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12 study tips for online learners to succeed


Aug 30, 2017
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Are you ready to increase your knowledge base, add to your skill set, and meet incredibly talented people? If so, online learning tips might help you save time and money while you gain those benefits.

 An online course allows you to set your own study schedule, work at your own pace, and learn from the comfort of your favorite recliner or coffee shop.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Isn’t there always?

It’s this: If you want to learn to study online, you have to set boundaries, limits, and goals for yourself. There’s nobody to rap your knuckles with a ruler if you don’t meet your objectives for the day.

You can use these online study tips to prepare yourself for self-directed learning and to keep your study habits on track for maximum knowledge absorption and retention.

How does online learning work? 

Online learning works by communicating course material over the internet and helping students learn new skills via digital materials. You learn online all the time if you ever conduct Google searches, but this is a little more concentrated and focused.

You’ve probably spent more than a few hours in classrooms during your lifetime, so you understand the basic anatomy of studying and learning. However, if you’ve never done it yourself online, you might not know how it works.

In most cases, you’ll sign up for an online course. The course creator will let you know what materials or technology you need, then either give you all the course materials right up front or release them slowly as you proceed to each new step.

During the online course, you might complete homework assignments, study texts, watch videos, listen to audio lectures, and take quizzes and texts. The exact format will depend on the course’s format and subject matter.

Everyone takes a unique approach to teaching an online course, but that’s good news.

Everyone also takes a unique approach to online learning. You’ll just want to follow the best practices for online studying to make the most of your eLearning endeavor.

12 study tips for successful online learning 

Before we dig into the meat of our study tips, let’s go over a few basic facts.

First, if you’re taking an online course, you need to have a genuine interest in the material. Otherwise, you won’t feel motivated to finish the coursework.

If you want to gain knowledge, but you’re not interested in the process, you might have to dive back into your school-age years. Use some of the tips and tricks that parents employ to help their kids love the learning process.

Additionally, you must sign up for the course when you have enough time to devote to it. If you’re only giving it half your attention, you won’t get much value from what you learn.

With these facts in mind, let’s turn you into an online studying machine.

1. Familiarize yourself with online learning practices and expectations 

Many people jump into online courses with a lackadaisical attitude. If you take that approach, you’ll cheat yourself out of valuable content.

Approach online courses and studying just like you would if you were sitting in a classroom, right under a professor’s nose. In fact, you can pretend like a professor is standing over you while you study if that helps.

Next, figure out what you want to get out of the course. You know you’re going to pay attention, study, and take the course seriously, but what end result do you desire?

  • Master a specific skill
  • Improve your competence in a specific area
  • Get ready to obtain a license or certification
  • Expand your knowledge about a subject
  • Feel more comfortable conversing about a topic
  • Gain a rudimentary understanding of a subject 

Each of these goals will require different levels of devotion and course complexity to achieve. For instance, if you’re an English-speaking person and you want to become fluent in French, you’ll need a different course than someone who just wants to learn the basics for an upcoming trip to Paris.

If you’re clear about your expectations, you’re far less likely to get disappointed when the course ends. You’ll go into it with a particular objective in mind.

Write down your goals on a piece of paper for later review. As you sort through your options for online courses, you can figure out if your goals and the course material match up.

Finally, check in with yourself during the online course. Do you feel comfortable in the learning environment? Can you remember what you learned back at the beginning of the course.

Since many online courses proceed quickly, you might feel obligated to keep up with a fast pace. Don’t. Instead, allow yourself to work at your own rate of speed. You’re not in competition with anyone else.

At the same time, avoid giving yourself too much time off or too much slack. If you’re constantly putting off your studying time or neglecting to move on to the next section, give yourself a serious pep talk.

You can also ask someone to serve as your accountability partner. He or she will check in with you regularly, ask about your progress, and provide any needed encouragement. You might even become each other’s accountability partners as you take the same course. You don’t have to stick to the same schedule, but you can provide motivation for one another.

2. Confirm the course’s technical requirements

The main difference between studying online and studying in the classroom is that you’re responsible for the learning environment. You provide the place to work, the computer, and any other items you need, including a machine with the necessary technical requirements.

