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When their beds became their classrooms, college students nationwide became trapped in the cyclical effects of online learning. The repetitive schedule that many are experiencing, combined with the loss of face-to-face interaction has led to lack of motivation and burnout.
When their beds became their classrooms, college students nationwide became trapped in the cyclical effects of online learning. The repetitive schedule that many are experiencing, combined with the loss of face-to-face interaction has led to lack of motivation and burnout.

College students face burnout in online learning

CMS 120A Capstone Project

Fri, Apr 30th 2021 04:10 pm

Tips & tricks for staying ENGAGED & MOTIVATED in a virtual setting

By Serena Leatherbarrow

Special to Niagara Frontier Publications

In a time when many students are living and learning in the same environment, it’s easy to feel burnout as the two blend together. This is no exception for college students who are combatting lack of motivation through Zoom classes and due dates, as their beds became their classrooms.

During a “typical” school year, students would need to schedule time to get ready for the day before making their way to a 9 a.m. class. However, in the world of COVID-19, attending class is a matter of rolling out of bed, logging into a laptop and clearing all embarrassing items out of the camera’s view.

Students’ stories have shown that a majority of their day is spent parked in front of a screen. Whether that includes taking an online exam, attending a club meeting via Zoom or watching cat videos on YouTube in between the learning.

With many classes now allowing students to learn course material completely online, a sample of college students expressed feeling overly wrapped up in their virtual education. This combined with the lack of breaks and human interaction has led to exhaustion for college students nationwide.

Like many students, Hanna Pawlowski, has felt the lack of motivation and exhaustion with online learning. The sophomore dance major is taking several hybrid classes this semester at Butler University. While learning from the comfort of her dorm room, staying focused has proven difficult.

“My mind is constantly filled with everything I have to get done throughout the day,” Pawloski said. “When classes are in person, I can more easily drown out those thoughts and focus. However, when it is merely a Zoom call, I find drowning those thoughts out to be much more difficult.”

While she has found ways to limit distraction, Pawlowski admits this year has been a matter of survival.

“I do try to leave my phone far away from me so that I am less distracted during an online class,” Pawloski said. “However, I know that I learn best in person so I found a way to survive this year in hopes of getting back to the way I learn best.”

Pawlowski is far from alone in this feeling of distracted learning.

Sophomore marketing major Nicolas Young attends Buffalo State College and shared a similar experience about his online learning habits, including the desire to multitask.

“I have felt a big lack of motivation in online learning because I have trouble paying attention in virtual class,” Young said. “I can just turn my camera off and clean up around my room. The biggest challenge has been getting distracted when I’m supposed to be focusing on a class.”

While online learning distractions have certainly had a negative impact, the lack of human contact has proven to be a challenge for Cornell University student Ariya Roberts.

Roberts is studying computer science and economics in a 100% virtual setting, which she argues has created a sense of isolation that contributes to her lack of motivation and an overall declined mood.

“The biggest challenge in this new way of learning has definitely been the lack of human connection,” Roberts said. “I think we took for granted how important that human connection is to feeling happy, motivated, and secure.”

While peer relationships have looked especially different, Roberts has found ways to adapt, including virtual collaboration with fellow students.

“My economics professor set us up in four-person groups last semester and allowed us to work on the homework together,” Roberts said. “That really helped me to get through the class as it was one of the only forms of human contact I had.”

While they may not be experiencing the effects of online learning in the same way, university professors and staff are noticing the student burnout taking place. Julie Czyrny works as the peer tutor coordinator in Niagara University’s Academic Success Center and has worked with students to combat the challenges they are facing.

Want to improve engagement and motivation in online learning while still caring for your mental health? Continue reading for tips to improve virtual learning strategies.

•Online school is still school. Czyrny noted that just because students aren’t physically attending class, doesn’t mean it’s any less important. There are still frequent due dates that require one’s full attention and it is advised that students make these requirements an importance in order to reach the best outcome.

“I think there’s some sort of psychological block or something, in that students don’t think online classes are real, or “count,” and they just don’t put in as much effort,” Czyrny said. “It’s important to treat it like any other class.”

•Time management is key. Czyrny noted that a majority of students are struggling with the lack of structure tied to online learning.

“For courses that are recording the lectures, I think students are often lacking the discipline to watch them on a regular basis. They say they’ll get to them eventually, but then eventually never comes,” Czyrny said.

To combat this issue, she recommends that students develop the routine of scheduling time for online classes in the same way that one would if they were in person.

