University students tell us how self-isolation is impacting them

Coronavirus has changed uni life. Bedrooms are becoming lecture halls and seeing university friends face-to-face now means Facetiming. Exams have been cancelled or rapidly overhauled to enable them to be completed online. Coursework that requires high-tech equipment, travel or special software is in a similarly precarious position, with universities or students making changes and struggling to make the most of what they have to hand. International students who rushed home as borders were being closed are coping without books and notes, while students without the technology or space to work from home may well worry about it affecting their grades.

If you are feeling anxious – about your course, future prospects or loved ones – you aren’t alone. We thought advice from other students on coping with work while under self-isolation might be useful – particularly as the pandemic has put paid to any hopes of sharing problems at the student union bar. So, we asked four students to share their experiences and tips with you.

We spoke to:

  • Amandine Riche, who is studying for an MA in publishing at University College London
  • Anna Rickards, who is in the second year of her masters in character animation at the University of the Arts in London
  • Hélène Rousset, who is studying for an MSc in computing at Imperial College London
  • Rain Basaran, who is studying an MSc in bioarcheology and forensic anthropology at University College London

What are students worried about?

If you’re frustrated by some of the ways your university has approached the pandemic or you have questions that remain unanswered, you probably won’t be surprised to discover that you aren’t the only one. Here are some of the main concerns we found from the students:

  • How changes to exams might impact their grades. Hélène is glad her exams weren’t cancelled, but she is worried that grades might be lowered across the board because students had access to their notes at home – something that wouldn’t have been allowed under normal circumstances.
  • Not learning the same content or via the same method that was expected when they enrolled. Grades are obviously crucial, yet for Rain it is the impact of self-isolation on her learning experience that has caused the most worry. She has had to change her dissertation topic, as she cannot physically access the bone and tooth samples required. She explains: ‘I absolutely love my course and was looking forward to what I was going to learn.’
  • Paying full tuition fees for reduced teaching time. For both Anna and Rain, whether tuition fees will be reduced is the question they would most like their universities to answer. Rain also draws attention to the fact that many students had lectures and seminars cancelled due to a month-long strike by teachers before the coronavirus social distancing measures. With a petition for reimbursing students for this year’s tuition fees having gained over 290,000 signatures, this is undoubtedly a common concern.
  • The impact of anxiety on coursework. Amandine is in a position that many students will recognise as they try to settle in to working from home during a pandemic: ‘My worries mostly stem from the anxiety that this situation causes and the impact that anxiety will have on coursework.’

How are students voicing their concerns and ideas?

Many universities have systems that allow students to ask questions and communicate their worries. Amandine told us that the online student enquiry system AskUCL now has a section dedicated to coronavirus-related queries. Hélène mentioned Piazza – an online tool enabling students to ask questions, which both students and professors can answer.

As Amandine has found at UCL, universities are also asking specific questions via email. At the University of the Arts in London, a survey was emailed to students asking how they could be helped when working from home and the equipment they might need.

So, if you have something to say regarding how your university is handling problems caused by the pandemic, or if you have an idea for how they might improve going forward, you should be able to find a platform. Talking to your tutors is another strong approach. A common theme among the students we spoke to was the willingness of tutors to provide support and respond to questions.

Are students able to study at home?

Our survey drove home how much students’ abilities to work from home is dependent on their course and their individual circumstances. It seems, while everyone is feeling the change, in this respect students aren’t all really ‘in the same boat’.

Anna describes the difficulties she has encountered: ‘I had heavily relied upon the school’s resources and programmes to make my graduation film and create animated shorts, so coming back home and being without the software and necessary equipment has been quite stressful.’

Rain Basaran, whose MSc involves work in labs with skeletal material and tooth samples, cannot study effectively away from university – a problem that has been compounded by the fact that she left most of her notes in the UK when she rushed home to Istanbul on 16 March 2020, finding out about the UK travel ban the following day.

The degrees studied by Amandine and Hélène, however, make working from home simpler. ‘Since we are in computing, I believe most of our projects can be started remotely,’ Hélène explains. Similarly, Amandine says, ‘Luckily for me, my course is mostly reading and research based. For the most part, the resources are available and this situation is manageable – though of course it’s never easy.’

Tips for protecting your wellbeing and maintaining motivation

So, while the motivations behind these feelings are coloured by individual circumstance, it wouldn’t be surprising if you are experiencing a mixture of worry, fear, downheartedness, demotivation and difficulty concentrating. If these feelings are becoming overwhelming and/or you think you would benefit from help, take a look at the mental health services listed on the NHS website. In addition, you can talk to Samaritans for free and in confidence by calling them on 116 123.

If, on the other hand, you’re simply looking for useful advice from fellow students to help you gain some headspace or keep motivation up, below are the tips we gained from our students:

  • Get dressed. Maintaining a ‘normal’ routine – particularly at the beginning of the day – can improve your mood and focus. Amandine emphasises this: ‘I behave as if I’m going to uni or work for the day – I get up at the same time every day and get dressed in real clothes (not gym gear or pyjamas).’
  • Separate university work from home life. Amandine also makes sure she decides upon and sticks to a time at which to stop working, and changes locations when she does so. This helps her to maintain a relaxing home life and a productive university life.
  • Exercise when you can. If you are used to going to a gym or sports club, self-isolation might sap your body of the anxiety-reducing effects of exercise. Whether it’s yoga (as Rain and Amandine find useful), running (as Hélène prefers) or any other form of exercise, try to carry out some physical activity. Doing this before or after studying can help you to maintain some pattern in your day.
  • Treat yourself. Use the time you would otherwise be spending socialising, commuting or working to do something you enjoy. Amandine and Hélène suggest treating yourself to tasty food.
  • Get organised. A common theme among our students is the importance of balance: make realistic day-to-day goals, while avoiding putting too much pressure on yourself to be extra-productive. Hélène also makes the useful point: ‘The hardest part for me is not knowing when it will end and being unsure where I will be in the next few weeks or months.’ She doesn’t plan too far ahead, therefore.
  • Stay in touch with friends. Taking time to call friends can prevent feelings of loneliness and being cut off. As Rain suggests, you could help each other out with your studies but you should also schedule in some enjoyable activities: ‘Since many of us are stressed about finding new dissertation topics, we have been trying to brainstorm together and help develop each other's ideas. We have also been watching movies together to give self-isolation some sense of normalcy.’ Perhaps you could take a tip from the online pub, the Corona Arms, and organise your own virtual pub quiz?
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