Study Tips for Online Learning

OwlA while back I wrote about providing explicit study skills training in a new first-year seminar. It occurred to me that the vast majority of study skills advice is written for students who attend face-to-face courses on a physical campus. Meanwhile enrollment in online courses continues to increase. Here is a brief list of tips for online learners based on my experience teaching online for the last six years.

  • Determine whether you can realistically commit the necessary time and effort to do well in a course that is likely to move much faster than its on-campus equivalent.
  • Make sure your hardware and software meet the technological prerequisites for the course. Find out well the course begins what versions of which software you will need. Make sure installed plug-ins, extensions, and security settings are current. You can contact the university’s designated staff for assistance; the course instructor is unlikely to know what particular technological updates might be needed.
  • Have a technological emergency back-up plan. What will you do if your computing device stops working or you lose internet access at home? Not being able to access the course site or upload documents for even a few days can ruin your performance.
  • Securely store your work across multiple devices and/or the cloud. Products like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Evernote are all free. Use them. If you are not using a product that automatically updates your work, set a timer that reminds you to save what you’ve done every thirty minutes.
  • Ask the instructor for a copy of the syllabus before the course begins. Read it. Get a sense of how the course is organized.
  • If at all possible, create an ergonomically efficient working environment — screen at eye height, fingers on the keyboard with a 90 degree angle in the elbows, back straight. If your body is positioned comfortably, learning will be easier.
  • Plan to devote enough time to do well. You will not be able to ignore reading, writing, and online discussions all week and then “catch up” on Sundays. If you can’t commit the necessary time, don’t take the course.
  • If you work on the course at multiple points throughout the week, and vary your activities within each time period — by mixing reading, writing, online discussion, and research — you will learn more. Your brain will have more frequent and more efficient opportunities to strengthen memory.
  • Take notes, preferably handwritten, of what you read. I won’t go into detail here about the cognitive reasons for why writing notes by hand benefits learning, but highlighting simply doesn’t help you retain information.
  • Read strategically. Read the introduction first. Identify the main argument(s) that the author will be presenting. Read the conclusions. Then go back to find what evidence the author has presented in the body of the reading assignment to support the conclusions. Argument-conclusion-evidence is what you need to write notes about.
  • Minimize distractions. Shut down email and Facebook, turn off the TV and cell phone while working.
  • Writing requires the synthesis of information, which is more cognitively taxing than reading; therefore, it is especially important to carve out distraction-free blocs of time for this task. Reading is easier to accomplish in small chunks, so take advantage of time when you are otherwise not occupied — for example, while in a waiting room or riding a bus. Always have reading and note-taking material with you.
  • Enlist the support of family and friends. If you have children who do homework every weeknight after dinner, do yours with them. You’ll be setting the example that learning is a life-long process and they will respect you for it. Get your spouse to do more of the housework. Organize study dates with a friend at a cafe.
  • Make an effort to connect with classmates, whether through discussion or when working on collaborative assignments. The more you can create a sense of community in the course, the more you will get out of it.

9 thoughts on “Study Tips for Online Learning

  1. Great tips! There are many benefits to learning online. It gives you the flexibility to learn whenever and where ever you can and usually at a fraction of the cost. If you have a busy lifestyle and don’t have the time or budget to commit to a traditional course in a college or university, online courses can help provide the necessary skills to achieve the qualifications you desire but on your own terms.

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