September 2, 2021

Zooming In, but Zoning Out? Top Ten Tips to Maintain Focus in a Virtual Class Environment


Written by: Scot Goins, Assistant Dean of Academic Achievement and Bar Success

The most frequent concerns I hear from students around any shift to a virtual environment are in regards to staying focused, paying attention, and making sure they continue to learn and expand their knowledge. Many students express frustration around the difficulties of concentrating in a remote classroom and are concerned that their performances may suffer. The good news is that although this learning environment can create new challenges, it is one that you can survive and even thrive in. These tips work great in any virtual learning environment, whether in law school or preparing for the bar exam.

Here are my top ten tips for maintaining focus, attention, and learning in the virtual world:

1. Designate a space.

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about myself over the past year is my tendency to perform better when I set aside an area that is just for working. I think of it much like going to the gym. Once you walk in the door, you are likely to flip a mental switch and your expectations shift as to what to expect in that environment. When you hear the sounds of weights clanking, treadmills grinding, or someone like me complaining that I cannot get the double knot out of my shoes, you know where you are and what you are there to accomplish.

Virtual learning is the same way. If you attempt to work from a space where you often engage in other activities, whether it’s sleeping, watching tv, or reading a book, it can be hard not to let your mind wander. Set aside a space where you live to engage actively with your learning environment, and try not to do other things there.

That said, I remain very aware of the constrictions of working from home for many, and you may not have a space that is readily available to be set aside. In that case, I recommend that when the time comes for a class that you change the space around, effectively creating a work environment. This could be something as simple as setting out some highlighters and some books, moving a vase, or clearing off the table, but the key is that you have a transition moment for the space and your learning. When you know you are entering your proverbial mental gym, your expectations, mindset, and mood will adjust accordingly.

2. Turn on your camera.

Trust me, I know. The thought of making sure you are camera-ready can be concerning, but being on camera is important. For starters, it involves you directly in the class, as opposed to observing from afar. The awareness that others can see if you are paying attention operates similarly in class, and your tendency to avoid staring at the ceiling and singing show tunes will decrease dramatically when you know someone might see.

All kidding aside, being on camera also helps your professor to engage with you. One of the biggest things I struggle with within the virtual environment when engaging with students is being able to see expressions. Oftentimes, I assume that I am making my point, only to see looks of confusion in my audience, and that helps me realize that I need to try a different approach, speak more clearly, or revisit the differences between my base knowledge and what I think I am communicating, versus what my audience is receiving. Help yourself stay engaged, and help your professor to engage with you, and stay on camera.

3. Turn off your phone.

This is a big one. Turn off your phone (or at least silence it), turn off your notifications, and flip it upside down until class is over. Phones are a big distraction generally, and they tend to lead to rapid shifts in attention while simultaneously allowing opportunities to zone out. Buzzfeed has some top ten lists that are more humorous than this, but it won’t help you learn what you need to know for class. Give your phone a break.

Also, the urge to text, WhatsApp, etc., is another phone no-no that can prevent you from focusing in class. As soon as you send that first message or receive that first message, your attention is partially devoted to awaiting the next message, which makes it hard to stay in the present moment.

4. Do not browse the internet.

This is another danger zone (cue Top Gun music).

I avoided the urge to Google what year the movie Top Gun came out right then, but that only goes directly to my point. The internet is a lovely place full of a variety of sources of news, information, entertainment, and so much more, but it is also an easy place to mentally meander for hours exploring the history of the movie Top Gun instead of paying attention in class. Resist the urge to go on an endless search for the world’s best strawberry cheesecake recipe (but if you have one, feel free to let me know) and stay in the moment.

I am not oblivious to the fact that sometimes in class something may be said that encourages you to explore information or to search a definition, but I encourage you to wait and stay focused on your class. Instead of diverting your attention during class, do what I recommend in number 5.

5. Make a list and take notes.

In the modern world, we want what we want, and we want it now. Just ask anyone who has ever delivered Thai food to me at 2:00 a.m. However, pursuing knowledge by searching the internet or frantically flipping through a book can be a huge distraction from what your professor is saying/showing on your screen, so save that for later. Making a list and taking notes can also help you stay on track with your learning, ensuring that you complete assignments (it feels great to check off an accomplishment), and helps you stay accountable to yourself.

