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  • Writer's pictureThe English Translator

18 smart hacks to get you through an online course

Updated: May 23, 2023

Hey there, fellow online learners! I’m Andrea Garfield-Barkworth, a German to English marketing translator who loves to learn new things. A while ago, I completed an online course in copywriting with the College of Media and Publishing. It was awesome, but also challenging. I had to juggle work and study, and sometimes I felt like giving up. But I didn’t, thanks to these 18 smart hacks that kept me on track. Maybe they can help you, too.

Six doors against a black and white wallpapered wall

1 Pick the right course for you

This is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people sign up for courses that don’t suit them. Do your homework and check out the course details, reviews, testimonials, and ratings. Don’t just go by the flashy website or the catchy title. Find out what the course covers, how long it takes, how much it costs, who teaches it, and what you get out of it.

Is the course flexible or fixed? Can you study at your own pace or do you have to follow a schedule? Is the course relevant and up-to-date? Is the course accredited or recognised by anyone? Think about these questions before you commit to anything. You don’t want to waste your time and money on something that doesn’t meet your needs or expectations.

Open laptop, pen and notebook on a desk

2 Make a study space for yourself

You need a place where you can focus and get things done. It doesn’t have to be fancy or spacious, but it should be comfortable and well-lit. Make sure you have everything you need, such as a desk, a chair, a laptop, a notebook, a pen, etc. And make sure you keep it tidy and organised.

Hand tapping a Smartphone and a green apple

3 Banish all distractions

This is easier said than done, but trust me, it's worth it. When you sit down to study:

  1. Turn off your Smartphone

  2. Close your email

  3. Log out of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or whatever your social media of choice

  4. Mute all notifications

You don’t need to know what your friends are up to or what’s trending on Twitter. You need to focus on your course and nothing else.

Distractions are the enemy of productivity and learning. They break your concentration and make you lose track of time. They tempt you to procrastinate and avoid doing what matters. Don’t let them ruin your progress. The world can wait until you finish your study session...

People around a desk with open laptops

4 Create an accountability group

Join forces with other learners One of the best things about online courses is that you’re not alone. There are other people who are taking the same course as you and who share your goals and challenges. Why not connect with them and form a support group?

You can chat with them online, share tips and resources, ask questions and give feedback, motivate and encourage each other, and celebrate your achievements together. Having a support group can make your online learning experience more fun and rewarding. It can also keep you accountable and committed to your course.

Post-it note on a hand above documents and digital devices

5 Set weekly goals for yourself

One of the keys to success in online learning is setting realistic and achievable goals for yourself. Don’t just wing it or hope for the best. Plan ahead and decide what you want to accomplish each week. Write down your goals and keep them visible.

Your goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). For example: “By Friday, I will complete module 3 of the copywriting course and submit my assignment.” Having clear goals will help you stay focused and motivated throughout your course.

Calendar with glasses and heart-shaped container

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.

Sand dial with red sand flowing through

7 Use a timer to manage your time

Time flies when you’re having fun (or not). That’s why you need a timer to keep track of how much time you spend on each task or activity. A timer can help you work more efficiently and effectively by breaking down your work into manageable chunks.

A popular method is the Pomodoro Technique, which involves working for 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break. After four cycles of work and break, you take a longer break of 15 to 20 minutes. You can use any timer app or device for this technique (or just use a tomato-shaped kitchen timer).

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:

Be Focused for Apple users

Using a timer can help you avoid burnout and boredom by giving you regular breaks. It can also help you avoid distractions by giving you a sense of urgency and focus.

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.

Woman with a finger on her lips

8 Join a silent working group

This may sound bonkers, but it works. A silent working group is a group of people who log in online and work on their own stuff in silence. They don’t chat or interact with each other; they just get on with their work. It could be studying, writing, blogging, accounting, or anything else. Everyone works in silence, but sometimes there are chat rooms or break-out sessions for those who want to socialise a bit. It’s like being in a virtual study hall with no pressure to talk to anyone, but with a sense of commitment and focus.

There are tons of groups like this online. I’m part of a few translator-related ones and the London Writers’ Hour. This group runs in four different time zones around the world, so you can join them at any time of the day and work in silence.

Open notebook and pen

9 Don’t let a blank page scare you

It’s hard to put your thoughts on paper. We all want to produce a flawless piece of work, but how can you improve it if you don’t write anything? Don’t worry about your first draft being rubbish; that’s normal. When you revise it, you’ll find new ways to express what you want to say. Your second draft will be much better. As Jodi Picoult says, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”.

