Zoom University: 5 tips for learning from home


As someone who likes to sit in on random university classes during the days of in-person lectures, I probably went overboard with course “registration” (a.k.a. bookmarking webpages) this semester. And, when I finally made a list of my courses, I was surprised to find a good 15 of them that I’m “attending”, with more gathering virtual dust in my browser folder.

But am I stressed out? No.

There’s no more clashing schedule, no more rushing from one lecture hall to the next, and no more commuting between different university campuses (which used to take me 2 hours for a round trip).

Lecture speed not to your liking? Adjust it yourself. Missed the last point? Play it back. Want extra information? Pause, new tab, and search.

To be fair, studying from home can be tough. We’ve all been through live lectures with shaky internet connection and witnessed our tech-novice professors struggling with the simplest operations. It must be hard to hold a discussion on world politics or start a debate about Nietzsche, and I can hardly imagine how brain surgery could be taught via a Zoom call.

Nevertheless, I already know I’ll miss Zoom University much more than I’ve missed classroom lectures. And as veterans of remote learning, we can all learn a thing or two about how to learn.

Here are some thoughts I’ve had in the past few weeks, inspired by the book Make it Stick (McDaniel & Brown, 2014), as well as papers and lectures on cognitive psychology.

1. Speed up or down, but be careful with it.


We read faster than we speak. With recorded materials, we finally have a chance to “learn faster”, at the expense of understanding. Depending on the topic complexity, an appropriate speed could be somewhere between 1.0~2.0 times the original.

Interestingly, research has shown that speeding up female voices has worse consequences for listening comprehension than speeding up male voices. At 60% faster than normal speed, the difference is a drastic 75% (1/4 correct answer for speeded female voice; 4/4 correct answers for speeded male voice). In fact, speeding up male speaker recordings seemed to have hardly any impact on comprehension (4/4 correct answers for normal, 1.3, and 1.6 times speed). This is most likely related to vocal pitch properties, meaning that speakers with a higher voice would suffer more from acceleration. Try it out yourself with different recordings!

But is there a limit for speeded listening?

Yes. If your goal is to refresh old knowledge, increase the speed to the point where you can discern the words (~1.8 times). If your goal is to learn something new, though, perhaps the original speed would work better— rather than pausing and rewinding every few seconds and losing the point. This way, you also have time to reflect and connect it with previous knowledge.

2. Don’t try to memorize everything just because you can.


You can now rewind and listen to that “important” point the professor made when you zoned out for 10 seconds. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Instead, first, try to understand the main idea in each part of the lecture: extract the concept from given examples or in-class exercises. Then, try your best to associate it with your prior knowledge. Draw analogies. Come up with more examples. And if you’re learning a STEM subject, try to solve a few extra problems related to the new knowledge.

This way, your new knowledge will be etched into your learning database. Depending on the quality of your “association” stage (for example, how vivid your examples are), it could last much, much longer than a sentence you heard once during class.

3. Take smart notes.


No more board notes. Your lecturer has probably uploaded tons of material for you. While there’re probably a million ways to take notes and a few famous ones, one thing is for sure:

There is no need to write down every single word.

With recorded lectures, you can eventually create a perfect transcription of the lecture (which is probably better done with a speech-to-text app in a matter of minutes).

Personally, I believe that knowledge is best acquired by use: solving problems, drawing up examples, and making associations. Note-taking is for future reference, in case you need a refresher (which, ideally, should rarely happen).

If you are fine with electronic notes, and — like me — prefer spending more time understanding the material and putting it to use, you might be interested in my rudimentary app to convert .pdf files to markdown style notes.

Another tool you might find helpful is Markmap, which can convert your markdown notes to mindmaps instantly.

4. Interleave: stick to your REAL schedule.


Who hasn’t felt the urge to slack off one day, and catch up with 10 classes the next? Or, it might seem more convenient to stream a few videos from the same subject in a row, before switching to another in a different sitting.

Unfortunately, cognitive psychology points out the opposite: interleaving — instead of blocking—is the more effective strategy.

In-person lectures rarely occur in blocks, for a good reason. No one likes a lengthy class with drowsy participants. With topics mixed up and breaks in between, a day at school passes by much quicker. It’s good to know that this can also contribute to better learning.

Research has found interleaving to work in real life and have long-term benefits. As an example, students might solve a geometry problem, followed by some calculus, then complex algebra. — Seems intimidating? In fact, interleaving challenges you to fully comprehend the knowledge (instead of the short-term memory of a solution, learned through blocking), and the learning result also lasts longer this way.

So, even if the material can be played back whenever, try sticking to your “real” lecture schedule, which includes taking a break between zoom meetings, or before you hit “next” in your video player. And if you don’t have a schedule (for example, if you’re doing an online, self-paced program), it’s never too late to design one yourself.

5. Stay on top of your tasks.

My coursework spreadsheet

This Wednesday, about a month into Zoom University and home lab, I opened a spreadsheet and jotted down all my courses. Which, by the way, are on 5 platforms:

Two university websites; the virtual university of Bavaria, where in-state students can find dozens of courses with transferable credits; Coursera; and MIT OpenCourseWare.

What’s more, the video lectures are streamed from 4 sites: YouTube, Panopto, iTunes, and occasionally live on Zoom.

The result?

It took me a few hours to gather the syllabi, but it was also profoundly satisfying to build an overview of what I’ve set myself up to.

With one afternoon’s work, I’ve set up my own dashboard that spans 5 platforms — which not only saves me hundreds of clicks a week, but also motivates me to catch up on my study.

Of course, you can do this any other way that helps visualize and monitor your tasks and due assignments.

What I should’ve been doing instead of writing this article :)

As you can see, I have quite some work piling up and should probably be heading to my Zoom lecture hall. Good luck to y’all, and don’t hesitate to share your experience with remote learning!




Pursuing a MSc in computational neuroscience and working in data science.

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Annette Zhao

Annette Zhao

Pursuing a MSc in computational neuroscience and working in data science.

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