The Return to In-person learning: Is it really the answer you are looking for?

For the past month I have been working with incoming and returning commerce students who are concerned about the transition back to in-person learning. The questions range from what skills are they missing from the past year to what to wear to class and how to take notes when there isn’t a recording to refer back to (don’t worry there probably will be). These are genuine questions. The last 18 months have been hard and there is a deep fear of not being prepared for what comes next. 


It is not the fears that concern me. Every year students and parents alike are worried about not being prepared. My concern is the hope everyone seems to have. Almost every student or parent I talk to has assumed that in-person learning will resolve the issues Zoom University has been plagued with. 

Over the last year and half, students everywhere have felt lost and let down by their educational experiences. Issues like uncertainty about what they should be focusing their time on, feeling alone in navigating their education, not being engaged with class or feeling behind compared to classmates are all too common. 


The way most institutions transitioned to online learning left students looking for the easiest path to get the work done and secure the grade they needed instead of engaging with and learning the material. The majority of my intake meetings with upper year students revolve around the fact that they know they did not absorb much from the previous year. Students are the first to admit that the year was about survival not foundational success. 


Survival often looks like collaborating to complete assignments, focusing more energy on inside tips about exams than learning the material, seeking the easiest electives. I have worked with Commerce students for the last 10 years and none of this is new. I watch students expel five times the effort trying to get into a specific student club because they have access to an answer key for an assignment than it would have taken to ace that assignment on their own. 


There is no doubt that Covid-19 made a difficult and competitive program more challenging, but the truth is that these are not new issues. They have always been present. 


So, why do so many students fall into these pitfalls?


Some will say that there is too much emphasis on grades, some will say that there is simply too much work to be done and others will say that it is the competitive nature of the program. All of this is true, but then why do some of my students struggle when others flourish?

My students who do well know that they are going to have to work hard and practice engaging with professors and classmates. They understand that they won’t always know the answer or see the path forward but the key is to keep pressing on and to seek out help when they need it. Most importantly they are ready to grow as a person. They know that who they are today is not who they will be a year from now and they are ready to embrace those changes. 

The students I see struggling typically expect the Commerce program to be a continuation of their high school experience. There is an expectation that they will be told what to do and when to do it. They expect their professors to push them for contributions or that whatever classroom contributions they do make will be met with applause. When these things inevitably are not true it becomes crushing to the student. They feel defeated and that is typically when they reach out to me. As a private tutor, I spend the first few sessions with any new student working through the emotional turmoil of their disappointment before we can even begin to tackle the content they need to learn. 

 And this is my fear about the upcoming year. If we expect in-person learning to resolve the issues we have been facing, what happens when it doesn’t?

 Depression? Maybe. Paralyzed? Probably. Disappointment? Definitely.

 Students can either be left sitting there feeling like the system once again failed them, or they can be ready to make the most of the upcoming year. 

 This is where preparation meets mindset. 

 Preparation is knowing where there are serious gaps in your knowledge and working to fill them. It is doing the (important) readings before class and the (important) practice questions after class. Preparation is a checklist. A set of tasks that can be done to keep you on track. They are necessary, but they are only one half of the equation (or one quarter if we are being real). 



In-person classes are (for the most part) what you make of them. Much like logging into a Zoom class and not even turning on your camera, simply showing up isn’t enough. Engagement comes from within. Certainly some professors are better at facilitating discussions and sparking your curiosity than others, but even the best professor will be defeated by a screen of black squares or an auditorium of blank stares. 

 You will get out what you put in. You can take control of your education. 

 So yes, this means being prepared for class but not just doing the readings. It’s being prepared to engage in discussion, being ready to have your perspective challenged and being okay being wrong. 


The real question is how do you achieve these things?


1. Look at challenges as opportunities for growth. 

This can start with something simple. When someone gives you feedback do you immediately get defensive or do you think about what you could do differently next time? Shifting your mindset to “how can I use this information to be the best version of myself?”  will save you from unnecessarily limiting yourself. When someone challenges you in a classroom or group work setting will you grow from that experience or shut down?


2. Value the process over the result.

Like baking a pie for the experience of working with the dough and seeing how things come together rather than just eating the pie at the end. Because with your education the process really is the end result. We don’t want you to just make a single pie, we want you to know how to make a perfect pie every time because you know how to work that dough (okay, let’s be real this is commerce, we want you to know how to mass produce the pie for profit). The real skills you are taking away from this program are things like developing your critical thinking, strengthening your ability to manage conflicting priorities and cultivating your resilience. These are developed through group work, assignments and extra-curriculars.  It’s not just about understanding an income statement in Comm 111, it’s about learning that in a new environment with a dozen other things competing for your attention.  


3. Practice. 

Practice debating. Practice reading and understanding new materials. Practice articulating your thoughts. If engaging in class seems daunting, start with something smaller like emailing your professor a relevant article or going for a walk with a friend to talk about the class concepts. Recognizing that you are growing as a person and cultivating that will serve you long after you graduate. 


We want an incredible academic year, we want class to be engaging, we want to learn new things and we want to be respected by our professors and peers. It is okay if the last year felt like a miss and you were just trying to make it through. But simply expecting that returning to in-person learning will give you the classroom experience you want is not sufficient. Covid-19 may have exacerbated classroom issues, but these issues have always been there and they will continue to exist. While institutions absolutely have a responsibility for the academic experience they create, that is outside of your control.

 Students who excel this year are those who will take ownership of their experience. They will actively try to shift their mindset and prepare to be challenged academically and personally. 

 If you are an incoming or returning student, I encourage you to write down your expectations for the year, especially for your in-class experience. Are you setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or are you prepared to put the work in to make these expectations a reality? Only you can answer that question and only you can determine what kind of academic year you are about to have. 



Doulton Wiltshire is the go to expert for supporting Queen’s Commerce students. We provide the study structure and signature resources to unlock your academic achievement and set you up for long term success. CommAdvantage prepares students through weekly support programming and exam prep resources. We are the number one academic support resource for the Queen’s Commerce program.


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