We call our program “self-paced”, but we do not often mention that, in many respects, it is “self-directed” as well. Although we lay out pathways and course structures and choose particular resources, how you use any of those tools — and why — is ultimately up to you.
How you find your way around these structures and lanes is also up to you. Even with our guidance and sometimes in spite of it, you are necessarily responsible for your learning. (Sometimes we help to make this clear by throwing frustrating obstacles like broken links your way. See how generous we are?)
Here is one model for success in self-directed online learning; we will elaborate on some of these points in subsequent blog posts. Share your own process or thoughts in the comments!
- Define your goal — Why are you here? What do you intend to accomplish through your learning? If you are here for fun, great! If you are here to improve your resume or advance in your workplace, think about making your goal even more discrete: “I am going to improve my resume by…” or “I will master Calculus in order to…” The clearer your goal is, the more likely you are to stick with your program. Share your goal with people who matter to you – or even with complete strangers – on social media, at the breakfast table, in a secret pact, group text, or…whatever. The simple act of telling someone makes achieving your goal more likely (we have forums and a Facebook wall you are more than welcome to use…). Keep your goal in front of you at all times to stay motivated, but do not be afraid to change it when your own needs change.
- Create your course recipe — We provide several “recipes”, or pre-defined sequences of courses. Originally, we organized courses into majors and minors. More recently, we have defined shorter collections. But like all recipes, ours can be deceiving in their precision — there is a lot of wiggle room! Look at your goal and then assess what time, energy, and previous knowledge you have available to you. Select only the subunits, units, and courses you want or need, and work through them in a sequence that makes sense for you (especially if you need to learn more than you need a certificate). The final product will taste best when it is made from your recipe (which might happen to be exactly the same as one of ours or utterly unique).
- Make a schedule — If you are having a lot of fun, maybe creating a schedule is a non-issue. But scheduling can be key to building the right recipe. Take stock of your time and look hard at what you can reasonably accomplish in the time you have. Set aside blocks in the week to devote to study, as well as times of the day or days of the week or weeks of the month that you allow yourself to take a break. Re-assess your schedule and your commitment often. If you are having trouble keeping to a schedule, rather than charge yourself with failure, look at what needs to change in order to get back on track — maybe it is okay for you to put less time in, or maybe your goal or course recipe needs to change.
- Get organized — Once you have made a schedule, make a calendar, whether paper or digital. Decide how you will keep notes, whether paper or digital. Creating and improving tools to track progress through a course is one of the big requests we get. We certainly can and should do our part to help, but if you are waiting for us to catch up…don’t! Use bookmarks in your browser to keep ready access to tools and materials. Make a note of the last thing you do in any learning session, and be sure to give yourself enough hints about any problems and questions you have so that you can pick up immediately next time from where you left off. Individual methods will vary by a lot, but you might look to these examples for inspiration:
- Engage — Join our community of learners and seek out students not only in your area of study, but in all. Keep in mind that even though you are working on math, you might have a lot to offer someone who is working through English; even though you are focused on Algebra, you might seek help from someone working through Geometry or Calculus. If nothing else, watch the kinds of conversations that take place and dare yourself to jump in when you feel ready. You may not mind learning in solitude, but if you do not require it, think about how you can help others who may be floundering a bit. Share your tips and advice. Post relevant articles. Explain a tricky concept. Ask open-ended philosophical questions. Share your successes and congratulate others on their successes, big or small. Giving someone a figurative pat on the back is super easy and super nice. You will feel good and they will feel great…it’s one of those win-win things you sometimes hear about.
- Persist — You will encounter obstacles! We do our best to assemble great materials and keep them up to date, but some resources may be confusing, too technical, or missing altogether. Especially in the case of broken links and missing resources, let us know so that we can help look for a solution, but turn also to the wider community for assistance – and if you cannot wait, see what gems the Web can offer up. Do not let a stumbling block become a full roadblock.
- Reflect and re-evaluate — All the time! Think about what you are learning, why, and how. Consider your goals. Consider your progress. Evaluate your schedule. Ask yourself questions. And don’t just think about it – write it down! Keeping a short diary of your progress in addition to your course notes will help you to determine why your (schedule, quizzes, readings) are working well or not so well. When you were successful in the course — passed a quiz or felt like you really got a reading or lecture — monitor yourself. Figure out where to attribute your success: was it some study technique you used? Your mood at the time? The setting? Replicate those things. Likewise, if you failed the quiz, ask the same questions and adjust accordingly. When you truly understand when and how you can be at your best, you can be much more confident that you are doing right by yourself.
- Reward yourself — Staying motivated is a big part of the challenge of independent learning, especially for long, college-level courses like ours. What does success look like for you? Is it earning a certificate? Mastering a discrete skill? Creating a human connection? Getting a raise? Define what success is for you in both small and large terms, determine appropriate rewards, and then make sure you pay up. Congratulations are probably in order whenever you feel that they are. Just as with organization, we can and should work to offer you better rewards, but if you are waiting for us to catch up…don’t. Do right by you, and then go tell the community about it so we can all share in your success and borrow your great ideas for recognizing it.
Remember: when the going gets tough, hey…it was tough all along. But if you are prepared, you will make it through, and likely learn much more than you bargained for.