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18 smart hacks to get you through an online course

Updated: May 28, 2022

18 smart hacks to get you through an online course

A little while ago, I finished an online course in copywriting with the College of Media and Publishing. It took me a year to get through the course as I was also working at the same time. I struggled to stay motivated at times, but these 18 tips kept me going. Hopefully, they will help you, too.

1 Choose the course wisely

This might sound obvious, but not all courses are created equal. Do a thorough background check to see if it meets all your needs. Most websites have a testimonial page, but these will be vetted and only feature posts from students who give positive reviews. So search around to see if you can find any other information on the course.

You may find feedback on a particular tutor, comments on the course’s relevance, and how challenging it is to follow. Basically, all the stuff you need to know before you part with your hard-earned cash.

Do you have to do the course within a specific timeframe? Could that be a problem if sessions clash with other things going on in your life? Or is it self-paced with assignments and coursework that you can fit into your lifestyle? Think hard about whether you are suited to a self-paced course. Are you disciplined enough to show up and do the work?

2 Create a designated study area You’re more likely to start working if you have an area you can call your own. If you have to rearrange half the furniture every week, you’ll soon get fed up - that’s when the rot sets in. Make sure you have a comfy chair with enough decent lighting and space for you to spread out all your books and writing paraphernalia.

3 Have a distraction-free zone Before you settle down to work, make sure to:

a. turn off your Smartphone

b. close your email software

c. log out of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, whatever your social media of choice is.

Because if you don’t, you know what will happen; the moment your creative juices start flowing is precisely when that distracting ping of a new message will sound. Stop the distraction before it happens. The world will wait.

4 Create an accountability group An accountability group is basically a group of people in the same situation as you. As you all share similar goals, you can offer one another support in getting through those sticky patches. It’s important to check in with one another regularly. Once a week worked for me. Share what progress you have made, what’s working and where your stumbling blocks are, then you can all discuss how to overcome hurdles and get going again. Your accountability group could be in person or a group you create online, such as a Facebook group, for this specific purpose.

5 Create a goal-setting group This is similar to an accountability group, only this time, you tell the group what you hope to achieve in the coming week. If you hit your goal, then give yourself a little reward. It’s amazing how motivating it can be. Don’t make your target too difficult; you’ll find it’s easier to accomplish little goals and maybe overreach them occasionally than to struggle and find yourself dropping out because you didn’t want to fail.

6 Select a yep-this-is-study-day day Designate a specific day in the week for reading, studying and doing research and another day for writing coursework. It doesn’t stop you from adding extra study days if you’ve got the time and you’re in the mood, but it helps if you can stick to a schedule by having a specific day. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t manage everything in one day. Just keep showing up and you’ll see progress over time.

7 Set a timer. Pomodoro Technique If you find it hard to focus, maybe the Pomodoro Technique is right for you. It helps you manage your time more effectively by breaking it down into intervals. 25 minutes of focused work is an adequate amount of time for getting things done, followed by a five-minute break. You can repeat as often as you like but take a more extended break of around 15 to 20 minutes after your fourth consecutive round of focused work.

You can use several different time tracking systems, so if one method doesn’t work for you, try a different one. I’ve listed a few of the most popular for you here: Marinara Timer Forest Be Focused for Apple users KanbanFlow Toggle Track

If you don’t want to use an app, there’s always the good old kitchen timer and your Smartphone, of course. Just make sure you don’t start checking your messages; otherwise, you might find yourself going off track again. Celebrate when you stick to it.

8 Join a silent working group They’re also known as co-working groups. If you’ve never heard of this, I admit it sounds a little strange. Basically, a silent working group is a bunch of people who are all online together and who want to work on something specific during the session. It could be studying, work-related, a blog post, a short story, your business or household accounts, whatever. Everybody works in silence, sometimes there are break-out areas for people to chat in, or you can also use the chat function, but it works in a similar way to the accountability group and really helps you get things done. It’s like sitting in a virtual library room with no obligation to talk to anybody, but you have the commitment to focus on what needs to be done.

There are loads of different groups out there. I’m in a few translator-related ones and the London Writers’ Hour. This group takes place in 4 different time zones around the globe, which means there are four times in a day when you can turn up and work in silence.

9 Don’t be frightened of a blank page It’s scary getting those thoughts down on paper. We all want to turn in a perfect piece of work, but how can you improve it if you don’t put anything down? Expect your first draft to be poor, then when you go through it again, different aspects of what you wanted to say will pop up in your head. Your second draft will be much more coherent. As Jodi Picoult says, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page”.

