Friday, 7 June 2013

The Lifelong Learner's Ten Top Tips for Effective Study with MOOCs

From discussions on various courses it is apparent that many of those taking part have either been out of formal education for some time or never really put too much thought into the study process in the first place! Here are my top tips for effective study online. Some of these apply to any study and come from my own experience as a student and a High School teacher, others are specific to online learning and have been developed to take into account research findings and, of course, my own experience.

I make no claims to have any earth-shattering secrets but, if you apply these ideas, you should find that you make more effective use of  your study time and faster progress. As with all study, the more you put in, the more you will take out - so good luck.

1. Set up folders on your computer or online to keep your electronic files together and in order (I have one for each course which, in turn has a folder for each Unit or week). Keep your paper files in equally good order! Having an orderly filing system will mean you can find information more quickly which is important for revision and during exams (which are invariably 'open book'). These files will also be your main reference after the  course is finished so look after them - hopefully, you'll want to use the information again.

2. Set aside some undisturbed time, ideally on a regular schedule (I know, dream on) and try to work in the same place. Having a settled routine and a regular study environment helps to focus the mind and improves recall (honestly, it does). I know that one of the attractions of MOOCs is that you can study as and when time allows but, although this makes use of time which might otherwise be wasted, it really isn't as good as settled study. I should admit that I do about 25-30% of my study in odd short bursts between other tasks but ideally... 

3. Make notes. Depending on your preferences either buy yourself some new notepads and pens (or pencils!) or polish up your latest note-taking software. Make notes regularly as you work through the material. Especially for the video lectures, finding your way back to review something without notes can be quite difficult. 

4. Download videos and audio lectures rather than streaming so they are available for review even if you are offline. Remember that materials may disappear quite soon after a course completes and since most MOOCs are built around video lectures you could find yourself left with only pleasant memories... If your course doesn't offer the facility to download the lectures but uses YouTube videos then find yourself a downloader with which you are comfortable (I use YTD Downloader without any snags). 

5. Plan your time. Mark any due dates for assessments in your planner, either on your computer (or online) or in your desk diary. Be realistic about the time you have available and leave some 'contingency time' for when things go wrong. Working around any set dates, decide how much time each course needs and divide up the time and work to allow you to be ready in good time to submit your assessments. Don't forget to mark in your holidays or you may find yourself falling out with your loved ones! When you are planning your study time...

6. Don't try to work in big continuous blocks - it just isn't efficient. Normally no more than an hour is recommended on a single topic. Either take a break or switch subjects - one hour of Computer Science then half an hour of Psychology. A hidden benefit of the General Education requirement (should you be a Saylor student), is that you will always have 'something else' to study!

7. Review your notes regularly. Try to structure and restructure the information in different ways to help learning and understanding. I like to use visual representations (I would say mindmaps but Tony Buzan has registered that as a trademark!), you might just want to summarise or bullet point, or transfer to study cards (does anyone else still do that) or anything that requires you to change the format around. This process of synthesis (taking information and putting it together in a new form) is one of the key ways to strengthen learning.
8. Do all the exercises. Nobody's looking over your shoulder to make sure you do but we're all adults now and surely know who will lose out if you take short cuts. As well as helping to secure learning, these exercises can be a useful resource later in revision.

9. Don't put it off.  Leaving a difficult exercise until the last minute won't make it any easier. If your course has a more relaxed attitude to deadlines (or is self-paced like most Udacity and all Saylor courses) this doesn't mean you should let things drag on. If you don't make regular progress then you will waste much of your study time reacquainting yourself with the previous material. If it is self-paced then set yourself targets and plan to meet them. But...

10. Be flexible. It can be difficult to judge time requirements when you are studying new subjects or have been away from study for a while. The guidelines given by course providers are quite good - for average students. 

If you find yourself struggling to keep up then take stock. Is it a short term problem, for example a difficult new concept or an overlap of courses for a couple of weeks, or a major miscalculation of time requirements? The former you can just ride out with a bit of extra time squeezed out somewhere. the latter means you need to make a decision. 

While I encourage everyone to keep going when problems crop up, you need also to be realistic. There is no penalty for dropping a course and it (or another similar) will be along shortly. Decide which courses are most important to you, maybe a later course will rely on one you are studying now, and which you can postpone. Make a decision and move on. Another option pretty much unique to the current online offerings is to move to an 'auditing' mode. That means you 'sit in' on the lectures but don't worry about assessments or deadlines. This can be useful if you plan to retake the course later or maybe if you just want some background before going on to related study areas.

11. Because ten is never enough. Remember why you are studying. Enjoy it and don't get too stressed.

Next time I'll be taking a closer look at the largest of the MOOC platforms, Coursera.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for these tips Paul! I'm trying to get used to online learning because when I go back to college this Fall, it will mostly be online! I am guilty as charged of spending way too much time on one given subject. I have to remember to shake it up! I am actually printing this list out and am going to use it as a guide both at Saylor and when I go back to (ew) Algebra Class....