In most cases, any computer with internet access will suffice. However, some courses involve more serious hardware.

For instance, let’s say you’re taking an online course in video editing. You’ll need a computer that has sufficient memory and a strong enough graphics card to handle video-editing software. Additionally, you’ll need the software itself, which might come with a hefty license.

Try not to sign up for online courses until you know the technical requirements. If you can’t meet them yet, put off the course until you can buy or borrow what you need.

Some classes might require headphones so you can listen to audio presentations or a printer so you can make hard copies of documents. Whatever the case, if you start the course without the necessary equipment, you’ll quickly fall behind.

3. Ensure reliable internet access 

If your internet access isn’t reliable, you might get interrupted throughout your course. Worse, you’ll waste your time and resources.

You can often find excellent WiFi at a coffee shop, internet cafe, or similar public space when you can’t rely on your home’s connection. While the occasional storm and outage are beyond your control, you want the best chance of not getting disconnected.

These days, online instructors often use live forms of teaching, such as webinars. If your internet goes out during one of those events, you can’t participate in the conversation along with your other classmates.

Signal boosters, extra modems, and other technological fixes can help improve your access to reliable internet at home. Additionally, consider using your desktop computer if it’s wired to your modem instead of relying on a laptop or mobile device that depends on a wireless connection.

4. Create a dedicated study space

You don’t need to replicate your third-grade classroom in your home to participate in online learning. However, you do need a comfortable place to work.

When choosing a place to learn and study, look for a few essential qualities.

  • Light: A dark room or space can become claustrophobic and even depressing. It will also lead to faster eye strain and fatigue. If you have a dark home or office, consider adding extra sources of indirect light. You can buy inexpensive desk lamps with rotating heads at Target or Walmart for less than $10.
  • Ergonomics: If you try to sit on the floor with your laptop balanced on your knees, you’re going to wind up with a sore rear end, a stiff neck, and aching shoulders. Ergonomic work spaces allow you to focus on the study materials. When you’re uncomfortable, pain and stiffness will distract from your work and make you less likely to return to studying.
  • Ambiance: Some people can work easily in a crowded coffee shop or restaurant, while others need absolute silence, and still more need to listen to music or keep the television on in the background. Don’t assume that you learn best in pure silence. Experiment with different environments to figure out how best you work.
  • Distractions: Let everyone in your family know that you’re taking an online course. Ask them not to bother you while you study so you can focus on the material. You might even turn off your phone and close your internet browser tabs except for the one you use for studying. Once you get distracted, returning to work becomes increasingly difficult.
  • Supplies: Do you need a fresh cup of coffee? A bottle of water? Maybe a bag of carrot sticks in which to snack? Before you sit down for an online course, get everything you think you might need. If your coffee is within easy reach, you won’t have to interrupt your studying to go into the kitchen and prepare a pot.

Some people have their own home offices. Such a room provides an ideal place to study online, but it’s not the only option. Consider the dining room, kitchen, or bedroom as long as you won’t get distracted by family members.

Additionally, choose the right time of day for online studying and learning. Maybe you learn best when you review materials in the morning, right before work, or perhaps you’re a night owl, and you’re most comfortable when burning the midnight oil. Find out what works for you.

5. Identify your learning objectives and goals 

Earlier, you decided what you wanted to get out of your online course. Now you need to learn your instructor’s objectives and goals.

This is important because it will inform the course’s direction. If a professional creates an online course on fitness, he or she could have several goals for students:

  • Increasing muscle tone
  • Losing weight
  • Improving range of motion
  • Increasing flexibility
  • Lowering body mass index
  • Improving endurance 

If you want to lose weight, but your instructor has designed the course around bulking up, you might not feel satisfied with the results.

In other words, your goals and the instructor’s must align.

Read as much as you can about the course before you sign up. If necessary, contact the instructor to find out about the material’s objectives. You can then make an informed decision about whether it’s right for you.

Once you know your goals and objectives, write them down—preferably in a place close to where you’ll work. Review them every day before you sit down to go through course material or to study your notes. Keep them in mind as you progress through the program.

If you feel you’re not hitting the objectives, reach out to your instructor or to other students. Figure out where you might have gone wrong, then devise a plan to get back on track.

