If you’ve ever searched for online learning strategies, you’ve probably come across lots of headlines just like the one on this story. The problem? Those perfect strategies that work for every person, in every course, every single time don’t actually exist, says Tatiana Kloster.
“There are some basic strategies you can build on, but you need to start with the question, ‘How do I learn best?’” says the professional writing specialist with MacEwan University’s Writing and Learning Services.
Are you the kind of person who likes to make mind maps and illustrate your notes? Do you prefer to study alone or in a group? Are you a flash card master who likes to quiz yourself on what you’re learning?
“It really comes down to exploring what has – and hasn’t – worked for you in the past, the type of classes you’re in, the assignments you’re working on and what your goals are,” says Tatiana.
Even though there may not be a magic formula for online learning success, our learning consultants have a ton of advice to offer. Here Tatiana, Courtney Krentz and Kristin Rodier – all consultants with Writing and Learning Services with a wealth of post-secondary experience between them – share some of their favourite ideas, and encourage you to reach out if you need a bit of extra help adjusting to learning digitally.
1. Before you even get started…
Make a plan for when you’re going to stop. Planning your time is important – even when it feels like you have tons of it.
“Developing a daily schedule that includes time for rest, play, nourishment, movement and social interaction, helps to avoid the stress of indecision – and gives you the mental space to focus on learning,” says Kristin.
It can also help to pretend you actually have a scheduled class at a particular time, says Courtney. “Scheduling the same task at the same time every day – like I’m going to work on sociology every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 to 10 a.m. – can make it easier.”
While you’re setting that new schedule, Courtney suggests including a block (or a few blocks) of dedicated, distraction-free time. “You should have some time every day where you turn off notifications – email, social media and Blackboard – so you can focus on reading or studying.”
And make sure to think about your daily energy rhythms, says Kristin. Are you a morning person or a night owl? “Focus on the times of day when you’re most productive,” she suggests. “Those are the times to do the mental heavy lifting.”
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Start by plugging your due dates into a calendar and then take a step back. “Don’t plan to sit down and work on a single thing for hours at a time,” says Tatiana. “Setting aside huge blocks of time without a concrete task plan just sets you up for failure.”
Instead, think about the smaller pieces that need to go into studying for an exam, researching a paper or taking part in discussion groups. Dividing those big tasks and chunks of time into smaller segments helps daunting tasks feel more manageable, says Tatiana. She suggests breaking a big task like “study for final exam,” into several smaller pieces – “review chapter 9 and 10, look at April 15 notes and complete practice questions,” for example.
Then use those pieces you identified to build a to-do list. “Remember that your to-do list is going to change – every day, or even several times a day – as your priorities change,” says Tatiana.
3. Plan your approach
Think about the tasks you need to do and what will make them easier.
If you’re someone who benefits from talking things out, says Kristin, try to connect with people in your class. This can be a bit more difficult online, but it’s still possible. “Discuss your reading in a virtual chat or on the phone,” she says. “When we’re socially distancing, that isolation can be really tough.” Setting a time to study together or quiz each other online is one way to replace some of that in-person human contact.
If you need to read three chapters of your textbook, says Tatiana, scan those readings before you dive in. “Get a rough idea of what you’re going to be reading about and before digging into all the detail.”
When it comes to discussion threads, Courtney suggests making sure to leave yourself some time to think about how you’re going to respond. For some people, this may involve freewriting without actually replying to discussion questions in Blackboard; for others, it might look like mind mapping on a whiteboard or piece of paper, or it could even mean going for a walk to mull things over.
“Taking some time to think about your answers away from the Blackboard response space can also help you get your thoughts in order before you share them,” says Courtney.
While we’re talking about discussion threads, Courtney, Kristin and Tatiana all emphasize that you should make sure to participate. Reading what your peers are saying and actively engaging in the discussion really does help information stick.
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“My study space isn’t anything special,” says Tatiana (pictured here). “But it is comfortable and distraction-free. Making sure I study in the same place every time – whether it’s in an office or the kitchen – helps my brain tune into the work mindset I need.”
5. Make your breaks productive
Taking breaks can make you more productive, recharge your mind and make learning easier, says Tatiana.
“I typically do something that takes me out of my home office space,” she says. A study break, she adds, can pull double duty and also be a hydration break, a walking break or a yoga break – something that’s good for both your mind and your body.”
She also says to remember that breaks don’t necessarily have to be long to be productive. Scheduling short and frequent breaks – studying for 45 minutes and taking a break for 10 minutes, for example – gives you these little recharge moments throughout the day, rather than just saving it up for one chunk.
6. Keep yourself accountable
Having a plan is a good start, but it only works if you stick to it. Just going to an in-person class has an inherent sense of accountability, but an online class requires you to be a bit more self-directed, says Tatiana. “You need to assume responsibility for your own learning,” she says. “Because it’s easy to fall behind, it can really help to keep a log of your time – a spreadsheet or just a notebook can work – to keep track of your study, reading and writing time.”
If you do somehow find yourself lagging behind, be proactive, suggests Tatiana. “If you missed an assignment or task, reach out to your prof right away – don’t wait until the last minute.”
And if you’re struggling with studying online, make sure to ask for help.
“Reach out to your prof, your peers or the Writing Centre,” says Courtney. “Learning in a new way can be scary, but there are supports available.”
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