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Tips for online learning

Learning online requires a different approach than many of us are used to.

I took one online course during my undergrad and more recently, two sets of online classes this summer and I've just started back into full time grad school a couple of weeks ago. I’ve learned a lot about adjusting my learning routine to suit the new digital format and here are some of my tips for successfully learning online.

Some things stay the same.

While going completely digital is a huge shift, some things really do stay the same. Like with all my in-person classes, at the beginning of the course I always take the time to look through the syllabus (course outline) and input all the major deadlines and assignments into my calendar. Even though I could keep it all on my computer, I do still write it down in a physical calendar or agenda because it helps me see and organize my workload.

What works best for me is to colour coordinate each course and then write any assignments or important notes in that colour within my calendar. Each week on my “weekly spread” I write down tasks due this week, tasks due next week, and tasks due in 2 weeks. This allows me to “look ahead” without actually flipping to the following weeks and I can also see if I need to work a little bit ahead on one of my lighter weeks so that I’m better prepared for busier weeks (ie. midterms and finals)

Some things change and that’s okay.

Use the Notes App

Previously, I would hand write notes during lecture because it would help me concentrate in class and retain that information. Now that classes are delivered in video conferencing formats, I find it harder to write physical notes while adding to the “chat” discussions online because I’m not a pro at toggling between digital and physical. My solution? I keep the “notes” app on my computer open and type out anything of major importance or copy and paste relevant class discussions that occur in the chat feature. After class is over, I go through my notes and add annotations that I think I may need in the future to understand the class content when it isn’t fresh in my mind.

Flashcard Apps are helpful for fact-based content

For fact-based courses that require lots of memorization, like art history, I have a file that lists all the “facts”: artwork images, artists, dates, etc. that are required. Using that information, I create a deck of flashcards using an app (you can do it by hand too if that works better for you). My app of choice at the time was Quizlet but nowadays there are so many more to choose from. Things to consider for your app is the ability to adequately test your course material (ie. I need to insert photos of artworks to test myself on art history facts) and the app's integration with your toolbox (ie. I can use the app both on my phone and on my computer). Lately Anki has been rising in popularity, but I can’t speak to it’s use because I’ve moved away from studying with flashcards.

Develop your "Second Brain"

Now that my studies are generally about ideas, frameworks, problem-solving and discussion, I’ve changed my routine and place more focus on understanding. For each class, I collect links for readings and resources that are relevant and drop them into course folders on my computer. That way, when it comes to writing an essay or preparing for a presentation, all the relevant resources are already there. This relates to the Second Brain concept (if you're not familiar with it, you can check it out here) that basically states that human brains are made for having ideas but not saving them and then gives a framework for building a “second” brain (or a methodology that you can follow) to save your ideas, which can used in the future for more productive output. The concept is interesting and I think on a certain level we all do it, just maybe not as efficiently or effectively as possible. There are tons of youtube videos and (expensive) courses on the matter but realistically, I think we can all apply the core concepts and develop our own Second Brains in ways that work best for ourselves.

Manage your accountability

Before, during in-person classes, it was easier to shift your responsibility to learn onto a professor or the school because as long as you showed up to class (which has participation grades and repercussions if you don’t) you would be - to a certain extent - forced to absorb some information and thus, “learn.”

This, however is no longer the case because even if you log into your conference call class, you can still “check out” much easier (either mentally or physically by simply leaving the room). Now, learning has become an even more individual responsibility (it was before as well, depending on your mindset). Learners will need to maintain their own accountability to their learning because teachers and schools simply cannot via a digital platform. Some ways to manage your accountability are to:

-schedule time in your day to allocate to class and school work

-actively seek out help (ie. email teacher, go to office hours, discuss with peers) if you’re struggling with a concept

-Understand your personal learning goals

Let’s delve deeper into personal learning goals.

These are goals that you set for yourself as a learner and they don’t necessarily align with the professor’s course objectives or the University’s program objectives and requirements. These are things that you care to learn about to better your knowledge for your own future. For me, my learning goals (generally speaking) are geared towards the field I’m going into, to have an in-depth understanding of issues that I want to help change in the industry and to have fun with my learning by focussing on topics I enjoy. Not every course I take is geared towards my own personal learning goals, however, I make the decision to tailor my learning so it better suits me. I’ll go through all the core concepts and readings that are requirements to understanding and completing the course, but any other “additional” or repetitive readings and resources I simply reject (LOL). Instead of “wasting” my time with content that isn't beneficial, I take that time to invest into my personal learning goals by looking for and reading resources that interest me.

Knowledge acquired from pursuing personal learning goals tends to be more valuable and you retain it for longer (because you’ve assigned it value). So, if you’re in a course and you’re reading the 10th journal article on the same topic with no new relevant information, maybe give yourself permission to not finish that assigned reading and to take that time to delve deeper into topics and readings that do peak your interest.

Be realistic

In physical school there were natural pauses: 5-10 minutes in between classes to chatter among classmates, time to take bathroom breaks, grab a snack or fill up your water bottle. Learning online changes that routine, so make sure to build it in for yourself. Maybe make a coffee before class since you would normally pick one up from Timmies on your walk to school or take breaks throughout your day so you’re not just sitting in one spot staring at a screen.

It’s important that we don’t demonize or romanticize online learning. There are pros and cons to both online and in-person school and as accountable learners, we can be realistic about these things and find solutions to make this new digital format work for us. I hope you all have a wonderful back to school season and if you have any tips for bettering our own digital learning, please comment down below!

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