Notebook, pen and ink, clock, satchel, books and pencils

10 Take notes by hand

Taking notes by hand helps your brain process the information as your hand moves, which helps you understand the material better. The mental processing of the material is deeper when you write. In other words, handwritten notes stick in your brain longer and you get the subject better.

Get yourself a cool notebook and a nice pen to use. I love my Parker fountain pen. It’s cheap but smooth and comes with a handy ballpoint pen as a backup.

Typewriter with piece of paper and words have power typed on it

11 Rewrite what you’ve learned in your own words

When taking notes, always try to rewrite what you’ve learned in your own words. It’s easy to copy notes word for word, but that means you haven’t digested the information. You haven’t sorted out what’s important and what’s not. Rewriting in your own words means you’ll develop a deeper understanding of the material. You’ll be able to summarise and highlight key points, which means that when you review your notes later, you’ll be looking at pure gold rather than junk.

Green highlighter highlighting a word in a notebook

12 Use a highlighter to mark important parts of the text

Use a highlighter to draw attention to key information in the text. I have a system of different colours that I use, yellow for main ideas, blue for facts and figures, green for things I need to do. Find a system that works for you. It will save you a lot of time when you review the text later, as you’ve already decided what’s worth looking at.

A mind map with a cartoon square person with a pen

13 Make a mind map to link all the information

A mind map is like a brain dump of everything that comes to your mind. It helps you organise your thoughts and ideas. There are no wrong answers. Each branch is an extension of a thought you had and can lead to discovering new areas that you didn’t think of before. It frees up your mind to be inventive and creative, letting you find new connections with complex tasks.

Hammocks hanging between trees and Adirondack chairs on a lawn

14 Take a break when you need to

We all hit a wall sometimes. Maybe we don’t get the subject matter, or we find it difficult somehow. Our brains don’t work well when we face a barrier, so the best thing to do is be kind to yourself and take a break. Your brain will keep working in the background. When you come back to your work, you might find that your brain has sorted things out for you or that reading the text again makes things clearer. But don’t use this as an excuse to slack off.

Two boys, one reading a book to the other

15 Read the lesson out loud

I don’t recommend doing this in a public place, but studies have shown that reading a lesson out loud helps you remember it better. Our memory is improved when we read something aloud, making it a great and free way to learn more. How many times have you read and re-read those IKEA assembly instructions until you finally gave in and read them out loud to get the job done? I know I have. So, give it a go. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

Notebook, paper, pencil, smartphone and paper clips

16 Review your notes

You’re 60% more likely to remember something if you study your notes within a day of taking them. You can’t expect to memorise everything you wrote, but if you interact with your notes in some way within 24 hours of taking them, you’ll remember them for longer.

This interaction could be reading over your notes, talking about them with a friend or colleague, rewriting them in a clearer way or answering any questions or problems that came up in them. Notetaking is definitely a skill, but you can boost your chances of recalling key points by going over them again. This article explains it well.

Bowl of popcorn next a laptop and coffee cup

17 Prepare snacks and drinks beforehand so you don’t sneak off to the fridge

We’ve all been there. Settled down with notebook and pen ready, then decided that now is the perfect time to make that fancy cup of coffee with whipped cream on top or that massive sandwich after a hard day’s work. Whatever tickles your fancy, sort it out and get it before you start so that you can really focus on the task at hand. Stop dithering and delaying and start putting on your can-do attitude instead.

Golden trophy on top of a pile of money

18 Remember why you're doing this

What made you sign up for the course in the first place? You must have had a good reason to pick that one. Are those reasons still valid?

a. Will it help you in your daily work?

b. Are you learning a new skill?

c. Will you get a certificate when you finish?

d. How much does it matter to you?

d. Would you advance in your career when complete the course?

e. Can you use what you've learned in some way?

Try to really think about why you decided to do the course and see that as your reward. Put a visual reminder next to your work station if it helps you stay on track. When things get tough, it will help you go back to the reasons why you started. And that’s your main motivation. The why. This takes us back to point 1: Pick the right course for you. If the only reason you’re doing it is because a friend is doing it, you’re more likely to give up when the going gets rough. 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've been out of school for a while. Stick with it by following these 18 tips and you'll soon see the results of your hard work. If you have any methods that helped you finish a course, drop me a line at I'd love to hear from you.

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