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Agony Aunt Week 2: Comparing yourself to peers and virtual learning burnout


I feel like I know absolutely nothing, and that everyone around me seems to know so much more and is managing much better. It might seem crazy, but even though the academic year is ending, I still feel like I have absolutely no clue what I should be doing. I go through the lectures, Anki, anatomy and everything else, but sometimes the information is sooo overwhelming that I just feel demotivated. Having the lectures online doesn’t help either. Logging into Moodle and seeing hours of pre-recorded stuff I have to go through makes the learning experience feel unimportant and distant. At this point I have to force myself to even watch lectures. The fact that we only have actual in-person learning 2-3 times a week feels depressing as well. As someone who commutes it’s made me feel so isolated and I feel like I haven’t made the most of my social surroundings. Seeing people enjoy their best life while you’re sat alone doing nothing just hurts 💔.

Overall the whole uni experience has been so underwhelming for me, but I sometimes feel like only I feel this way. I had such high hopes starting out, but they’ve slowly been crushed.

“Everyone around me seems to know so much more and is managing much better”

I am sorry to hear that university has been so challenging for you so far. First I want to give you a big virtual hug, and assure you that you are not the only one feeling this way! Whilst it is easy to feel as if everyone around you knows the answers, the reality is that very few actually do.

Medical students sometimes have a bad habit of living by ‘fake it till you make it’ in favour of reaching out for help or admitting that they do not know something. I am glad that you have reached out, proving the exception to every generalisation! Whilst it may seem daunting, I encourage you to be that first brave person to say ‘I do not know’. In my experience, if you share your truth, others will step forward and admit that they feel the same.

I would also encourage you to focus on your individual progress, rather than making comparisons with your peers. Everyone learns at different rates, and your strengths will differ from the strengths of those around you because we are all unique. Not only that, but we often only witness other people’s successes and not their struggles which gives us the false impression that everyone else is doing better than us. In reality, it is impossible to make accurate comparisons and therefore a futile task. It may seem like hard advice to follow, but channelling your energy into your own personal development will be far more fruitful than worrying about what others are doing.

If you are concerned about your studies, we would recommend you to get in touch with Student Support who may be able to offer practical advice and techniques as well as make any adjustments if required.

Virtual learning burnout

I can really empathise with this ‘virtual learning burnout’ you are experiencing and I am sure many of our readers do too. I advise you to be patient and forgiving with yourself as this is in many ways a natural response to an unnatural situation. This online learning and working environment is at odds with us as human beings who are usually so sociable and tactile, so it is to be expected that we struggle with it.

This phenomena has been well documented, and researchers have come up with a number of recommendations on curbing this sensation of burnout. One suggestion is to increase the frequency of breaks between online lectures to prevent loss of attention and to maximise the benefit you receive from those breaks by practising self-care during that time. Another tip is to try to maintain some semblance of a routine, even if you are working and resting within the same space. Getting enough sleep, having consistent meal times and carving out time in your day for hobbies or rest as well as work is shown to increase productivity in the time that you do try to work.

Finally, I can personally advocate for the use of ‘study companions’ or ‘study groups’, depending on your preference. In the former, you do not have to study with other medical students or even with other students for this! You can work on separate assignments but in one another’s company. I have found sitting with or video-calling a friend or family member whilst we both do work to be an effective way of making those online lectures that little bit more manageable. Alternatively, forming a study group is a great way to get through content; making it interactive can make it more fun and less easy to lose attention.

Remember that the UCL Student Psychological and Counselling Services and UCLMS Student Support may be able to offer further advice or therapy to help you through these difficulties. Always feel free to reach out again - talking about these things is incredibly important.

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