5 Tips: Coping with learning in COVID Times

I’m writing this from what I dubbed my “basement bunker” back on March 23 when we started our remote teaching and learning. At the time, it was a way of injecting some humor into a stressful, face-paced pivot to working from home and supporting teaching and learning online. Six months later, I’m still here, but conscious that a few quips won’t get us through the potential tedium and distractions of working and learning from home.

Picture is of a narrow basement window, looking out at a thin strip of "outdoors" beyond a metal window well. This is to illustrate the author's limited view of the outdoors from her desk.
The lone window in my basement bunker…

As we all settle in for a semester unlike any other (are you tired of “unprecedented times” yet?), the Education Team offers these 5 additional learning strategies to help during COVID-Times:

1. Carve out spaces: Staying home for most of the semester’s classes (except for your short “Red Zones” with small-cohorted face-to-face instruction) could make it difficult to focus and concentrate. One strategy to break up the day is to carve out more than one “school” space where you’re living: one for “class” and one for “homework”. Simply moving to the other side of the room can signal your brain that you’re switching activities. If you have a roommate and limited spaces (say, one desk and the kitchen table), maybe trade off your class and study spaces.

2. Get up and move: There’s a reason FitBit buzzes every hour when you wear one, and it’s not just marketing. Too much sitting is bad for everybody. At least once an hour, turn off your camera and walk around a bit, do some standing yoga stretches, or a few jumping jacks – you can still listen! Pro-tip: make sure this isn’t when you might need to turn on your mic. I was on the far side of my (admittedly small) basement bunker on a walking break during a meeting, when the chair said: “Theresa, what do you think?”

3. Pack your lunch: This one may seem silly, but I’m serious. You don’t have to go to the extreme of putting everything in a lunch bag, but think about prepping your lunch either the evening before, or while you’re making breakfast – just like you would if you had to take it to campus. Chances are, you’ll eat healthier that way. After a morning of zooming, and facing an afternoon of more, if you have nothing prepped, you may be tempted to gobble that leftover pizza, or half-finished bag of chips instead of the great lunch you (would have) packed.

Picture shows a streetscape with trees, grass, and sidewalk. Purpose is to illustrate that getting outside is a good idea.
Walking around my neighbourhood at lunchtime helps shake off the feel of the basement bunker.

4. Get outside: Whether it’s after class or during, make sure you get outside at least once a day. While the weather is still nice, if you have access to an outdoor space and your Wi-Fi extends that far, consider setting up outdoors for your afternoon classes. (I saw a few of our students on a couple of Zoom classes last week doing this). Keep social-distancing rules in mind, but get some fresh air to wake up your brain.

5. Do something social: Don’t get bogged down in “just” doing schoolwork – schedule something social. It’s good to connect with people outside your program. Again, keep social-distancing rules in mind, but book time for something fun. Schedule a Zoom story time with nieces and nephews, set up a walking phone visit with a pal, or sign up for a non-academic class or activity. Lots of organizations are getting creative about programming. My sister (a high school teacher in Toronto) and I signed up for the Kingston-based Cantabile Choirs “Virtual Voices” season of weekly online voice lessons.  Not only do we each now have a scheduled “fun” activity, we’re doing it together while apart. Think outside the box for planned not-school-work! (If you like singing, there’s still time to check out Virtual Voices, which begins Wednesday evening: https://cantabilechoirs.ca/virtual-voices/)


Do you have a learning from home tip? Share your advice in the comments!


~ With thanks to my teammates Rachel Bauder and Eleni Katsoulas for their contributions to this post.

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Five non-pedagogical things to do to get ready to teach using Zoom

The UGME Education Team has prepared “how to” documents that outline the technical aspects (with such things as downloading the Zoom app, and things like checking that your microphone works). And we’ve previous written with tips about how to engage students in a virtual classroom which might seem rather unfriendly. This post is about other practical things – things we don’t need to think about, or just do automatically – when going to teach in a physical classroom with students there face-to-face.

Here’s our top-five non-pedagogical things to keep in mind before teaching live on Zoom:

1. Look behind you! Give a bit of thought to what’s behind you when your camera is on. Most things are fine, but consider if there’s a lamp that’s coming out of your head like an antennae or something equally distracting. Think about any privacy concerns, if you’re teaching from your home. My work-from-home space is in my basement all-purpose room. If I’m situated in one direction, you’ll see my husband’s degrees on the wall; another you’ll see a collection of elephant figurines (yes, there’s a story to that), and a third shows my Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and LM Montgomery books from my childhood. Most stuff is innocuous, but think about if you want to share those things with everyone.

Zoom virtual backgrounds are, of course, an option for an instant non-personal look. Keep in mind, however, that the green-screen technology isn’t perfect. If you move around or (like me) talk with your hands, you may have visual blips of hands or your head momentarily disappearing.

2. Turn off all things that beep, buzz, or whirr Just like in a movie theatre (remember those?!), it’s helpful if you can turn off sounds that are within your control – like your cellphone or email notifications. Also, any environmental noises you can control. My home workspace is adjacent to the laundry room. At the exact moment I was typing this sentence, the dryer buzzer went off (loudly!). It’s also helpful to remind housemates that you’ll be teaching so they can make good noise-related choices.

