How to be successful at online learning: 8 strategies and tips for learning online
Online learning is a skill and you need to learn it to do well. Less than 5% of people who take a course online actually finish it, so it’s important you have some good strategies for success.
Here are most important 8 tips for online learning that I’ve learned from finishing quite a few classes:
- Find a friend to do it with you and commit to weekly study sessions. Better yet, find 3–4 friends and form a study group. Online learning is extremely lonely and when you get stuck you are really stuck — having friends to work through problems together is critical. I’ve also found study buddies remotely and used chat and video chat instead of real person meetings.
- Start with just 1 class, and give yourself a deadline to finish. Online learning is not particularly harder than classroom learning, it’s just different. You need to be more self-disciplined, but you can go at your own pace. The first class is the hardest because you need to learn to learn online and also learn the material. So start with 1 class and finish it before moving on.
- Establish a routine study schedule. Block out your most productive 2–3 hours Monday through Friday for classwork. You’ll have to watch lectures, read books, do homework. It’s not realistic to think that you can just put it off to the weekend because you may hit a block or be tired from working all week. Treat it like a job and don’t schedule stuff on top of it ever (no appointments, happy hours, gym, FaceTime, etc). When in doubt, ask yourself if you would schedule that ‘event’ you want to go to during your day job. Engineering also requires deep thought and it takes a while get into it, so 3 hour blocks work well. For me this was 6–9am.
- Turn off your phone and other distractors. Don’t check email. Don’t pick up your phone or text. It’s so easy spend an hour messaging or checking instagram, so don’t even give yourself the opportunity to get distracted. Put the phone in your backpack as I’ve found having it next to you makes you want to turn it back on. Close all chat apps and social media on your laptop.
- Get a kitchen timer. There’s a technique called Pomodoro for when you’re confronted with a large and difficult task (like learning for 2 hours). The method is that you just tell yourself you will focus on it for 15 mins. During the 15 mins, you’re so focused on working for 15 mins that you won’t get distracted; and after 15 mins you’ve made sufficient progress to be ‘in the zone.’ This helped me get into the groove daily. I used this $15 cube timer.
- Watch lectures at 1.5x speed and pause/rewind during sections you don’t understand. This is a huge benefit of online learning — you can actually pause and rewind on the spot to work things out on paper if you didn’t understand the material. Because you don’t get to ask questions, it’s important that you train yourself to fully understand one section before moving on.
- Buy the book. A lot of times the lectures/handouts don’t explain something well. It’s best to get a book to get a second explanation because there are no teachers or course assistants to ask.
- Grade yourself on assignments and exams faithfully. It’s easy to think that you shouldn’t have missed the dumb mistake, but often your process for problem solving can be dramatically improved.
If all else fails, try a paid class at Stanford. Stanford offers some of their classes through SCPD, delivered online. It’s expensive at around $6000 per class, but you will have more skin in the game and some help from the teaching staff. After one class, you should get the hang of online learning and can learn the rest by yourself.
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Thank you to my friends Adam Preiss and Meg He for reading drafts of this.