However, don’t push yourself to meet objectives or goals by a deadline someone else creates. You know how quickly or how slowly you learn, so design your milestones based on that knowledge.

6. Build a study plan 

Now it’s time to get serious about your actual study sessions. If you have a written, stable plan, you’ll be more likely to stick with it after you start your course.

There’s no right or wrong study plan. The right one will work with your schedule and allow you to fulfill your other responsibilities and obligations.

However, don’t be afraid to push yourself. If you’re constantly striving for better results, you’ll get through the course faster and feel more fulfilled at the end of it.

Leave room for error 

Something might come up in the middle of a course, such as a sick child or an unexpected deadline at work. Try to leave yourself a little wiggle room in your schedule to accommodate those unexpected setbacks.

For instance, if you think you can complete part one of a course within three days, give yourself five. You might meet your three-day goal, in which case you can pat yourself on the back, but if it takes you five days, you won’t have to rearrange your study schedule for the future.

Create a study calendar 

A calendar works best for sticking to a regular routine. You can pencil in study times around work, family, and friends so that it becomes one of your top priorities.

Your schedule might not permit you to study every day. That’s fine. If you can only commit to weekends, add your online course to the calendar for Saturdays and Sundays.

You can use an electronic calendar or a paper one. If you’re used to one or the other, stick with it, because you’re accustomed to checking it for appointments and other commitments.

Write detailed to-do lists  

The to-do list can become your best friend during your eLearning adventure. They can help you study more efficiently and get things done faster. Plus, you get the accomplishment of checking off each item as you complete it.

Depending on your personality, you can make broad or extremely granular to-do lists. Go with your preferred method. If you like to write things out step by step, do so, because you’ll feel more comfortable with the process. Alternatively, you can group together different items for simplicity’s sake.

Set time limits 

One way to increase your productivity and efficiency is to force yourself to study for a specific period of time. If you’re often restless, consider setting a timer for 15 minutes. When the bell goes off, get up, walk around, and return to your desk for another 15 minutes. If you do this four times, you’ll have studied for one hour total.

Online studying can lead to eye fatigue, so those breaks in study sessions will give them a rest. Plus, you can work out any stiffness in your muscles and clear your head before you return to the material.

However, make sure you work for the total amount of time you think is necessary to complete your goals and check every item off your to-do list. If you need two hours of concentrated study time, you could work eight 15-minute sessions or six 20-minute sessions. Break them up in a way that feels comfortable for you.

Stick to your schedule 

Try not to let yourself off the hook when it comes to studying. A life-threatening emergency is one thing, but the latest “Game of Thrones” episode doesn’t qualify as a valid excuse for skipping your study time.

Many online courses, as mentioned above, involve live events that you participate in online. Missing those might not result in an unfinished course, but you won’t get as much value from the process. Try to attend those events and to turn in any work by its assigned deadline so you don’t fall behind.

7. Ask for help when you hit a wall 

It’s hard to ask for help. However, if you remain stuck during your online course, you must speak up if you want to get the full value of the education.

We all struggle with study materials sometimes, and depending on your preferred learning style, you might have better luck with some modules than with others.

If you need clarification, communicate with your instructor or other students. Many teachers set up preferred communication channels, whether it’s email, instant messaging, or direct messaging on social media. Try to use that channel to get answers to your questions.

Just remember to phrase your question politely and to give as many details as possible.

For instance, you might say, “I’m struggling with the section on [topic]. From the video, it’s not clear how I [perform a specific action]. When you have time, could you elaborate about [specific list of details] so I might understand it better?”

Fill in the blanks with details pertinent to your course.

If your course involves interactions with other students, befriend them. Learn to ask one another for help. In most cases, you’ll struggle with different parts of the course, so you can help each other through the rough patches.

Of course, you can also seek guidance in the real world. Maybe you have a friend or relative who has experience with the course material. Getting help from someone you know might feel less uncomfortable, especially if you’re new to online learning.

8. Take regular study breaks 

Did you know that studying for too long can have serious consequences?

