Connecting with classmates, setting goals and planning ahead can help students learning virtually stay on track.
With the flexibility of online degree programs, learning can happen from almost anywhere – at home, on the road or even on a plane. Students have the ability to attend college while also juggling other life commitments, like being a parent or working full time.
“Reflecting on the past three years, the one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that ‘life happens,’ and in education it is critical to meet learners where they are,” Makana Craig, director of Chaminade Online at Chaminade University of Honolulu, wrote in an email. “This means acknowledging that students have other life priorities, and affording them the flexibility and autonomy to complete their coursework when they have the time and space (mental, physical, emotional) to do so.”
But taking online courses, which are mostly self-paced, requires motivation and discipline. Here are seven time-management tips to consider.
1. Set Short- and Long-Term Goals
Reasons for attending or reenrolling in college look different for each student. But creating short-term and long-term goals, like graduating before your child goes to college, may serve as an incentive towards degree completion.
“Setting those goals and then working toward them is really motivating,” says Jamie Guigar Storey, director of advising and student services in the College of Education and Human Services at Central Michigan University.
2. Get Organized Early
Before each semester, review the course syllabus and break down each unit on a personal calendar to track all assignments. Taking the time to get organized early reduces the chances of missing due dates later on.
“That 40 minutes of work will pay off in spades later on,” says Luyen Chou, chief learning officer at 2U, an online higher education company. “When you’re in the middle of it and there’s a lot going on, not having to worry about whether or not you’re on pace just relieves your mind of huge stress.”
3. Dedicate Chunks of Study Time
With family, household or work responsibilities, it can be difficult to find time to watch a lecture or complete an assignment for school.
Students might spend at least a few hours a week on lectures, videos and other course materials, excluding reading or studying, so it’s important to make time for that, Storey says. But that can be tough when you have competing responsibilities, such as having to pick up children from school.
She suggests finding a period of time when you can be free from distractions – after your child goes to bed, for example – and making that your dedicated study window.
“It’s different for everyone; for some people it’s Saturday mornings” that work best for doing schoolwork, Storey says. “But make sure you’re looking through your entire schedule before the course starts and figuring out where there are chunks of time that you can remove, like watching TV, in order to make time for your classes.”
Finding a designated study area can be a challenge for online learners – particularly those who share a space with family members or roommates. But in addition to setting aside time for learning, to the extent possible, find a location inside or outside of the home where you can focus.
“Really try to commit yourself to making a time and a place for your online learning,” Chou says. “Having those rituals and routines reinforces your ability to approach learning in a meaningful way.”
5. Make Learning Social
Online learning comes in a variety of formats, including live lectures, classroom discussions and individual work.
In an asynchronous model that relies mostly on discussion forums, email or text for communication, it can be easy to feel lonely or isolated. Experts suggest leaning into the social aspect of learning, like creating a study group with peers or scheduling office hours with an instructor.
“Even if you don’t need it academically, research shows that sense of connection with other learners and with instructors is associated with strong outcomes for the learner,” Chou says.
Students can also find an accountability partner, such as a fellow online classmate, who can help you stay on top of assignments.
Meetings together “can be as short and sweet as a weekly email outlining your goals for the week,” Craig wrote. “Or, it can be a scheduled time where the student meets with their accountability partner(s) on Zoom, and spends an hour working on their respective assignments. Think of this like the digital study session at the library.”
6. Reinforce Learning in the Off Hours
Incorporate course topics into daily conversations with family, friends or close colleagues. Not only does this reinforce learned concepts, but it can also help students identify areas of confusion.
“The more that you engage with (the material) in different settings, the more it’s going to solidify in your own mind,” Storey says. “It is really helpful to have outside conversations.”
7. Speak Up When You Need Support
Especially in an asynchronous learning environment, an instructor might not be aware that a student is struggling or falling behind in class. Don’t be afraid to speak up, experts say.
But if a student doesn’t feel comfortable reaching out to their instructor or academic advisor, many online degree programs also offer resources for academic support, such as tutoring or a writing lab.