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10 Ways for Online Students to Work Smarter

Posted on Monday November 19, 2012 by Michael Keathley

Being a college student is not easy. This is especially true if you have family or job responsibilities to juggle in addition to studying and homework. Sometimes it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day or caffeine in the universe to help you keep up.

Online classes require the same level of commitment as face-to-face classes, but with the added burdens of acclimating to the technology and being responsible for interpreting course materials on your own.

This is why it’s important for virtual students to be more efficient while remaining effective at completing their course work well. Therefore, here are ten tips to help you work smarter.

1. Organize
Once you are signed up for online classes, organize yourself for success. Last week I shared “2 Preliminary Steps for Online Student Success,” which included making sure you have all the necessary course materials and technology to meet the expectations of elearning (14 November, 2012). Gather all of this in one work station that is orderly and contains everything you’ll need each day.

Also, organize your time. Develop a set schedule for working on your class(es), preferably times of least distraction. For many online students, this is when the kids are at school or sleeping. Try to check in with your online classes each weekday and once over the weekend to make sure nothing is missed.

2. Familiarize
Next, get better acquainted with the class materials and course site. Scan over any reading materials, for example, to get an overview of the course content and what you’ll be studying. Review the syllabus and any other information that may have been provided by the professor. If the instructor has offered any suggestions to get started, follow them. See if there are any video or other tutorials on how to use the features in the course. If your course does not provide tutorials, you may find one online, such as this one from YouTube.

Taking the time to organize and familiarize yourself with the materials and course site will save you some time and frustration in the future.

3. Strategize
Another important step is to plan. As soon as it’s available, take a look at the syllabus, course calendar, and other information about assignments and deadlines. Then plan for the semester, breaking down larger projects (e.g., papers) into smaller steps. Create to do lists based on these deadlines. You may want to do this in the form of a checklist or by setting reminders in an electronic calendar connected to your email such as the one in Gmail. Have reminders automatically forwarded to your phone so that nothing is forgotten.

Each time you access the class or work on assignments, write yourself a note about what you need to do next. This way, when you sit down to work again, you will not have to spend any time re-orienting yourself on where you were at when you left off.

4. Prioritize
A part of learning to work smarter is learning to prioritize. Although all parts of a course are designed to facilitate learning, there may be some activities that are worth more points or that carry more weight. A final project worth 20% of your grade is worth more than a five-point discussion post. Consider devoting time to the high priority items first when you work so that they receive your attention when you are more energized. Then complete some of the lower stakes activities toward the end of your work period.

Often it’s helpful to consider the anxiety level you may have with a course assignment. For instance, perhaps that five-point discussion posts requires you to do something thing that you’ve never done before, such as sharing your thesis statement for a paper. It may be best to complete that first so you can relax and focus on the larger project.

5. Compartmentalize
Another tip for working smarter involves setting limits on time and location. For example, you may want to spread your discussion participation over several days during a unit, by spending up to 30 minutes on three or four separate days responding. Similarly, you may want to allow a certain amount of days to complete research for a project so that you can move forward on composing it.

If you make a conscious effort to compartmentalize your efforts this way, you will discover that you can focus better during those time allotments.

6. Standardize
The first five tips should help you on your way to number six: standardizing your efforts. What this means is to make your course work and tasks a habit. Whether I am taking or teaching an online course, for instance, I always begin by checking the “course questions” and “announcements” areas. Here you may find a question and response that will help you as you begin the day’s activities. Then check the tasks that are due next and make sure you complete them as soon as applicable.

Try to make the times you work on your assignments a habit, too. You will find if you do this for yourself, others in your life will start respecting your student time as well.

7. Singularize
Don’t multitask. Instead, focus on one activity fully and completely at a time. As Research News at Ohio State University reported, although studies show that multitasking is inefficient and ineffective, students feel as if they are accomplishing more when in reality, they are achieving less (30 April, 2012). Keep in mind that course activities aren’t evaluated on how good you feel; rather, they are evaluated on what you actually achieve.

In relation to this, by focusing clearly on one task at a time, you can direct your thoughts fully on how to make it your best work to date and how to make it an outstanding submission that will impress your classmates and professor.

8. Revise
One step that many online students make is not carefully revising their assignments. This means reviewing the content of any email, discussion post, paper, or other assignment to double-check that all direction prompts received a response and that all criteria for the assignment in a rubric have been met. If you need assistance with any aspect of a course activity, seek it out from your professor or other resources at your university (e.g., an academic skills center).

Conversely, check to see if there is content that is not needed in your response. Tangents and unnecessary wording can make posts and projects harder to understand. Cutting this out often strengthens a response.

The last part of this step should include making sure that your submission was successful. For example, can you see and open your attachment in the course dropbox?

9. Marginalize
Life will frequently throw obstacles along your educational path, so it’s wise to take steps to “Turn Distractions into Academic Success” by reducing the potential for them to occur as much as possible and by finding a way to utilize them when they do happen (4 September, 2012). For example, you can shut off social media and the telephone while you’re working on an assignment. You can make use of some of the downtime while waiting for one of your children’s activities to begin.

Don’t let life sideline what is truly important to you, pursuing your education.

10. Re-energize
Finally, what is certainly an important tip is to remember that you are human. You can not work 24/7 and do well. Take time outs for rest and relaxation. Get away from the technology for an afternoon or even a weekend day. Get some exercise, enjoy time with friends and family, and reconnect with the other aspects of your life.

It may sound strange to force yourself to take a time-out, but like some of the other suggestions above, if you do so, you’ll find you return to your studies feeling more refreshed and energized.

Pursuing a college degree online is not easy; however, it is also neither as hard nor as impossible as it may seem. The above ten tips should help you to work smarter, making it a more pleasant experience for you.

Do you have any great tips to help other students? Please share them in the “comments” area below.

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