Back to School? One Profe’s Top 10 List of Tips for Fall 2020

By Melissa Mora Hidalgo, Ph. D.

How many of you are currently in some kind of pandemic-related “remote learning” or online coursework situation at your college or university?

If so, you are not alone. You have the company of millions of peers around the country who’ve had to log into a laptop and click their way into virtual classes to begin the fall 2020 term.

Last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted over 4,000 institutions of higher education and nearly 26 million students in the US when schools all over the country shifted from in-person to online classes. According to Inside Higher Ed, “COVID-19 will continue to force colleges and universities to educate some if not all of their students virtually in the fall and beyond.”

These are some hard changes to get used to, especially so because many students and professors didn’t “sign up” for online classes last spring or this fall, let alone for an entire academic year. Starting a new term in the middle of a pandemic presents particular kinds of challenges for college and university students at all stages of their educational trajectory, from incoming first-year to graduating senior.

Here are ten tips that I hope will help you thrive in your studies despite the current pandemic situation and uncertainty it can breed.

1) Prepare for the long haul

The California State University system, where I teach, was the first to announce that all 23 campuses will continue with online instruction through spring 2021. Other institutions of higher education, especially those located in areas with high rates of COVID-19, are expected to follow suit.

Just in case, prepare for the long haul—especially if you’re in a high-risk area or your campus has no plans to return for the remainder of the year. Adjust any expectations for what this school year “should” be or feel like, and prepare for the fact that your campus might have to stay online for the rest of the year. If so, then…

2) Practice sustainable online study habits

To be “sustainable” means to maintain a practice at a certain level but in a balanced, healthy way. We often hear the term in relation to the environment or economics, but we can also apply it to online education during an emergency. Sustainable study habits help us to maintain the stamina and energy necessary to function effectively over the long haul, and way after this online moment is over and we’re back to classroom interaction.

Contrary to popular belief, one of the best ways to cultivate sustainable study habits is not to “multitask,” but to focus on one task at a time—“bird by bird,” as the great writer Anne Lamott famously wrote.

What does “bird by bird” look like for you? Maybe it means spending a set amount of time working on one assignment, taking a break, then moving on to another assignment, or taking one day for one class, the next day for another, and so on. One of my favorite “bird-by-bird” strategies is the Pomodoro method. The tomato timer helps me focus on one task at a time while keeping track of my progress on any given project.

3) Take mental-health breaks

Another key to maintaining sustainable habits is to take regular mental-health breaks. Take a walk, listen to your favorite music or podcast, go for a car ride, water a houseplant—all of this and more counts as taking a mental-health break. Studies show that taking screen breaks to rest your eyes and stretch your body eases stress and helps retain your attention. Breaks also promote good sustainable study habits by getting us to step outside of ourselves and our online virtuality. I recommend UCLA’s Mindful app, free for Apple and Android users, for calming meditation exercises.

4) Read a book and rest your eyes

Whether hardback or paperback, nothing beats holding a good book in your hands and turning the pages as you devour a story. Plus, reading a book is a great way to take a break from the screen and rest your eyes from the glare. Among the other benefits of reading a book, according to science, include better sleep, higher academic achievement, and better information retention.

5) Use your student health and other campus services

Your tuition dollars go towards all kinds of things: campus maintenance, paying administrators and faculty, building construction, and many campus services. Even if you can’t be on campus, get to know your campus student services office. Many colleges and universities have maintained essential student services either on campus or online. Take advantage of health care, mental-health services, legal help, family services, financial aid, resources for veterans, job placement, and alumni connections through your campus.  Use the library to access novels, newspapers, music, and other “for fun” materials. You’re paying tuition, so seek out and use the resources you’re already paying for!

6) COVID-19 care

To get through this semester and the rest of the academic year, we have to take care of ourselves and each other and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Check out these pages from the University of Michigan, the Centers for Disease Control, and U.S. News and World Report for the latest COVID-19 prevention strategies geared for US college students.

7) Register to vote, then vote!

The general election will be held on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Voters will cast their ballots for the US president, along with a number of state and local measures. Register to vote! The deadline to register to vote varies by state, so find a site like Vote411 for the latest on how and when to register to vote. If you’re wondering why your vote matters as a student, check out the Campus Vote Project.

8) Respond to the 2020 Census and get counted!

Every 10 years, the US government counts every resident in the country and in five of its territories—Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Northern Mariana Islands. According to its stated purpose, “The census provides critical data that lawmakers, business owners, teachers, and many others use to provide daily services, products, and support for you and your community.” This means the census determines how much federal funding each city, county, and state receives for things like roads, schools, hospitals, fire departments, and even representatives to the US Congress.

The motto of this year’s census is “Shape Your State’s Future.” You can help secure funding for your state for the next ten years by responding to the 2020 US Census. Visit to the 2020 Census page for more information. But hurry! You have until September 30, 2020, to be counted.

9) Keep in touch with friends and loved ones by writing letters

These days, we have no shortage of electronic tools designed to keep us connected. We can text, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, post on social media, or call those we love and care about. But have you considered writing a letter to your loved one or a long-lost friend? “You have to really think about what you’re going to write instead of just shooting a text with a few words in it,” says a 17-year-old Irish student in a BBC article about letter-writing in the pandemic.  In our haze of apps and screens, we can forget that sometimes, the best way to stay in touch in our high-tech world is through low-tech means: paper, pen, envelope, stamp, post office. Letter-writing is an artform and a great way to take a screen break.

10) Connect with your community

As college students, you may identify with or belong to several communities on and off campus. If not, find your people! Join a club, look for study buddies, get a hiking group together, or connect with a campus community group for social justice causes. For students taking classes online for the foreseeable future, finding and building communities are important factors of retention and success. And if you don’t know where to begin, remember that “community is all around you” if you know where to look. Start with your campus community!



Dr. Melissa Mora Hidalgo has a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego. She studied English at UC Berkeley and earned an M.A. in English at the University of Chicago. Dr. Hidalgo has over twenty years of teaching experience at the high school, community college, and university levels. She currently teaches ethnic studies, cultural studies, and gender studies classes in the California State University system.