3. Refreshments, anyone? If you’re settling in for a two-hour session, that could be a lot of talking. It’s good to have a glass of water handy, or throat lozenges nearby. Or, if you’re teaching an 8:30 class: COFFEE. Also, tissues or paper towels perhaps – you likely don’t want to dig into a pocket while sitting down for a sneeze or spill of aforementioned coffee.

4. Office supplies, what office supplies? If you typically take notes of questions students have or keep track of which groups you’ve already called on, make sure you have pen and paper on your desk. Also, do you have any small props you want to show? Figure out where in your teaching space you can put these to keep them nearby, but out of the way of things like your refreshments (above) to avoid needing the tissues or paper towels.

5. Time, please. It’s easy to get caught up in teaching material and lose track of the time. Keep your eye on the clock on your computer, or set a timer (this sound we’ll allow) so you finish on time. There will likely be another instructor waiting to begin their session right after yours and you won’t have the usual visual cue of your colleague appearing at the back of 032 or 132.


Keep in mind, this is real life, real time teaching, not a Hollywood film. Things will happen and it will be fine – paging, for example, is unavoidable if you’re teaching in your hospital office. Also, you won’t be the first of our instructors (or students) who’ve had a child or pet wander into camera range. (I routinely warn of random “teen boy” appearances when I’m on Zoom calls. He wandered in while I was drafting this, too).

Are there things you would add to this list? Use the comments box below to share your tips.


For a different (more humorous, maybe more accurate?) take on preparing your environment for online teaching, check out this video by Dr. Andrew Ishak at Santa Clara University. https://vimeo.com/447645552?fbclid=IwAR3lKAaNY0zCPgVJWdPUjog-AD0g7FjsSNBtUL5HAEdcFlUgWaUHi–7JqU

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Five tips for working and learning from home

We’re now into Week 3 of delivering our UGME curriculum (as much of it as possible, at least) via online teaching and learning as part of Queen’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic response mandates. As well, most staff are also working from home. You may still be trying to find your groove in this new configuration of teaching, learning and working without direct in-person contact with colleagues. With this in mind, I’ve begun making notes on tips for working and learning from home. Here are my initial five:

1. Negotiate your space carefully.

A view of my basement bunker office…

This is especially important if you have housemates. In some households, working-from-home space may be at a premium. In my home, there are four of us working and learning from home – my husband, my Grade 10 son, my graduate student daughter who has de-camped from McMaster, and I are competing for space in our townhouse. I’m in what I call the “basement bunker” – it’s a corner of the basement, near the foot of the stairs. It’s windowless but has everything I need: my desk, electrical outlets, and my three computers I’m using to check-in on multiple learning events. My daughter is at the opposite end of the basement, near a teeny-tiny window.

My husband got the kitchen table—he has a window and is closer to the tea kettle—but I don’t have to pack everything away for lunch and supper. My son is migrating from place to place.

2. Make friends with Zoom.

While there are multiple on-line options for course delivery and meetings, for UGME we’ve been using Zoom predominantly for courses and meetings. Like any other online platform, it has its quirks and protocols. It helps to become familiar with the key commands, like “raise hand”, share screen, chat, and how to “unmute” yourself. Remembering to use these things in a timely way is another story.

At least once per meeting, as this screen shot illustrates, I forget to “unmute” myself.

What we’ve all discovered over the last two weeks is that online is more exhausting than face-to-face. My Education team colleagues and I coined a new term – “zammed” as in “I’m zammed” meaning fatigued from back-to-back-to-back zoom session as in: “I’m zammed” in place of “I’ve done six hours of zoom today and I am SOOOO done.”) And, yes, we’ve all voiced the Brady Bunch and Hollywood Squares comparisons.

3. Look away!

In regular office work (and classrooms, too), we naturally change from focusing on “up close” versus mid and far. With so much of our work and learning lives moved online, we’ve upset this balance. To help combat screen fatigue, use the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look (out the window, across the room) and focus on something about 20 feet away. (To avoid looking disinterested in a Zoom meeting, turn off video before attempting the 20-20-20 exercise (see #2, above). (For more on the 20-20-20 rule, click here: https://www.healthline.com/health/eye-health/20-20-20-rule#definition)

4. Be flexible and patient with each other and with yourself.

We’re all on a pretty steep learning curve and lots of people are juggling extra responsibilities in an environment that isn’t as conducive to learning and working as our on-campus spaces are. (Not to mention our faculty who continue with clinical responsibilities, some of the front-lines with the COVID-19 response). Meetings and classes may start a couple of minutes late; somebody will have lost a link or have an old one; sharing screens may not launch exactly how we want. And everyone has forgotten that mute/unmute button at least once so far (Again, see #2). As much as possible, take things in stride. If you’re caring for children or sharing tech, you may need to reschedule how/when you do certain tasks. Our recording and posting of all learning events (as quickly as possible) is one tool we have to help with any learners who need to “time shift”.

