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Studying and Time Management for an Online Course

Modern Times Chaplin fixing gearsConcentration

Students often tell me that they like to read with music or the television on, or that they browse the internet or check for messages to take a break from school work. I get the appeal here: studying can be boring, especially when you are just getting started, so staying connected to things that give you pleasure makes studying seem less painful. However, I want to encourage you to find a place to study where you will not be interrupted, and to put the cell phone deep in your back pack or in another room with the sound off. Seriously. Research shows that individuals accomplish more, and do better work when interruptions are minimized. Click on (and off) on the interruptions below and try to read the rest of this web page. See what happens to your concentration.

The above exercise is from a wonderful, award-winning site on Study Guides and Strategies authored by Joe Landsberger.

Time Management

The drop rate in online courses is generally higher than in traditional face-to-face classes. One reason for this increase has to do with the absence of regular face-to-face contact with the instructor and other students, a problem I try to remedy in this class with interesting online group activities and substantial individualized feedback on essays. Another reason students drop online classes is that they find it difficult to make time for studying without regular class meetings to remind them that they are actually enrolled in a class!

My advice, so that you don't end up falling behind and dropping the class, is that you follow the time management steps below:

  1. Preview all of the assignments on the weekly calendar at the beginning of the week so that you can plan your work time for the week. Some assignments (especially essay writing) take longer than others!
  2. Arrange regular blocks of study time for this class. I suggest that you set aside at least 50-minute blocks of time, several times a week, because you will need time to adjust your focus and get connected with the assignment before you actually start to do some good work! When the assignment is to write an essay, or a draft of an essay, don't try to get it all done in one intense session. Your writing will be much stronger if you break down the writing process: write an outline in one study session, a rough draft in another, a re-write for focus and clarity in another, and a final editing and proofreading in another session.
  3. Use free time as study time! When you are driving, standing in line at the grocery store or DMV, waiting around for friends, etc., use that time to reflect on your weekly assignments and goals. If you have an essay due soon, think about what your thesis might be, or how you might organize your essay. Some of my best work is done when I am driving, and I think this is because I don't feel pressured. I just ask myself questions, and try to find answers. And when I do find answers, I jot them down on a napkin, a receipt, or whatever paper I can find (when it is safe to do so, of course), and then, I feel great because I have a place to start when I sit down to write my essay!
  4. Find a quiet place to work where nothing and no one (unless it is an emergency!) will interrupt you, so that you don't waste your time. It is really easy to spent a lot of time "studying" without actually getting any real work done if you are not able to concentrate.

For more helpful tips on time management, see what Landsberger has to say.


Another factor that will affect your success in this class is motivation. You are not going to stick to your schedule or be able to concentrate on your course work if you don't hold on to a sense of why that effort is important. Complete the self-quiz below to clarify for yourself why you want to commit to this class, and keep reminding yourself as you go through the course of your answers to this exercise.

1. Identify your "intrinsic motivation," for taking this course. Intrinsic motivation (vs. extrinsic, or external motivation) is what you hope to gain in terms of personal growth, well-being, self-esteem, and perhaps even growth as a member of a community. Try to find 3 sources of intrinsic motivation (e.g., I want to be able to express myself and my ideas more effectively). Post your "intrinsic motivation(s)" on your bulletin board, your refrigerator, or your computer or phone notepad so that you keep reminding yourself of your goals. There is a lot of research showing that when individuals have strong intrinsic motivation they are more persistent and more effective in achieving goals!

2. Now, identify your "extrinsic motivation" for taking this course. Extrinsic motivation refers to sources of motivation outside yourself. For instance, your extrinsic motivation for going to college is probably to get a degree that will lead to a good job, while your intrinsic motivation may be to grow as a person and understand more about the world you live in. Extrinsic motivations often put a lot of unhealthy pressure on us: we seek rewards, fear punishments, and focus our attention on pleasing others rather than ourselves. Individuals who are intrinsically motivated are generally more confident, successful, happy, and healthy; they are also more independent and more apt to become leaders. So, now write down three reasons you are taking this course for others. However, do not write these motivations on your refrigerator or computer notepad! Force these motivations to take second place to your important intrinsic motivations for taking this class.

Clip from Modern Times, 1936. Boss supervising employees on assembly line.