8 Study Tips for Online Students

November 22nd, 2019 No Comments Features

You did it—you’ve officially enrolled in an online course. Now comes the challenge of figuring out how to get everything you can out of it. Thankfully, there are a few surefire, research-backed strategies for success.

While you’ll want to ensure first that you’re comfortable navigating the course platform and understand the course details, the actual learning and studying part will require a careful consideration of how you, personally, operate at your best. Being mindful of your own learning habits is perhaps the most important key to succeeding in your online course.

Below we’ll share eight strategies for becoming more mindful in your studies. As usual, we’ve curated these tips from the research literature on education, cognitive psychology, and motivation. Feel free to share your own personal techniques in the comments section so you can help out your fellow online course participants around the world.

1. Apply Mindfulness Techniques

Mindfulness is one practice that can help us become better at tasks that require a great deal of focus. You don’t have to meditate to reap the benefits of mindfulness. You just need a willingness to step back and examine your own thoughts.

In his book Waking Up, Sam Harris writes, “There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment… Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves. Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body—thoughts, sensations, moods—without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant.”

On focus, he adds:

“The principal enemy of mindfulness—or of any meditative practice—is our deeply conditioned habit of being distracted by thoughts. The problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without knowing we are thinking… By practicing mindfulness, one can awaken from the dream of discursive thought and begin to see each arising image, idea, or bit of language vanish without a trace. What remains is consciousness itself, with its attendant sights, sounds, sensations, and thoughts appearing and changing in every moment.”

To study smarter, start paying closer attention to the way your thoughts drift, and gently bring your mind back to the experience at hand (your course) when that happens.

2. Do Goal Setting and Fear Setting

In a recent TED Talk, American influencer Tim Ferris speaks about the importance of defining your fears as well as your goals. Calling it the most valuable exercise he does every month, “fear setting” involves making a list of worst-case scenarios and how you can prevent them or repair damage when necessary. Simply writing down your fears in order to define them is extremely therapeutic, as it helps you realize where to focus your efforts and you often come to see that your fear has no foundation at all.

His strategy is backed by research showing that motivation occurs in two distinct stages: first, a goal-oriented stage where we’re excited about achieving something; and second, a fear-driven phase where we are motivated by the thought of not achieving the goal.

Before your online course begins, do some fear setting and goal setting to help you frame your studies for optimal success.

3. Manage Your Time Wisely

You’ll want to figure out ahead of time when you can devote your undivided attention to your studies and stick to that plan throughout the course. Whether it’s a few hours a week or an hour every night, define when you can show up, be present, and dive in. We’ve written about this topic before, so check out this post for more tips.

4. Pay Attention to Your Learning Preferences

We may not have learning styles, per se, but we do have learning preferences. Do you focus better in the morning or at night? After exercising or before? On the quiet commute to work or during your lunch break?

How do you prefer to approach your studies? Do you take notes while watching lectures or do you give them your full attention and take notes later, using slides?

The more time you spend figuring out your preferred method beforehand, the better prepared you’ll be for the course and the higher your chances for success.

5. Devote a Space to Learning

The brain loves to make associations, so pick a place where you study and don’t do anything else. Doing so will cause your mind to perk up when you’re in that setting and get into study mode. On the other hand, if you study in the same room where you sleep or watch TV, you’ll find your mind wandering off task.

6. Meet in Person with Your Peers

If possible, arrange in-person meetings or study sessions with your course peers. You’ll feel more connected to the material, more motivated to learn, and more supported by your network. You can agree on a time and place to meet up regularly to discuss the course material, work on projects, or simply hang out to boost morale.

7. Let Others Hold You Accountable

Another great part about meeting in person with your peers is that you form an accountability system, which will motivate you to stay focused on your course. If you can’t meet your peers in person, let your friends, family, or colleagues know you are taking an online course and encourage them to check in with you about it now and then. Share what you’re learning, too: every time you retrieve the material from memory, you reinforce what you’ve learned.

8. Keep the Future in Mind

Make a point of frequently reminding yourself why you’re taking the course. If it’s so you can switch careers, keep the dream alive with some positive self-talk: this is the first step in reaching that goal. If you’re taking it simply to continue your learning, imagine all the knowledge you’ll have gained by the end (that is, if you spend enough time studying). Keep your spirits high by regularly connecting your learning with your future so you can stay in the moment now.


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or Facebook.

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