Q&A with Becca Tanner, MSc Physical Therapy

Which courses did you take via online learning?

I’ve taken several courses online in recent years. This past term, I took four 500-level courses online: PTHER 538 (Orthopedic Physical Assessment), PTHER 544 (Cardiorespiratory Physiotherapy), PTHER 572 (Basic Concepts in Evidence-Based Practice) and PTHER 555 (Therapeutic Physical Agents). These were not meant to be taught online and we had to transition because of COVID-19. We’ll be going back for a week of review and practical exams for two of the courses later in August.

Currently, I’m taking three courses that were always planned to be online: PTHER 525 (Professional Issues II), PTHER 566 (Intro to Neuroanatomy) and PTHER 573 (Applied Concepts in Evidence-based Practice).

Are there any advantages to the online format?

This really depends on the individual, but I think the main advantage of online learning is that it gives you a chance to tailor how you work through the material in a way that suits you best personally.

For example, I don’t actually find it easy to learn material from someone else speaking—I prefer to read. I’ve never found sitting through lectures to be particularly helpful for me; things just don’t really sink in. So I appreciate that with online learning all the lectures and other presentations are recorded, so I can work through them at my own pace. I can pause where I need to in order to really absorb what I just heard, compare it to the written material on the slides, and make notes. Unfortunately, this means it takes me longer to go through the lectures, but in the end I feel like I’ve processed and absorbed the information much more effectively.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who likes to just listen to material and you can learn that way, then online learning is also great since you can often just download the lectures and listen to them while you’re out on a walk or doing chores around the house.

Another advantage is it allows you to set a schedule that works best for you and to work when you feel most productive. I’m not a morning person, so I don’t force myself to be now that I have the option of sleeping in—8:00 a.m. classes are not my friend!. But if you are a morning person, then you could get up early and do much of your work before noon if that’s what works best for you. Generally speaking, you have the flexibility to set your own schedule, and that can be a huge advantage.

Another thing to consider is that online learning really does set you up for a lifetime of continued learning as a practicing professional. Learning to take ownership and control of your own learning is an essential skill that will serve you well throughout your career—and life in general. Furthermore, coming to an understanding of how you learn best is extremely beneficial, and this is a chance for you to experiment with that a little.

What are the challenges it raises?

There are of course disadvantages that are simply unavoidable. A good portion of the skills I need to learn in my program are hands-on, so not being able to practice on classmates has made it challenging to learn that material effectively. However, I did find that the practice I was able to do with my kids was perhaps more beneficial in some ways, in that it gave me more realistic practice in treating someone who didn’t already know what to expect. I had to really work on my patient communication and education in a more realistic way than I would have otherwise.

It can be mentally challenging to transition from a style of learning that has a lot of external structure—classes to attend at certain times and a place to be every day—to learning at home on your own schedule. As I mentioned before, that can be a huge advantage, but it can also be a challenge to have the self-discipline to not leave your work to the last minute. In this case I think it’s important to set a structure for yourself, and make a plan for each day, even if it’s a very general one. If you wake up in the morning having already decided the night before what you’re going to start working on first, it will be much easier to get started and be productive.

What have you found to be some of the most helpful resources?

I’m actually a big fan of textbooks. I know not everyone is. But I find the meticulously thorough and organized way most textbooks present information to often be more helpful for me than lectures.

I also found it really helpful to find other online sources that presented the material I was studying, whether that was YouTube videos or following people in my field on Instagram or elsewhere. I think in a way that helped make the content more real when I could see it in the “real world,” but also presented in a way that was always specifically meant for the internet.

One of the most valuable resources is still my classmates! Whether it’s friends I already know well or people I’m just getting to know from being assigned to group work with them, I think the emotional support from going through this shared experience is invaluable. It’s always good to have other brains to pick, but even more so when you are spending so much time learning on your own.

All of the profs were still very available for a chat, office hours, or answering questions. If that’s something that’s benefitted you in the past, be sure to still make use of their availability, as they definitely want to see you succeed.

Do you have any tips or tricks for incoming students who might not have taken a course this way before?

Most of my suggestions have to do with just keeping a healthy mental balance. I think that really is the most important thing, especially when studying or working from home. And even more so during this pandemic when so many of our other supports and stress releases have been taken away. It can be easy to get in a funk or start to feel overwhelmed if you aren’t carefully monitoring your own internal environment. So to that end:

  • Set boundaries and keep them. Don’t let school take over your whole life just because you’re now doing it from home. Treat it like a job and give yourself set hours. I always pick a time each day when I put all my school material away and don’t even think about it for the rest of the evening. Depending on the day and the workload that week, that might be 4:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m., but once school is done, it’s done. Likewise, I try to take at least half a day if not a full day off from school every weekend. This allows me to take time to refresh and pursue personal interests without feeling guilty about not doing schoolwork.
  • Treat yourself well, like you would treat a pet or a child. You wouldn’t let them go a full day without getting outside, having healthy food and treats, getting exercise or going for a walk, or doing something fun, so don’t do that to yourself!
  • Stay flexible. Don’t leave anything to the last minute, but also don’t force yourself to keep an arbitrary study schedule if it’s just not working in the moment. Acknowledge that you cannot and will not always be running on all cylinders, and that’s okay. You will always do better with some time to refresh, or after getting a good sleep. Use whatever level of focus/brain power and willpower you have, when you have it. If you can’t focus on learning new material anymore but still want to be productive with school, spend some time organizing your course files, searching for and downloading articles or other resources you will need, getting clear on the expectations for assignments, prioritizing your to-do list, etc. On the other hand, if you’re feeling great, tackle your most difficult task and run with it. I try to match up my current level of energy and focus with a suitable task. Your energy, focus, and willpower are all limited resources, so allocate them wisely.
  • Choose something refreshing and fulfilling when you take a break, rather than just doing nothing. When you’re worn out from studying all day it’s tempting to flop on the couch and turn on the TV. But before you substitute staring at a computer screen for staring at a TV screen, try something hands-on or creative/productive to refresh yourself.
  • Stay organized and set daily priorities. You need a plan of attack!. My methods of doing this are not particularly high-tech or in-depth. For each upcoming week I have an idea of what needs to be done by what day, and I prioritize accordingly. But if colour-coded office supplies and detailed schedules are your happy place, go nuts.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to connect and work with your classmates. Feeling like you’re going through a shared experience with other people is so helpful in keeping you from feeling isolated and academically adrift. Having other brains to pick when yours doesn’t seem to be working so well is also invaluable.

In general, keep an open mind and be open to trying new things and learning new skills and techniques. And remember, everyone else is going through this too! Don’t be afraid to turn to your classmates and instructors for support and help.