  • Insomnia
  • Loss of concentration
  • Eye strain and fatigue
  • Poor knowledge retention
  • Inadequate performance on tests
  • Loss of memory

To avoid these consequences, give yourself plenty of breaks. If possible, get away from your study area. Go outside for a walk or to sit on your porch and watch the neighbor kids play touch football. Play a game of Solitaire to exercise your brain in a different way. Grab a cold beverage and a snack, then veg in front of the television for half an hour.

Avoid looking at a screen during these breaks. Yes, you should even avoid texting your latest squeeze. Focus on other parts of your life that involve different parts of your brain. You’ll thank yourself later.

9. Participate in online discussions 

When you discuss course material with other students and instructors, you often learn more than if you were to rely on the provided study materials alone. Furthermore, you’ll gain a sense of community and camaraderie on this type of communication platform that can make online learning more enjoyable.

Learn to communicate effectively 

People can’t assess your body language or tone of voice when you’re communicating via email or instant messenger. Learn to communicate effectively online by keeping sarcasm to a minimum, saying words and phrases out loud before you type them, and taking other people’s lead when you start conversations.

Just because you’re online doesn’t mean you have to default to text speak, either. Try typing in complete sentences and avoiding confusing jargon. Pretend you’re communicating with a college professor.

Pay attention to signals 

Other people in an online discussion often send signals about the accepted etiquette in a given forum. Pay attention to those signals.

For instance, do they usually type short, to-the-point sentences or long paragraphs? Do they joke and tease one another, or do they stick to strictly educational exchanges? Are people using emojis or including links in their communications?

Respond to others’ contributions 

It’s easy to think about online learning as a one-sided affair. After all, you’re by yourself in front of a device, learning from someone else who’s sitting behind another device. However, if you think only of yourself, you’ll miss out on some of the fringe benefits of online learning.

If someone else asks a question and you have the answer, offer it. When you help other people and respond to their frustrations, you create trust and loyalty, and those people will be more likely to respond when you have questions of your own.

10. Stay motivated 

 It’s easy to lose motivation halfway through an online course. Remember when you wrote down your own goals and objectives for the course? Keep reminding yourself of them. That’s why you put them in black and white and stored them near your workspace.

If you’re feeling frustrated or confused, take a break to clear your head, then ask someone you love for advice. Maybe you just need to vent for a few minutes, or perhaps your loved one can provide motivation when you can’t generate it on your own.

Most importantly, remember why you decided to pursue online learning. Get back in touch with that motivation so it can fuel you through the entire course.

11. Reward yourself for sticking to the program 

We all need a reward now and again—even if said reward contains a few extra calories than we usually permit ourselves.

Of course, you don’t have to use French macarons as your reward. Maybe you get an extra half-hour of television in the evening, or maybe you’ll buy that bestselling novel you can’t wait to read.

Whatever the case, create a reward system that sends positive messages to your brain. Over time, you’ll learn that learning produces that reward, so you’ll get a taste for more knowledge.

There are several rewards you can try.

  • A date night with your significant other.
  • New clothing or accessories
  • An afternoon at the park
  • Time with your family or friends
  • A computer game you’ve wanted to try

Think about the things you love to do, then tie one of those to your online learning adventure.

12. Review, revise, repeat

You didn’t think it was over, did you?

People learn throughout their lives. You’re constantly picking up bits and pieces of new information, but when you pursue an online course, you get an infusion of data that can help your brain stay active and your mind engaged.

Continue to review this list of online study tips as you work through your online course. Upon completion of the course, try another one. The more you learn, the more satisfied you’ll feel.

Especially if you let yourself eat those French macarons.

You can even create your own online courses

Online learning has taken the world by storm. Nearly 6 million students are enrolled in online courses through colleges and universities, for instance, but the online learning marketplace extends far beyond degree programs.

You can find hundreds of fine online educators who want to help you reach your goals. Each one offers something unique to share, so you can take multiple courses on the same subject if you want to derive the most benefit from it.

Even better, you might find yourself wanting to switch roles. You could create your own online course, which would allow you to not only share what you’ve learned with your customers, but also generate some money for your effort.

It’s never too late to start learning—or to start teaching.

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12 study tips for online learners to succeed
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