"I am definitely going to take a course on time management … just as soon as I can work it into my schedule." — Louis E. Boone
You’re thinking about taking some or all of your university courses online. It seems easy, right? You can attend when you want, from wherever you want, and however you want. There’s no need to worry about scheduling classes around work or family responsibilities. In fact, you may have even heard that online classes are easier than face-to-face (F2F) courses. It all sounds great — maybe even a bit too good? If you are considering online education, there are some aspects to be considered carefully before you log into your first class.
Be realistic: Online classes are not easier nor will they typically take less time than F2F classes.
If this is your first online class, there may be more of a time commitment because you will also experience a learning curve as you adjust to the online delivery format. You will need to carefully read, think about, and interpret the course materials largely on your own in order to be successful in the course. In a survey of online graduate students, many said that "online courses are more challenging and comprehensive, often requiring more reading and typing than traditional courses."
The work is still there. The traditional recommendation that for every hour in the classroom, two hours should be spent working on the class outside of the classroom is also a good guideline for online courses. Be sure you have scheduled this time into your work and home schedule. As Valerie Dubois Nicholson, an online instructor with St. Francis University stated, "My advice to online university students is to spend a minimum of an hour a day working on homework. Waiting until the end of the week two hours before assignments are due will not work. Online courses involve much more reading and writing as well as interaction with other students in discussion boards."
Most online courses and universities do have attendance or activity requirements. For instance, students must access the course a certain number of times each week by completing a quiz, submitting an assignment, and/or participating in a discussion. If they don’t, they may be automatically withdrawn from the course. Although the bulk of an online class is typically asynchronous, meaning there is no specific time activities must be completed, there are sometimes synchronous activities where students may have to attend a live audio or video discussion via the Internet or occasionally even meet on campus for an introduction to the learning management system (LMS) or a lab. The students in the Payne & Johnson survey "stressed the importance of working consistently to keep up with coursework," estimating they spent "five to twelve hours per week" completing assignments.
Technology is also an important consideration. If you can use email, including knowing how to send attachments, and if you can surf the Internet, you can probably adjust to an LMS. However, you should also make sure your computer system is up-to-date, that your Internet access is better than dial-up, and that your online access is stable. Make sure you have a "Plan B" and even a "Plan C" in case your power or Internet goes out when you want to access your course. Online students often recommend submitting assignments early and asking the instructor for verification of successful receipt to avoid any potential glitches; saving regularly in more than one location and being patient with any technical issues is also helpful.
Be organized: There are ways to make online learning work, and organization is one key.
There is time saved by online learning. You will not have to commute to a campus or be in a classroom at a specific time each week. The flexibility in the schedule does not reduce the total hours needed to complete everything; however, it makes your use of time more efficient. Can you do your own homework while making sure your children do theirs? Many online students also find great satisfaction in being a good role model for their children.
The moment you gain access to your online class, download and print the syllabus and course calendar. Immediately put all important dates, like assignment deadlines, into your calendar. It helps to post this above your computer where you can cross off items as they are completed. Next, review the course by clicking on all areas of the class site to see what is there and what resources are available. Print out and email to yourself all important contact information, especially your professor’s, your classmates, and the number for technical support.
Schedule appointments with yourself that are dedicated to class work. Choose a time when there are typically less demands on you, when support from family or friends may be available, and as online student Alexandra Keathley suggests, "when you feel inspired to do it." Research indicates there is a clear connection between designating a specific time to do coursework and the grades online university students receive. Once you’ve chosen a class time, create a dedicated workspace for your computer and all of your course materials. For most, this is a home office area. On the other hand, if you are truly more comfortable and productive stretched out on the couch with your laptop, this is fine as well. The key is to have everything needed for your class in one place for easy and efficient access.
Prioritize. As you think about all the responsibilities you have, focus on the most important first. At times, sacrifices and adjustments will have to be made, so be flexible. The number of hours a student works and the amount of family responsibilities a student may have seem to affect how successful students are in an online course to a lesser degree than how students manage and prioritize their time and duties.
