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8 Ways to Stay Focused in Virtual College Courses

A student sitting at a desk and looking at a laptop.
Jack Frog/Shutterstock

The coronavirus has forced many schools to shift to online classes. One week, you might have been attending class in person, while the next you might have been scrambling to figure out virtual school. This would make it tough to focus at the best of times, let alone now.

If you’re struggling to adjust to these changes, that’s totally normal. Under the circumstances, you’re not going to be able to focus as you normally would. But we’ve got some tips to help you navigate your virtual classes and finish the semester as strong as possible.

Clear Off Your Desk

Normally, your school and study time might be split between the classroom, library, coffee shop, friends’ dorms, and your own desk. Now, however, your desk is suddenly playing a much larger role.

Making your desk space clean, comfortable, and pretty will make it much easier to stay there for long periods and finish a lecture or paper. Use some free time to get rid of the clutter on your desk, and replace it with a few trinkets or photographs that make you feel good.

Create Alternative Study Spaces

If you still can’t quite focus at your desk, don’t stress. Even in the best-case scenario, it’s normal for your brain to want some variety. Instead of trying to do it all from your desk, see if you can convert some other areas into alternative study spaces.

These can be creative or unusual. Your couch can be a study space, as can the barstool at the kitchen counter, or a yoga mat on the floor.

The goal is to have at least one other comfortable, clean, clutter-free space in addition to your desk, where you can sit and focus on schoolwork. Whenever you find yourself losing focus at your desk, switch to your alternate study space, and see if it’s easier.

Find a “Stress Toy”

Some research suggests that those weird, squishy stress balls really do help you stay focused. For example, one study found that sixth-graders paid better attention in class when they used stress balls. However, the stress ball itself isn’t a magic cure; rather, it’s the act of fidgeting that can help boost attention.

You probably have something lying around your house that can serve as a stress toy. Any item you can fidget with while sitting through a digital lecture or reading a boring PDF will do the trick. Try dice, a board game piece, or an old makeup brush. Even something as simple as a paper clip can work.

Fidgeting with an inanimate object might not help everyone focus, but as the research supporting it is promising, it’s worth a try.

Schedule a Routine

Now, more than ever, a schoolwork routine can be helpful. You’re probably still adhering to a class schedule, even though workshops and lectures are online. Use your class schedule as a foundation, and build your study schedule around it.

For example, if one of your classes usually ends with a short essay assignment, block out the hour after that class to start outlining yours.

Even though you might have more free time than usual right now, your time isn’t infinite. Scheduling your homework and study hours will help you see how much free time you really have. It’ll also prevent you from forgetting assignments.

In times of crisis, maintaining a sense of control can also help you stay calm. You might not be able to control much right now, but your study schedule is one thing you definitely can.

Actually Silence Your Notifications

A woman sitting on her living room floor, typing on a laptop that's resting on a stack of books.
WAYHOME Studio/Shutterstock

There’s a reason turning off notifications is always recommended to boost productivity. But, let’s get real, how many of us ever actually do it?

Now, however, is a better time than ever to shut off your notifications during study time. Many messages you’re getting from family and friends right now might contain undertones of worry or fear. This is to be expected, given the circumstances, and it’s important to stay in touch.

However, the heightened emotions can also make each message more distracting. It might be best to wait and read them after you’ve done your schoolwork.

The most important thing is to disable notifications on your laptop, as they would be the most distracting during a virtual class. Consider shutting off your phone notifications while you’re at it, or at least leave it somewhere out of sight, like in another room, in a drawer, or under your pillow.

Even just setting your phone facedown on your desk might help you ignore it for a few hours. You can also try changing the screen to grayscale. This doesn’t eliminate notifications, but it will make them less enticing.

Take Breaks from the News

It’s good to keep up with the latest coronavirus updates. However, if you’re not careful, you might find yourself in a toxic spiral of constantly checking the news, or leaving news programs on in the background while you study.

Staying informed about the pandemic is a good thing, but constantly thinking about it will make it impossible to focus on school. If you find yourself obsessing over the news, make sure you take healthy breaks and limit your consumption. For example, you might commit to only checking your news app twice a day to get essential updates.

Reward Your Milestones

The cancellation of graduations, thesis readings, and end-of-semester parties can leave you feeling defeated. After all your hard work this school year, it’s unfair that you can’t celebrate like normal.

However, the lack of ordinary events doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate at all. You can still invent ways to reward yourself for finishing the school year strong, even though it was online.

Spend a little time planning a home celebration that will feel special. For example, you could pick up takeout and cheap champagne, and celebrate graduation with your roommate over some dinner. Put on your cap and gown, take some celebratory selfies, and then post your faves on Instagram. Plan a home spa day with candles and face masks to relax after all your hard work.

Of course, it won’t be the same as the actual events and parties you had planned. But you shouldn’t give up celebrating your success just because you’re stuck at home. Start planning these celebrations now. Having something to look forward to will also help you stay focused.

Connect with Your Professors

You’re distracted, stressed, and overwhelmed. It might surprise you to learn that some of your professors feel the same way.

The transition to virtual school was fast and unexpected for them, too. They might be teaching online for the first time and struggling with the transition. Chances are your professors understand just how you’re feeling.

Make this an opportunity to connect with them. Express any concerns you have about virtual classes and your ability to focus. They’d rather hear that you’re struggling now, rather than later after you’ve already fallen behind.

Some of your professors might be able to point you toward school resources that can help. Others might even be willing to change the class structure to make it more manageable. Since this shift to online school happened so fast, many professors are still figuring out the best way to approach it, and student feedback can be helpful.

Try to be patient and understanding as you communicate with your professors. They’re dealing with many of the same stressors and fears that you are. They might be a little forgetful or slow to reply, but don’t hesitate to reach out and tell them how virtual classes are going for you.


Things are tough all over right now, but especially for college students. You might not be able to maintain your focus on schoolwork right now, and that’s understandable. However, your goals are just as important as they were before the coronavirus.

These tips can make it a bit easier to stay calm and focused on your online classes for the rest of this challenging school year.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »

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