Tips for online learning

Get the most out of the e-learning experience


When we published our last blog post two weeks ago, the world was a very different place for many of our readers! In the meantime, among many other adjustments, students at many universities have had to switch to online classes for the rest of the semester. As this post is published, many of you will have now been in online classes for about a week or will just be starting after an extended spring break.

As an online course veteran who took many classes in graduate school and who continues to be somewhat of an e-learning junkie, I thought I’d share some of my personal tips for getting the most out of your courses. 

  1. Expect an adjustment period

    If you love traditional classroom dynamics and have never taken an online course before, it’s going to feel different. Although the homework and papers you’re assigned are the same, the lack of social contact, spontaneity, and instant feedback you experience in the classroom can be a bigger adjustment than you might expect. The fact that many of your instructors also have been thrown in the deep end and have quickly redesigned their courses for a new format won’t help and may initially make your online courses feel sup-par to the classroom experience.

    -> Try this:

    Courses that are designed for an e-learning format are meticulously planned in advance. Your instructors won’t have had that kind of time and will be doing the best they can to help you continue learning the course material. Keep an open mind and cut your instructors some slack. Although there will undoubtedly be some hiccups at the beginning, you, your classmates, and your instructor should all become more comfortable with the format as time goes on.

  2. Keep up your motivation

    Motivation in online courses can be more difficult for some learners since the act of physically going to a classroom and being “on-the-spot” to answer questions and participate in group discussions can make students feel more accountable for keeping up with the material.

    → Try this:

    Even if you’re not in the classroom, you can build in some accountability for yourself in other ways. Hold weekly virtual study sessions online with a classmate in which you quiz each other on the material. Or aim to post at least one well-thought-out question in your discussion group each day. If you can, try to have some personal contact with your instructor by visiting their virtual office hours if you need help or have questions. To stay motivated and concentrated during long lectures, take notes, preferably by hand for better understanding.

    I’ve also realized over the years that even if the online learning experience isn’t great, it’s still my responsibility to learn the material and get the most out of it that I can. It can help to reconnect with what initially drew you to this course. Whether you need it to fulfill requirements for your degree or you’re passionate about the material, reminding yourself of why you want to do well can help bring back some of your motivation each day.

  3. Avoid passive content consumption

    If you tend to only watch entertaining videos on your computer, you might unconsciously treat recorded lectures in the same way. It’s all-too-easy to simply consume recorded lectures as you would a Netflix documentary. Then, come test time, you’ll unfortunately realize that you haven’t retained much.

    → Try this:

    In contrast to the more dynamic environment of the classroom where you’re forced to pay attention, it can indeed be more difficult to stay engaged with a recorded lecture. Active listening strategies can help. Also, take advantage of the ability to pause recorded lectures and then test your recall by summarizing what you just heard. If you find you can’t rephrase the content in your own words, replay the section of the lecture again.

    Staying engaged in a synchronous class is a little easier, especially if your web camera is on – no way to use your phone during class then! In addition to taking notes, make it a point to participate in the chat or during a question round when you can.

  4. Separate class time from personal time

    The flexible nature of online courses can be a big plus, but it also has a downside – since you can always access your courses any time you want, your personal and school life can start to blur. This can be a problem with in-presence courses as well, but when you physically go to a classroom and then go home, the change in location can help you disconnect.

    When you’re always at home it’s easy to find yourself listening to a lecture while eating dinner or stopping to watch funny videos while writing papers. The result of all this multi-tasking can be that your coursework takes much longer to get through and you always feel like you should be doing something for a course.

    → Try this:

    Plan out the rest of your semester by looking at the deadlines you have and estimating the amount of time you’ll need just to watch or participate in lectures or online discussion groups. Then, take a look at where in your schedule you have blocks of time where you can work on individual assignments, prepare for quizzes or exams, or work on a paper and pencil them in. This past blog post offers additional tips for planning out and organizing the rest of your semester.