Be aware: What resources exist in your family, work, and school to help you?
Can you enlist family members or friends to take over some of your responsibilities at various points in the course or even for the duration of it so that you can focus on your class(es)? If family members know why a student is pursuing a degree and ‘buy in’ to it, then they may be more understanding of the new schedule. In addition, have any family members, friends, or co-workers attended college or taken online courses? Do they have any advice? Could they be called upon for help as needed? Think about your work circle as well. Does your employer offer any down time or financial aid for employees seeking additional education?
What resources does your university have to help you? Be willing to reach out to your professor, other students, student services, tutoring/learning centers, the library, etc. when you need assistance. Many of the individuals in this area either are or have been college students in your same position before, so they are frequently a great source of help and relief. They have often heard the same questions repeatedly and may have resources readily available; some schools even have a library dedicated to online students. Contact your school to see what options exist and choose the one that is best for you. Can you attend part-time instead of full-time? Is there a program specifically designed for working adults with families?
Tips for Time Management
Everyone has different strategies for completing tasks on time and effectively managing their daily schedules. Here are some ‘tried-and-true’ techniques for time management that online college students can use.
- Prepare a daily schedule: Many people find it easier to stick to a timetable if they designate deadlines, appointments, and other important tasks and commitments on their calendar each morning. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should prioritize your time by scheduling the most important events first.
- Set SMART goals: In this case, SMART stands for "specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely." Take these five factors into consideration for every goal you set, and use your assessment to create a schedule that accurately reflects the required level of commitment.
- Don’t procrastinate: This one seems like a no-brainer, but as Yahoo! Voices contributor Manon Monsall points out, staying on task all the time is difficult for many people. Practice some hardcore self-discipline and remember: successfully completing an assignment will lead to higher levels of satisfaction and self-confidence than if you simply put off your task until later.
- Dissect big assignments: If you’re working on a project, presentation, or other assignment that consists of multiple stages, then you should break it down into individual chunks, says Karen Burns of U.S. News & World Report. This strategy allows you to work piecemeal, rather than taking on a complex task all at once, and you’ll ultimately save time in the long run.
- Give yourself tighter deadlines: If an assignment is due Wednesday at noon, then don’t wait until Wednesday morning to get started. Instead, set your own deadline — Tuesday at noon, for instance; this will motivate you to complete the task in a timely fashion, while still allowing an entire day to improve on your draft before you submit it.
- Abbreviate your writing: Entrepreneur Travis Leffen recently penned an article for Forbes in which he encourages people to use shorthand when scribbling notes, recording events on a calendar, and performing other written tasks. "It’s quicker than writing everything out in full," he notes, "and every second counts."
- Learn to focus on the task at hand: Students today — especially those who learn in front of a computer — struggle to concentrate on coursework as their phones ring and emails crowd their in-boxes. Entrepreneur.com contributor Joe Mathews urges you to practice ‘ignoring’ these incoming distractions until your current job or task is completed.
- Don’t sacrifice quality for saved time: Completing a task in half the time allotted may seem like a workday blessing, but the Mayo Clinic advises you to "take the time you need to do a quality job." Otherwise, the time you saved will be wasted if you’re forced to perform the same task again.
- Plan for unexpected events: Just as you should prepare for upcoming appointments, you should also anticipate completely random developments. While actually ‘planning’ for these unforeseen variables is difficult (if not impossible), Mathews says a good strategy is to "schedule time for interruptions"; this way, the unexpected won’t eat away at your daily timetable.
- Make time for personal health: Whether it’s taking a stroll during your lunch break or hitting the gym after work, maintaining good health should be one of your top priorities. Studies have shown people who are in good physical shape not only experience greater levels of happiness, but also tend to focus on their studies better.
You are your own greatest resource. If you manage a job, a home, and a family, certainly you can jot down the skills this gave you and apply them to your online learning. Several studies have shown that self-discipline can either make or break the online student. Although online learning may not be exactly what you had imagined, keeping the above points in mind can help you be successful personally, educationally, and professionally.