I thought I would record a few of my thoughts on getting the best out of studying online. Of course, this list is not exhaustive and I am sure as soon as I hit “post” I will think of more; I would also be interested to hear what your tips are.
Set time aside
Sunday after the gym is my regular time for studying (as after two classes I am grateful for an oportunity to sit down!) and it really helps to know that I have this regular slot set aside. Of course, this isn’t enough but my weeks tend to vary so I fit things in when I can, but this Sunday slot is pretty sacrosanct and it works for me.
Yes, it sounds obvious, but with the amount written encouraging students to keep learning journals (even setting it as an assessed task) clearly, the practice is not so widespread as I/you might think. They are particularly important for online learning because it is likely that your activities and readings are given to you via an LMS and when the course is completed, or after you leave the university, with it you will lose your access to the LMS and so also, the tasks, readings and narrative of your course. So you need to keep your own record. The terminology “learning journal” refers to a reflective learning process; when you read a paper, summarise it but also note down how you feel about it, does it make sense, have shortcomings, do you understand it, do you like it and thus would revisit it for an assignment, how does it link to your context, what thoughts is it sparking in your mind. And not just for papers, but for all your study as you work through the course content.
I use a google doc so I can access it from any device and type into it directly (except when in China!) without having to worry about version control (electronic format also clearly makes it searchable). I use different colours and font sizes to make weeks, blocks and units stand out, activities are green bullet points and are highlighted in yellow with “DONE” when completed, and the task is given briefly beneath. Any posts I make in forums I include in italics and if there are any from anyone else that I think look useful, I copy and paste them too. Red highlights remind me I need to revisit an activity.
Use a reference manager
I use Mendeley for this but other tools are available (RefWorks?). Essentially, you can collate the papers you are reading in it, make notes and highlights. But for me the most useful element is that it keeps all my papers together in folders – no digging around on my PC in folders trying to find the document and then remembering its on the desktop but not the laptop so I need to find it again (although admittedly I put urls to papers in my learning journal) because after installing the software you can simply sync and pull documents and highlights down from the cloud. Also useful for assignments as you can group together all the papers you want to include for that assignment in one place. They will also output a list of references (bibliography) for you directly into Word (or equivalent) based on a number of preset style guides. Literally have no idea how I managed to complete a Masters in the past without such a tool.
Stick stuff in your diary
Stick essay deadlines and tutorials in your diary as soon as you can. Yes, often they are in the course calendar/week by week planner, but when you are making a date with friends or to do something, you need to be able to see if you’ve got any study commitments which might influence your availability (or alternatively make it a perfect night to go out and celebrate because you’ve just handed an assignment in!). I use a specific colour (tangerine if you must know) in my calendar so at a glance I can see if anything is study related.
Most courses will follow a week by week structure telling you where you need to be and what you need to do each week. This is great but it really pays to read ahead. Once you’ve finished the current week’s activities, spend the last few minutes looking ahead to see what’s coming up – is it a big, reading heavy week? Would it help to download some of the papers now so you can read them on a commute? Does the week need you to do some collaborative work? What’s the next subject you are learning about, does it excite you? This can all be really helpful to have in your head so you have an idea about what’s coming next and can plan appropriately.
I also start assignments really early. Well, I don’t start writing them that early, but in the first few weeks of a course when I have some time (as this first weeks usually have a lower workload) I open up a Word document, call it TMA 1 (or whatever) and apply my template to make sure line spacing is as prescribed, headers and footers etc. I then go to the assignment section of the course info and paste it all into that document – word counts for each section, what each section should be called/about etc and put it all in bold font. This way, when I come to actually write the assignment, I have the criteria and what I am aiming for in one place and I can type my thoughts around these bold sections ensuring I am doing what I’m asked for by checking back with these notes (which I will later delete obviously). Doing this in advance also means I can periodically open it up to have a look again and keep the task percolating away in my head. Guidance on word counts can vary institution to institution (and even course to course) so make sure you find out ASAP whether its a hard cut-off or there’s an allowance. It’s also good to check out the assignment weightings too.
Similar to reading ahead, it’s good to make hay while the sun shines. If you find yourself with some extra time one week, or it was a particularly light week, it’s a good idea to start on the next week’s activities. Afterall, life will always throw something unexpected at you, so making the most of any extra time you have will keep you in a good place if something unexpected comes up.
HOWEVER, if a future week asks you to post something in a student forum, I really wouldn’t do it. Write your post in your journal by all means so that when the week opens up you can just copy and paste it in, but I would really discourage actually posting ahead to other students as it can be extremely demotivating if someone is struggling to keep up and they see that people are surging ahead. It also creates a lot of extra posts/work for people to catch up on which they may feel unable to leave alone until the actual time. Apologies, I have some strong feelings on this subject!
Don’t panic – rationalise
Sh*t happens and you may find yourself lagging behind, struggling to catch up and panicking about assignment deadlines. It’s ok. It happens to all of us. Take a deep breath and rationalise. A lot of the content you are provided with is not really needed for course success so if you find yourself falling behind, be ruthless. Read just abstracts and conclusions of particularly long or complex papers, skip whole sections of content if you can’t see the relevance to you for your upcoming assignment (because having followed my earlier tips you will know what the assignment is on right?!) – often there is a choice of subjects to focus on, so make the decision to axe one part of it completely if you are falling behind and it is casuing you grief. You can always come back to things later. Reach out to other students; I am pretty sure some of them will be struggling too so they can offer moral support and you could even collaborate on getting some of the reading done, by splitting papers between you and sharing notes.
If all else fails, reach out to your tutor. They are human and they will understand. They may also be able to help, but they won’t be able to if you do not tell them anything is wrong and thus give them an opportunity to assist you.
If your forum allows you to subscribe to receive a digest of posts, then I reccomend you do this. Life will get in the way and you may not be able to login to your LMS every day to see if there is anything new to read. It’s also potentially rather irritating to take the time to login and discover there are no posts. Receiving a digest automatically into your inbox helps get round this, by keeping you in touch when you forget to check and allowing you to even catch-up offline (provided you’ve received the email of course). Works for me.