    Each day in the morning look at your schedule, make any changes as needed, but then stick to the time blocks as best you can for the day. That means moving on to the next task even if you did not complete the previous one (assuming the previous one isn’t an assignment due the next hour, of course!). It also means that you should focus on just the one task you have scheduled. Time blocks require some practice and discipline, but the reward is that you can keep your nights free for other things and get rid of the nagging feeling that you should be doing more for your courses.

    During a time block, make it easier to focus and not multi-task by working in a designated, quiet place without distractions. Of course, that’s easier said than done if you have roommates, but it can help to keep your headphones on as a signal that you’re busy. Beyond that, you can use some of the strategies in this blog article to avoid checking your smartphone and to focus better.

  5. Deal with never-ending discussions

    When you go to a classroom, the discussion happens then and there. In an online setting, comments on a discussion board can be posted anytime, especially if your classmates are located in different time zones. This can lead to a feeling that you always need to be online and always responding if participation is part of your grade.

    I remember loathing the participation requirement for my introduction to website design course. As we were primarily learning HTML coding and could see right away if we did it correctly or not, it often seemed unnecessary. What was there to talk about? I also felt that I spent hours reading other people’s comments that could have been better used for actual learning.

    → Try this:

    To deal with the amount of posts you have to consume, I would suggest establishing a few set times to check in during the day (a strategy that’s also proven effective for managing email). For example, check and comment once in the morning, once around lunch time, and once before you sign off for the night. Pick and choose the conversations to get involved in rather than trying to respond to everyone.

    If you find it hard to get motivated to participate, it can help to understand why your online course has a discussion section, even for topics that seem cut and dry. One of the findings in a 2010 meta-analysis of studies comparing online and traditional education was that activities that cause students to reflect on what they’ve learned were an effective technique. So, even you’re only commenting on how easy or difficult you found an assignment and why, that already helps you retain information.

    Feeling like you’re part of a community also helps you feel more invested in your learning. The best continuing education courses I’ve taken since grad school replicate this experience, whether it’s through a discussion forum, Facebook group or some other format. The ones where it’s hardest to keep going? The classes where I’ve been left entirely on my own.

    Especially in these strange times where many of us are stuck at home, connecting with your classmates can also help you feel less isolated. This shouldn’t only happen in official course group chats or on discussion boards. Try to have video calls with classmates or online study sessions. In a pinch, you can even play a YouTube video of someone else studying in the background to bring a bit of that coffee shop or library vibe to your home.

  6. Counteract all that sitting

    When you’re performing all class activities at your desk, you may find yourself moving very little during the course of a day. Especially if you don’t have a very ergonomic setup, this can lead to lower-back problems. I unfortunately learned this – at 25! – the hard way. In addition, less movement can have a negative impact on your mood, which can make you approach your coursework with less enthusiasm.

    → Try this:

    Even if you’re no athlete, make sure to build in time to move around a little, ideally at least once every 60 minutes. Light exercise makes for an effective way to take a break as well. For example, if you are in an asynchronous course and find yourself drifting off, pause the lecture and take a short 5-minute break to walk around the room or stretch. This will help you come back to the content with renewed energy.

    Don’t forget to stretch your shoulders, back, and legs to keep your muscles from tightening up. Building in some short cardiovascular exercise bursts, such as jumping jacks, can give you health benefits in a short period of time and may even help your brain learn better. If you search for “desk workouts” online, you’ll find many options.

I hope these tips will prove helpful for online courses you take this semester and in the future under happier circumstances. For now, see what you can do, and try not to put too much pressure on yourself. Just do the best you can in what is a difficult situation. And, if you ever need some support, please reach out to us at Citavi, and we’ll do our best to help.

What do you think about our tips? Do you have any that we left out? Please share your opinions and favorite strategies with us and your peers on our Facebook page.



Created by: Jennifer Schultz – Published on: 3/24/2020
Tags: Learning Good to know

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

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