10 tips for learner success in online courses

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Quetzali Ramírez
A man sits at a desk, looking at laptop screen while writing notes
Photo: Shutterstock.com

As an education operations associate at J-PAL, I am exposed every day to the highlights and pitfalls of online education. I work on the MicroMasters program in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP), a program created by the Department of Economics and J-PAL to make MIT courses accessible online to the general public. Since starting in 2017, more than 31,000 learners have enrolled in at least one of the six MicroMasters courses. 

In my role, I provide support to thousands of DEDP learners. One major lesson I have taken away, both from interacting with online learners and in my own experience with online learning, is that learning online is undoubtedly different than learning in a classroom! And, as numerous universities across the globe have moved their classes online during the coronavirus pandemic, many more educators and students are experiencing the challenges of online learning firsthand.

For any student, learning online may be an adjustment. In person, there are external factors that keep you motivated (e.g., specific class times, positive peer-pressure to show up to class and work hard, and accountability requirements from professors or classmates). Online, you are on your own. You must learn to motivate and hold yourself accountable in a new way. And, now more than ever, there may be additional stressors or responsibility in your day-to-day life that can make learning online hard. 

To help ease the transition to online learning, Quetzali Ramírez, a top-performing MicroMasters learner and teaching assistant (TA), and I compiled ten tips gathered from our collective experience as online learners and supporters of others’ online learning experiences. We hope these will help you get the most out of online learning.

1. Review the course syllabus to see how you should spend your time.
Spend your time wisely. Make sure to review the timeline and weight of assignments for the remainder of the semester. This will allow you to allocate more time and attention to the important assignments and requirements of the course. Follow along with the timeline to ensure you stay on track. 

2. Set a rhythm or routine to your online learning.
To keep yourself in a good pattern and remind yourself of the structure of in-person learning, set a schedule of specific times to watch lectures and study. During this time, try to eliminate outside distractions to the best of your ability. Turn off your phone and try to spend focused time on your lectures or assignments. If it works for you, try the 25/5 rule: work for 25 minutes uninterrupted and take a five minute break. This resting time can help you recharge and refocus for your next 25 minutes of work.

3. Define a specific place to do your work.
Doing work in bed or in a particularly social part of your home may make it hard to stay focused. Try to set up a location to do your schoolwork that makes you feel as though you are in “work mode” rather than “home mode.” If you are in a tight space or have limited options on having a defined workspace, circle back to setting a rhythm or routine by having clearly defined “work time” and “break time.”

4. Expect your effort level to remain the same.
Although it may seem easy to assume the workload will decrease or become easier when moved online, this is likely not the case. Plan to spend the same amount of time, or perhaps even a bit more, attending your lectures and devoting to coursework. It is also a good idea to review your university’s grading policy this semester to help determine where to concentrate your efforts.

5. Continue to take notes.
Although tempting to keep all of the material online, it is important to still take notes to build the information into your memory. The act of writing it down, whether on paper or on your computer, will help your recall of the information. Have a specific folder on your computer or notebook in your house dedicated to your class.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
There will still be topics that are difficult. Be sure to watch the lectures twice if you feel you are a bit lost. However, also be ready to ask questions when you have them. If there is a dedicated discussion forum or a direct email for the professor or TA, make sure you reach out and try to clarify rather than remaining confused.

7. Try to build community in your online classes.
Whether you were in a large lecture style course or a small seminar class, the best way to stay dedicated to your classes is to have community support. As your university’s honor code permits, post in discussion forums, email the class listserv, or try to start an online group chat. Having a community can allow you to discuss questions you have, talk over best practices for motivation, and hold you accountable to your work. Additionally, your professors and TAs are there to help—engage with them.

8. Find intrinsic motivation as best as you can.
Without the external motivation of going to class, come up with some ways to hold yourself accountable. A great way to stay motivated is to love what you are learning, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you may simply need to remind yourself that you need the grade to graduate or fulfill requirements, or that the class will help prepare you for something bigger you care about. 

9. Remember that your professors and TAs are also adjusting!
With many changes taking place, it can be easy to get frustrated with the little things. However, keep in mind that the course administrators are facing a big change as well. Try to forgive the little mistakes and help your instructors work through some of the course kinks as everyone adjusts to online learning. 

10. Do what works for you.
Though this is a helpful list of ideas to aid your online learning, ultimately you need to figure out what works best for you. Don’t be afraid to use some trial and error. Perhaps a certain time of day allows you to be more productive, or a specific ratio of work to resting time. Allow yourself to try and potentially fail a few times in the pursuit of developing a good routine and process for your online learning.

The next semester of our online MicroMasters in Data, Economics, and Development Policy begins June 2. Check out the courses and enroll today >>

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