“If there are lectures to watch, watch them at the same time each week so it’s part of your routine,” Czyrny said. “It’s easy to fall behind and get overwhelmed, so it’s important for students to have a planner, put reminders in their phone, make to-do lists, whatever helps them stay organized and on top of things.”

Planners and to-do lists can be used to balance the chaotic feeling that comes with living and learning in the same environment. It is advised that students schedule when they will complete assignments while also setting aside time for their personal needs.


Computer science student, Shane Kowalski, said he’s enjoyed the open schedule of online learning as it allows him to work whenever is best for him. While he enjoys the flexibility of virtual learning, the Niagara University senior has found to-do lists to be helpful in meeting course requirements.

“Early in the week, I will look at Canvas and make a list of everything that’s due in the following days,” Kowalski said. “If something is due soon, then I’m more likely to work on it. I don’t typically schedule class periods into my day, but will usually wait to do something until I have more of an urge to do it.”

•Hold yourself accountable. While some students, such as Kowalski, have thrived in the relaxed schedule of online learning, this is not the case for everyone.

When living and learning in the same environment, students are in charge of their education like never before. Communications professor at Niagara University, Doctor Carrie Teresa, shared that mindset has proven to be a key factor in student success.

“A lot of successful online learning is contingent on good time management, a strong work ethic, and the ability to work independently,” Teresa said.

Doctor Teresa noted that her most successful students are those who have gone the extra step to engage with her in and out of the classroom.

“The students that I think have adapted best to my particular online classes are the ones who have communicated with me the most by emailing me questions, asking questions during class, and setting up meetings with me in office hours,” Teresa said.

•Designate a workspace. When working and relaxing in the same space, it’s easy for the two to blend together. Czyrny recommends students designate a workspace to replicate the feeling of being in a classroom, as this increases focus.

“I encourage students to watch an online class either sitting up at a desk or table, or in the library,” Czyrny said. “I think a lot of the same things that work for in-person classes still work with online classes.”

It is also advised students eliminate distractions as best as possible to increase their engagement in virtual learning. While students may not be seen by their professors, it is still just as important to be alert and focused on the material being presented.

“If cameras are allowed to be turned off, which understandably students prefer, they are more likely to be watching from their beds, checking their phones, or doing another task during that same think,” Czyrny said. “They’re probably not as focused as they would be in a classroom.

Eliminating such distractions is the first step toward increasing engagement and, in turn, motivation.

•Avoid 24-hour school days. Just because students now have the ability to learn course material at any time of the day, doesn’t mean they should. Now more than ever, it is essential students schedule time for self-care and social interaction. Whether it’s rewarding hard work, watching your favorite movie at the end of a long day, or scheduling time with friends, taking care of one’s mental health is necessary to prevent burnout.

Pawlowski shared that relying on the support of her friends and looking forward to milestone events has been beneficial in getting through the stress of online learning.

“Since I am a dance major, I have been using my performances as milestones to look forward to in order to get through the semester despite the challenges,” Pawlowski said. “I am also grateful to have a strong group of friends as we keep each other motivated and are there for each other during our inevitable break down moments where we want to quit.”

For some students, the lack of university-mandated breaks has been a key contributor in the burnout they are feeling.

“I think the lack of breaks has had a negative impact on student success,” Young said. “It feels as though we always need to worry about school and can never truly get a break because as we finish one week we need to start thinking about the next.”

Studies show 53% of college students neglect their social lives due to stress. While week-long breaks may not be scheduled into the semester, it’s important for students to create their own periods of rest. At the end of the day, productivity and motivation would be impossible to achieve without taking time for ourselves.

For more statistics on student stress, visit: https://whattobecome.com/blog/college-student-stress-statistics.

While difficulties with online learning may be unavoidable, university professors and staff advise that students experiment with strategies to combat those challenges. Taking the proper steps to improving one’s virtual learning strategies may help increase motivation and decrease burnout.

It is no secret that adapting to this new way of learning has been difficult for many. Hope for a return to normalcy in the coming months is what seems to be the final drop of motivation in many of the students interviewed.

“I have found perks to online learning, but I rather classes be in person,” Kowalski said. “There are some classes that just can’t be executed online and are lacking that hands-on experience.”

With summer quickly approaching, students are looking forward to the much-needed relief that comes with it and are hoping that the fall semester brings the hands-on experience many have been missing.






Niagara Frontier Publications works with the Niagara University communication studies department to publish the capstone work of students in CMS 120A-B.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of NFP, NU or the communication studies department. Moreover, efforts have been made to encourage the proper use of sources, and discourage anything that would constitute plagiarism.

Comments or concerns can be sent to the NFP editorial department, care of the managing editor.

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