5. Remember working from home isn’t working 24/7.  

With the line blurred between home and school/work, it can be easy to lose track of any boundaries. Make time for something besides your work/studying. I don’t mean you have to be super-productive at something like some of the memes going around—just get away from your computer and thinking about work/school at intervals. (In the first week, some nights I dreamt about zoom meetings. I woke up feeling like I’d put in overtime). Turn off your brain. Whether that’s some fluff television (insert your poison of choice here… I hear there’s something on Netflix about a tiger?), an online Zumba class, knitting, meditation, or a vicious game of Bears-versus-babies with your housemates….

What are your best tips for our new home-based curriculum? Feel free to share in the comments below.

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Five ways to get moving on your summer reading plans

I worked at my campus’ library to help pay for my first university degree. The evening hours worked well with my coursework, the commute was great (walk across the quad!), and I was surrounded by books.

This last point was both a blessing and a curse: my “to be read” list grew and grew with each shift, whether I was shelving returns or stamping the university logo on newly-acquired tomes for the collection. Each book I came across was ripe with possibilities.

We all have a TBR “pile”: either physically in the form of stacks of books or journals, or virtually as a list (written or mental). Summer can be an ideal time to catch up on “required” reading or savour something from the “just for fun” section but sometimes getting started can stall you in the stacks. Try these five steps to get down to precious reading time.

1. Cull the pile. If it’s been a while since you organized your pile, don’t be afraid to remove titles. Your needs and interests may have changed in the intervening months. And something that seemed highly relevant back in January might not be as appealing now. Also, if you start a book and find it’s not living up to its promise, ditch it. Why waste your time? I give a book 40-50 pages to impress me; otherwise, I move on. (This works for non-fiction and fiction alike).

2. Set the time. We schedule times for meetings, but reading – even to keep up with our professions – often drops to the “squeeze it in somewhere” category. Consider scheduling 30 minutes a day of dedicated reading time. Can’t manage one half-hour slot? If it’s something you plan for, you could break it into two 15-minute chunks. Stow the book in your briefcase or make sure it’s downloaded to your eReader. Experiment to see what works.

Do you have a favourite way of managing your TBR pile? Is there an app or computer program or maybe a filing system that works for you? Please share!

3. Balance topics. Are you reading for professional development or diversion – or maybe both? Make time for each. Feeding your spirit can be just as valuable as the latest journal article in your field. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll set out to read something “for fun” and find that it actually has relevance to your current course work literature review…

4. Curate excerpts. Sure, there are some books that require a start-to-finish reading strategy, but sometimes reading a single chapter can give us the information or tools we’re looking for. Some books are even designed this way. Make use of Introductions and Tables of Contents to find what’s relevant to you and just read that.

5. Turn to tech. How can tools you already use help with your TBR list? I routinely use my iPhone to read journal articles in those “gap” times — when I’m early for an appointment, waiting to catch the bus home or to pick up my son from an activity.

Next on my reading schedule:

Peripheral visions: Learning along the way by Mary Catherine Bateson (1995)

Recommendations from my recent reading (aka, my attempt to add to your TBR pile):

Invisible women: Data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez (2019)

Spark by Patricia Leavy (a novel that explores the challenges of designing and conducting research). (2019)

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown (2012)

What’s on your summer reading schedule?

A version of this post original appeared here in July 2014

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Now what? Making the most of a conference, now that you’re home

Many of us from Queen’s UG – faculty, staff and students – are just returning to campus after a few days in Halifax, NS for the annual Canadian Conference on Medical Education (CCME).

CCME brings together those involved in all aspects of medical education from across Canada and beyond for workshops, meetings, plenaries, research orals and posters, and general sharing of innovations and challenges.

Like most jam-packed conferences, the information overload can be overwhelming. Here are five ways to make the most of your conference experience, once you’re back home:

  1. That Bag O’Stuff: If you didn’t do this prior to packing to come home, take two minutes to sort the “stuff” acquired at the exhibitors’ hall, at the poster presentations, and handouts from workshops. Are you really interested in that program/service/product/innovation or did you add it to your bag from habit? I sort my conference bag while standing over the recycle bin and keep only things I’m going to follow-up on. Put what remains aside for tip #2.

  2. Get out your Post-Its! For everything that’s left from your paper purge, put a note on it RIGHT NOW. In two weeks you’ll forget exactly why you picked that up – especially if you thought it might be of interest for a colleague. Write yourself those notes!

    Hmmmm. Why did I take this picture? Do I need to save it? Sort your files right now!

  3. Sort 2: Electronic edition: Did you use your smart phone to take pictures of posters or of presenter’s slides that spoke to you? Move them to a labelled folder NOW and offload to your computer to ensure they don’t get lost amongst your upcoming summer shots. Label things a la electronic stickies (see #2)

  4. Follow-through: Did you collect emails from anyone you met along the way? Did you make tentative plans to get together, pursue a project, or generally stay in touch? Send off that quick networking email now, before those potentially productive contacts are lost in the busy of day-to-day responsibilities.

  5. Plan ahead: Mark your calendar now for next year’s CCME in Niagara Falls April 16-19, 2019. (Abstracts open later this month!)

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