5 Online Learning Strategies for Students

By Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., co-instructor of Coursera’s online course, Learning How to Learn.

Online learning strategies for students

In the past year, everyday life has transformed as people everywhere adapt to learning and working from home. Learners of all ages have been adjusting to remote learning while taking advantage of the many high-quality online courses they can take from home.

Focusing on your academic pursuits while at home can be tough! To make it easier, I’m sharing my top five tips to help students make the most of their online learning.

  1. Create a plan
  2. Make information stick.
  3. Stay focused.
  4. Eliminate distractions.
  5. Stay consistent.

1. Create a plan.

One of the first things you should do is make a project plan to set goals and timelines. There are so many different tools out there. Some people use Google Sheets to look at different templates and create a project plan. For example, you can use Gantt charts or any other kind of template that works for you and your goals. Goals with specific dates and timelines for reaching them are the most critical aspects of your project plan. You want to consistently track your progress daily and note how much you’ve completed each day. A little progress each day makes all the difference!

2. Make information stick.

When you learn something, you make links between neurons in your long-term memory. When you have many links related to what you want to learn, you have a schema, which makes it easier to retain new information.

I like to think of it as this big net that you throw new information into, which the net then catches because similar information is already there. Knowing a little bit about one topic helps you learn a little more, and each time you learn something new, you slowly add to the net.

One tactic that helps build these long-term memory links is to make connections between new information and things you already know. For example, a friend of mine has a hard time remembering names, but he loves talk shows. Whenever he meets new people, he connects their names with his favorite talk shows to build on already-established links and more easily remember the information.

Spaced repetition and retrieval practice are also invaluable. Practicing pulling new information from your mind strengthens those neural connections. This is as easy as using flashcards to look at a piece of information and then look away as you try to recall it to your mind. All of these help build those links and connections between neurons.

3. Stay focused.

I highly recommend the 25-minute Pomodoro Technique to help you focus. With this technique, you choose a task you want to get done, set a 25-minute timer, and give the task your undivided attention until the time is up. When I find that I am goofing around online or not focusing on what needs to get done, I’ll use this technique to focus myself and just begin working.

Jumping right into your project without thinking about it too much will also help! When you think about something you don’t like or don’t want to do, that can cause pain in the brain. Your insular cortex can react to this with painful feelings, so I recommend jumping right in, making it easier to get into the flow.

The Pomodoro Technique is great because anyone can do 25 minutes. After that, you can relax and reward yourself, which is very motivating — and useful! Sometimes, you’ll find that even after 25 minutes, you’ll still want to keep going, or you’ll go on a walk as a break and have a breakthrough.

4. Eliminate distractions.

It can be difficult to avoid distractions, especially now that more family members work or learn remotely at home. I used to have four kids at home, so I know this challenge well! I have a specific set of earphones, and my family understands that when I have them on, I shouldn’t be interrupted. Putting on the earphones signals to my family that I’m doing a Pomodoro and that they can interrupt me after my 25 minutes are up. You can take a similar approach and designate a cue that reminds your family you are focusing and should not be disturbed. This positive reinforcement is beneficial with family members and allows you to have time for uninterrupted learning and productivity.

5. Stay consistent.

If you want to stay consistent and make something a habit, you’ll want to give yourself a certain and doable amount of time for it each day. Whether it’s 15 minutes or an hour, you want to set time aside for that task, but you don’t want to make it too long because then it’s unachievable. You can track this in a calendar by creating a checkbox each day you complete your task. If your goal is half an hour and you do it for an hour, you can write two checkboxes, but the aim is to have a checkbox for every day. Jerry Seinfeld would do this as a comedian, and each day he created a joke, he would mark it on his calendar. Anyone can use this method whether they are improving their comedic skills or learning something new. It’s about putting time in over a long period that can make a difference. It’s a day-by-day thing that amounts to significant progress.

These are just a few tips I recommend to help you efficiently use your time and maximize your learning. You can explore other valuable hacks in my course Learning How to Learn on Coursera.