—the point is to have a system that works for you. 

Tip #7: Don’t procrastinate

Are you sensing that most tips for how to succeed in online classes are the same tips for succeeding overall? It’s true! “Don’t wait until the last minute, especially when you are submitting assignments online,” says Stewart. “I can tell you with certainty that the internet will crash when you have a deadline just minutes away and you are trying to upload your paper. Last minute never works!”

Tip #8: Avoid screen fatigue

Like many of us working from home, Lindsey Garbenis from UDayton Global struggles with this, too. “It’s really challenging when screens have become our school, our social life, and our entertainment as well.” Take a few minutes away from your screen each hour, or schedule extended study breaks a few times a day. “Go outside, get some exercise, cook a meal, or engage in some other physical activity each day,” Garbenis suggests. “The time spent away from the screen will allow you to rest your eyes.”

Tip #9: Set up a productive work space

“Make some space in your home or room that is calming and quiet for you to focus and be productive,” recommends Garbenis. “If you share your home/room, then you will want to be able to step away from the noise and distractions when it is time to be present in class or work on assignments. It is important to be comfortable, but not too comfortable! If you study/learn in a place you normally sleep or relax, you may easily fall asleep or be too relaxed to be productive.” 

Instructors like Stewart are working and teaching from home now, too. Her advice? “A comfortable chair and good lighting, a place to put my coffee mug, and something nice to look at on the wall,” she advises. “I’ve also had to set up some boundaries for my work time. For example, I’ve worked out hand signals to let my family know when I cannot be interrupted—if I’m in the middle of something important I can give the signal and know that they understand.”

Tip #10: Ask for help and communicate early and often

Whether it’s your professor, teaching assistants, the help desk, or fellow classmates, Garbenis says emphatically: “Always feel comfortable reaching out for help, that is what the faculty and staff are here for!” Feeling lost or disconnected in a virtual learning environment is common. “Take the initiative and speak up when you need the extra help or support,” she says.

Can’t access your classroom? Password trouble? Video not loading? “Every student should have the email address for the help desk close by at all times,” says Stewart. “I have seen students miss a deadline because they got locked out of their account and they couldn’t reset the password.” 

About to miss a deadline? Did a personal matter come up? “Keep your professors up to date on your situation,” adds Stewart. “I want to know if my students are facing issues in advance of an important due date, not afterwards! It can be difficult to reach out to the professors to ask for help sometimes, but keep us informed.”

Our advisors are here to help, too. Have questions about American Collegiate Live or digital learning programs with other partner universities? Talk to an advisor >>