Online Teaching Blog

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Making the Best of Your Lonely Experience as a Student

Making the Best of Your Lonely Experience as a Student

by Alex Lazo, PhD
April 25, 2017

Being a student can be a very lonely ordeal. We are used to being constantly connected to our family, friends, and co-workers, either physically or virtually. However, when we find ourselves staring at our monitor hoping that some brilliant thoughts will start popping in to our head so we can get past the first sentence of our term paper, we start to feel alone and disconnected from our usual support network. This is one of the most difficult challenges with being a student today, especially when taking online courses.


Traditionally, students formed cohort groups, which lessened their feelings of loneliness. This doesn’t happen much anymore because of physical separation, different time zones, and otherwise busy lives. In addition, the connection with their instructors is sporadic because most students tend to wait until just before an assignment is due before starting it, so they hesitate to reach out to their instructor for fear of being scolded for their procrastination.

Here are some tips for students in order to avoid feeling like they’re all alone:

  • Establish friendships with classmates early in the course. If you don’t have much contact afterwards, so be it. However, it may turn into a support network that you will call on over and over throughout the duration of your course. Try to find individuals who are similar to you in ways such as their professional background, their current situation (e.g., stay-at-home parent, military spouse, heavy travel schedule), their interest and knowledge in the subject matter of the course, and their time zone.
  • Start working on assignments early. The longer you wait to start, the more pressure you’ll be under. This added pressure can make you feel like you’re especially in need of human connections, even if it’s just to vent (“This is the first chance I’ve had to work on my paper, which is due by midnight tonight, because my boss had me staying late every day this week!”)
  • Add “reasonable distractors” to your study space. While we may think that being in a library-like environment with little or no noise around us will help us concentrate, the opposite might be true. For many of us, there is such a thing as “too much quiet” because it may lead our minds to wander to thoughts and ideas that have nothing to do with the assignment that is in front of us. Try adding some background music or some other audio to your environment that does not require you to be visually engaged (a football game is definitely not the way to go).
  • Change your perspective. Don’t think of it as loneliness, but rather as a peaceful escape from the cacophony that surrounds you. Your family and friends may be puzzled if you just tell them that you want some alone time, but adding the simple phrase “…so I can concentrate on my schoolwork” makes it very normal. In fact, they may go out of their way to make sure you have the quiet environment that is conducive to studying. You might be surprised how much you end up looking forward to your “lonely time.”
  • Keep your favorite snack or drink close by. Plan to leave some room in your system for food and drink so that you can enjoy it while you’re doing your schoolwork. It will be a sort of treat for you and help you to look forward to this time. Of course, don’t want to stuff yourself so that you remain comfortable, and don’t spike your drink so that your thoughts remain coherent.

We are all social creatures. As the poet John Donne put it, “No man is an island.” Studying can be a lonely ordeal. However, we have plenty of opportunity to interact with others throughout the course of our days. So, let’s value our solitary study time as an opportunity to make tangible progress on our schoolwork. Even some minor changes, like the ones discussed above, can make all the difference.