Not only does creating a list give you something to do later to ensure you are maximizing your learning, it prevents you from missing out on anything said in the present, and it also keeps you actively engaged after class is over. There will be plenty of time after your class hours to search out terms and explore cases (and you may even find time to track down that strawberry cheesecake recipe), so maximize your engagement in class.

6. Immediately review after class.

This should be on your list whether you are in-person or virtual, but it is something that students sometimes forget when online. When we are at home or in our own space, it is very easy to immediately click ‘end meeting’ and turn to a streaming service such as Disney+, but ‘What If?’ you didn’t? (That reference to a Disney+ Marvel show was 100% intentional).

Instead of immediately shifting your attention to the next thing on your to-do list, review what you just covered in class, your list, and your notes. You may find gaps in your note-taking, areas that you need to explore or uncover questions for your professor that you can make note of before you forget. Think of it like utilizing someone’s name in a conversation after you meet them – you are much more likely to remember a name if you use it when addressing the person, so make sure to actively engage with your material before you have time to forget (and if you are reading this, I’m sorry Taylor – I’ll remember next time!).

7. Join an accountability group.

Just as you want to maintain focus and review after class as an individual, you also want to have accountability with others to assist you in staying on track (and to assist them as well!). Knowing that you will be meeting with others to discuss cases, black letter laws, bright-line rules, and lecture notes help ensure that you stay on track. Discussing things with others is not only beneficial for your learning, but will help you fill in gaps, find new ways of thinking about things, and ensure that you are focusing on the right things.

When it is just you being accountable to you, it is easier to slip up, but when you know others will be counting on you and that you have a role to play in a bigger group it will help you perform better. This is beneficial if you schedule your group meeting on the same day that you have class, and has the bonus of serving as an additional review that will help you retain information in the long term.

8. Noise-canceling headphones.

Distractions are dangerous, and no matter how laser-focused your eyes are, if your ears are tuning into something else, you can rest assured that you are tuning out. I often think of my dog when she thinks someone might be dropping off a pizza at the door, no matter where her eyes are, her ear is up and her head is tilted. It’s hard to maintain focus on one person speaking when you are concerned about pizza delivery, and this carries over to class as well.

If noises, others talking, or your neighbor’s unrelenting bass (my issue) are a problem, then invest in some noise-canceling headphones. This will help you keep your focus on class, and not on plotting your next angry knock on your neighbor’s door. Listening with focus, combined with active note-taking and list-making, will help you learn and retain information better.

9. Snacks.

Eat. It should go without saying, but I often fall victim to the angry grumbling distraction that is my hungry stomach. Sometimes, because we are not following a live, in-person schedule, we do not plan the simple things like remembering to eat meals on a schedule. When you are at home, it is much easier to forget to pay attention to the clock, and you can find yourself struggling to stay focused in class when you know that extra-large pepperoni pizza is in the kitchen waiting for you.

It is always good to have a handy, non-distracting snack and beverage nearby, just in case. What do I mean by non-distracting? I mean that it shouldn’t be difficult for you to open, runs the risk of spilling all over your shirt, or requires 40 paper towels to maintain clean hands during class. Having something to snack on and something to drink can keep you mentally alert and focused during class, especially when you forget to eat the meal prior.

10. Exercise.

Let me be clear here. I am not suggesting that you attend class from a treadmill or while spinning away on an exercise bike. Instead, what I am recommending is that you remember to step away from your desk. One of the biggest pitfalls of remote learning or working is that you can inadvertently spend too much time in your workspace. You need to remember to take a break from the screen!

There are also a ton of benefits to exercise, from increasing feel-good neurotransmitters to cardiovascular health, and it also is a great way to relieve stress. If you are someone who has concerns about the virtual learning environment, finding good ways to release stress and relieve anxiety is important, and one of the best ways to do so is to exercise. Even if you just take a walk outside for 15 minutes or walk up a few flights of stairs, you will find plenty of benefits from exercise.

Hopefully, you found these ‘Top Ten Tips to Maintain Focus in a Virtual Class Environment’ to be helpful, and I encourage you to explore and develop additional tips to ensure that you make the best of the virtual experience. It is a different environment, but one that you absolutely can thrive in and where you can achieve a high level of learning and success.