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My world is turned upside down: Nursing students transitioning from traditional face-to-face learning to online learning

By: Susan M. Rugari, PhD, APRN, CNS

The beginning of the 2020 spring semester may have started like any other semester. Nursing students were acclimating to new courses and new faculty. But upon return from spring break, the world at large changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, students’ individual worlds turned upside down.

Many of you are accustomed to attending face-to-face classes and clinical to receive information in preparation to become a nurse. Abruptly, the delivery method of nursing courses has changed seemingly overnight to a completely different format of learning—online. Gone is the expected interaction between students, their peers, and the instructor in the in-person classroom setting. All of this unexpected change may leave you trying to grasp what is happening and attempting to cope with a new way of learning.

By understanding the differences between face-to-face and completely online learning and applying a few strategies for making online learning work, you can ensure you continue to have a valuable learning experience.

Understand timing. Thinking about and conceptualizing an online course is different. Often, online courses are organized in the format of weeks or modules. You’re likely accustomed to thinking, “What do I have to do before class next week?” What’s different, however, is that the online class flows from Monday as the beginning of the week to Sunday as the last day of the week. Instead of thinking of preparing for class on a specific day of the week, you need to organize what needs to be accomplished on a weekly basis.

 Structure your time. In an online course, the structure of completing the assignments and working through the activities for the week is up to the student to schedule. If you’re skilled at scheduling your time and sticking to it, then this may be right up your alley. For those who have trouble scheduling their time and sticking to it, then this may be a challenge for you and most likely frustrating.

When you go to a face-to-face class each week, the structure of going to the class, and sitting and listening to the material for a specified amount of time is set up. When online, it’s up to the student to go and “get” the material, so to speak, versus it being “given” in class.

A way to structure your time is to have a plan. Think about what is on your plate for the week ahead. Create a schedule for working on school-related activities and identify a specific time during the day to work. The key is to schedule the time, stick to it, and set boundaries with anyone who tries to distract you from your schedule. Also important in your plan is creating a workspace that is pleasing and non-distracting to you.

Get organized. In the classroom, the instructor is able to provide updates about the course and few announcements online are necessary. Since the switch to online course delivery occurred in the middle of running a face-to-face course, more announcements are necessary than if the course started out online. So much detailed course information coming at you at once may feel overwhelming. Common thoughts are, “How do I sift through all this information” and “If I’m not a detail person, how will I make sure I am doing what I am supposed to be doing?”

Take it one step at a time and work to keep your anxiety minimized so that you are able to “see” what you need to. Getting organized can help reduce anxiety. If you already have a process for organizing, go for it! If you don’t have a process, then this is a good time to work on that skill. Work on organizing one course at a time. Consider making a planner for the weekly expectations for each course: Identify what activities to complete and what assignments are due.

If your mind is sending you messages about hurrying up because there is so much to do, acknowledge the thoughts, take a few deep breaths, and reaffirm your goal of taking time to get organized. Sifting through all the announcements and emails related to the course is important. This is your lifeline now to the course. It’s how the instructor communicates with you. 

Know your learning style. Are you frustrated because you learn by hearing and seeing? Maybe you learn from hands-on activities. Or perhaps you learn from reading and writing about the subject; if so, you are in luck because online is a lot of reading and writing. But don’t despair if you’re an auditory or visual learner. You can’t control the method that the instructor uses to deliver the course information, but you can control what you do. For example, if you’re an auditory learner, call a peer to discuss some of the content from the week. If you’re a visual learner, draw a picture of the content that you are learning. If hands-on learning is your preferred style, engage in a role-play scenario with a peer of what the patient says and what the nurse does. This is an opportunity to be creative in a way that makes the information come to life for you.

Reach out to peers. Students often create their own social support network to connect with their peers outside of class. Sometimes the social network is a forum to complain about a class and/or instructor. Now is not the time to use your energy on complaining. It is a tough time for everyone. There is already enough stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and change occurring that keeps people on edge. Rather, focus on supporting each other. For example, say to your peer who is struggling to organize that you hear them and ask if you may help with some ideas.

In addition, consulting with your peers is a great way to keep up with what is due each week in each class and make sure that you did not miss something. Social support (what you give to each other) is necessary for any endeavor in life. Having peers who have your back brings confidence and the belief that I can do this!

Take care of yourself. Begin by simply noticing what you are feeling. Whatever you are feeling is OK and does not need judgment, just acknowledgement. If you’re feeling anxious, try some deep breaths by counting to four in your mind as you inhale and count to four as you exhale. This helps to center yourself, connect to yourself, and be present in the moment.

This change in course delivery is stressful and is compounded by the stress related to COVID-19—all the news updates, restrictions, increase in cases, and deaths. The nature of the situation keeps an energy of tension, apprehension, and anxiety in the air. One strategy for self-care is to limit your intake of news and updates. Another idea is to take breaks when working on your course work. If you feel yourself getting anxious or restless, take a break. Suggestions to give your mind and body a break are to play with an animal, go outside and listen to the sounds of nature, or make a bite to eat and focus on tasting each bite in your mouth. A break is necessary to re-group; this is a great self-care activity.

Adjusting to a new rhythm

All aspects of life have changed unexpectedly and quickly, including shifting from face-to-face course delivery to an online delivery method. A few strategies can help you adjust. Nursing students like you are in the process of creating a new rhythm to their lives. Remember: Your body is counting on you, so be good to yourself!

Susan M. Rugari is a professor in the school of nursing at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas.

The views and opinions expressed by Perspectives contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.

5 Comments. Leave new

  • Well composed article. Thanks for sharing the lifelines to the course these are very informative and helpful at the same time.

  • Carmen Stephens
    April 10, 2020 1:01 pm

    Thank you! This is very helpful!

  • Walidah Crawford
    April 8, 2020 4:57 pm

    Nicely written and applicable to many, not only nursing students. As a mother of middle and high school boys who need structure with online learning this is very helpful.

  • Gorgeous Harper
    April 7, 2020 10:51 am

    Great article! My world has definitely been turned upside down as a student nurse, trying to take it one day at a time.

  • Wendy Williams
    April 6, 2020 9:58 am

    Well written. This applies not only to nursing disciplines but to on line learning for all topics. God bless out current and future nurses.


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