10 Write notes by hand Writing notes by hand gives the brain a chance to process the information as your hand moves, helping to further your understanding of the material. The cognitive processing of the material is deeper when you write. Put simply, handwritten notes stick in your brain for longer and you understand the subject better.

Get yourself a snazzy notebook to use and why not throw in a decent pen as well. My writing instrument of choice is a Parker fountain pen. This one is inexpensive but flows beautifully and comes with a handy ballpoint pen as a backup.

11 Put what you’ve learnt into your own words When notetaking, always try to put what you’ve learnt into your own words. It’s easy to write notes verbatim, but it means that you haven’t processed the information. You haven’t sifted what’s important and what’s fluff. Writing in your own words means you will develop a deeper understanding of the material. You’ll be able to condense and summarise key points, which means that when you look over your notes later, you’ll be looking at pure gold rather than dross.

12 Highlight key areas of the text Pick out important information using a highlighter. I’ve created a system of different colours I like to use, yellow for main ideas, blue for facts and figures, green for things I need to do. Develop a system that works for you. It will save you loads of time when you need to go over it again, as you’ve already made a decision on what’s worth looking at.

13 Create a mind map to connect all the information A mind map is virtually you brainstorming everything that comes into your head. It helps you sort out your thoughts and ideas. There are no wrong answers. Each branch is a progression of a thought you’ve had and can lead to exploring exciting areas that hadn’t originally occurred to you. It frees up your mind to be inventive and creative, letting you find new associations with complex tasks.

14 Don’t be afraid to take a break We all struggle at times. Sometimes we haven’t understood the subject matter, or we find it problematical somehow. Our brains don’t properly function when we hit a barrier, so the best thing to do is go easy on yourself and give yourself a break. Your brain will be busily working away in the background. When you return to your work, you might just find your brain has sorted things out for you or re-reading that section of text helps things slot into place. This doesn't let you off being accountable though.

15 Read the lesson out loud I don’t suggest you do this in your local library, but studies have shown that reading a lesson out loud means you experience a memory-boosting effect. Our recall is significantly enhanced when we read something aloud, making it an excellent and free way to retain more information. How many times have you read and re-read those IKEA assembly instructions until you finally submit to reading them out loud before you can get the job done? I know I have. So, give it a try. You have nothing to lose and could gain an awful lot more.

16 Go over your notes

There is a 60% higher retention rate if you study your notes within one day of taking them. You can’t expect to be able to memorise everything you have written, but if you engage with your notes in some way within 24 hours of having taken them, you are much more likely to retain the information for a longer period.

This engagement could be reading over your notes, discussing them with a friend or colleague, re-writing them into a more coherent form or answering any questions or problems that cropped up within them. Notetaking is definitely a skill, but you can improve your own chances of remembering salient points simply by going over them a second time. This article gives a great explanation.

17 Have snacks and drinks ready so you don’t sneak off to the refrigerator We’ve probably all done it. Settled down with notepad and pen in hand, then decided now is the perfect time to make that special barista-style cup of coffee with whipped cream on top or make that chunky sandwich after a hard day of work. Whatever floats your boat, sort it out and get it before you sit down so that you can truly focus on the task at hand. Stop prevaricating and procrastinating and start putting on your can-do mindset instead.

18 Think of the rewards Why did you do the course in the first place? You must have had a very good reason to choose that particular one. Are those reasons still valid?

a. Will it help you in your day-to-day work?

b. Are you learning a new skill?

c. Will you be awarded a certificate on

completion? If so, how important is that to you?

d. Would you progress up the career ladder when you finish the course?

e. Can you utilise what you have learnt in some way?

Try to really think about why you chose to do the course and see that as the prize. Put a visual reminder next to your workstation if it helps keep you on track. When things get tricky, it will help pull you back to the reasons behind why you started. And that is our key motivator. The why. This brings us back to point 1: Choose the course wisely. If the only reason you are doing it is because a friend is doing it, you are more than likely to fall at the first hurdle when the going gets tough. So, make sure your reasons are valid.

It can be hard to stay motivated when you're doing a self-paced online course. Especially if you haven't seen the inside of a classroom for a while. Stick with it by following these 18 tips and you'll soon be seeing the fruit of your labour. If you have any methods that helped you to complete a course, drop me a line at Hope to hear from you soon.

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