How To Get The Most From Your Online Course

If you’ve just signed up for an online course, it’s likely you’re excited and motivated to get started. But once those first few weeks have passed, it can be easy to start procrastinating and putting off your work. It’s human nature! So how can you get the most from your online course? In this article, I’ve put together some tips and strategies for staying focused throughout your course so you can get what you need, learn the material, and put those new skills to use.

But first, let’s take a look at why it can be so easy to get derailed.

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Why do we get stuck?

Don’t you love the thought of learning something new? I sure do! In fact, my parents used to call me the “eternal student” and joke that I would’ve just kept getting degrees if it wasn’t so expensive.

Even though I did eventually end my student days, I still get super excited about learning. I’ve even taken an online cooking class for the truly hopeless in the kitchen — in other words, me! (Seriously, I once ruined a roast so badly that even my dog refused to eat it!)

When I signed up for the class, I was thrilled at the prospect of finally learning how to hold a knife properly, how to (not unintentionally) make sticky rice, and — of course — how to cook a delicious roast.

I tore through the first lesson full of excitement (and finally learned how to chop vegetables without chopping my fingertip off), excitedly went through the second, was interested in the third but couldn’t get to it right away, didn’t read the fourth because I hadn’t done the third yet, and… long story short? Within a week, I’d gone from wanna-be Julia Childs to absentee culinary student.

Why did I let learning much-needed cooking skills fall by the wayside? I was full of enthusiasm, and the lessons were just right — short, simple, and full of info I needed.

The problem wasn’t me. And it wasn’t the class either.

What happened is something that often occurs when you take an online class. You get a little behind schedule, life gets in the way, you freak out when the lessons keep popping in your inbox though you’re days behind.

But don’t lose hope! It’s NOT inevitable that you’ll get behind or overwhelmed in your online class. And, even if you do, you can fix it without superhuman efforts. To give your superpowers a bit of a boost, here are 15 tips and tricks to stay on track, organize and balance your workload, get help when you’re stuck, and maximize your learning experience.

So, if you find yourself in the same situation as I was (I mean behind in an online class — not making canine-repelling roasts!), read on for a quick rescue.

15 Tips to Get the Most from Your Online Course

1. Get on schedule

No matter how well a course is organized, it’s worth making your own plan for learning so it fits your own life. When I was a student here at Skillcrush, I would break the lessons down into “bite-sized chunks” (15-20 minutes at a time is a doable amount to start with), and put each chunk on my calendar so I’d be sure to make time for it.

And, if you want to be extra sure you stick to your schedule, set a reminder for each lesson. (I use a clip of SpongeBob SquarePants incessantly repeating, “Did you finish those errands yet?” as my reminder tone. So irritating that I HAVE TO obey!)

2. Set up your system

Doing a little thinking about your learning each day can help you learn more quickly and easily. So, before you start with your lessons, decide how you’ll approach them: will you quickly glance at everything to get a sense of what’s coming up and then go back and dive in? Or will you start each day by reviewing the lesson from the day before? It’s up to you, but making that decision in advance will let your mind better focus on the work ahead.

And don’t forget to also prep your physical setup for studying too. Install the software you need, find the perfect playlist, make a cup of your favorite tea, and start enjoying some serious learning!

3. Figure out how you learn best

Since online learning means you can do your course at any time, do some thinking about what time you’re at your best and/or can best concentrate on your coursework. If you’re a morning person, try studying first thing each day. Or, if you have a family to get out the door before 7:30 a.m., go for a lunchtime learning session.

Whenever you study, also pay attention to your personal learning style. Replay videos if you learn well by listening. Read articles a few times if you’re a visual learner. Or re-do exercises if you’re more of a hands-on kind of person.

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4. Set a goal

To help a course mean more to you than just a list of lessons checked off, you should also lay out the outcomes you’re hoping to get from the course. In the broader view, that could mean diving into Python so you can get into data science. Or it could be mastering web design so you can make your company’s website even more gorgeous. More specifically, you can challenge yourself to complete five lessons a week or complete a class project before the end of the month.

5. Overachieve (but take a break when you need to)

After you set your targets, remember that you aren’t limited by them. You can get even more out of your online class by doing more than the bare minimum. So, instead of just completing your HTML and CSS lessons, find out about the latest and greatest front-end developer tools. Or, if you’re loving your UX course, do some research about related topics like UI to see if that might be the niche for you. But remember, its okay to give yourself a break when things come up in your life — no one is a machine!

And, while it might feel like it’s still a long way to turning your skills into a new gig, you can actually change your career in a surprisingly short time. If you know HTML and CSS, you can already take on side projects to spiff up sites or even build static sites from scratch. If you’re getting comfy with WordPress, you can probably help with the back-end at your current job or a small business. Or, if you’re looking to land a new job and have access to career counseling resources like our Skillcrush Break Into Tech program offers, why not get a jump start on your job search?

6. Engage with the community

Since online studies mean you aren’t physically in the same place as your instructors and fellow students, you might want to take some extra steps to keep yourself connected and motivated. Chat with other attendees during webinars. Attend live class events. And definitely join the online student community.

You’ll soon realize that you’re far from alone and that there are all kinds of amazing people who understand your situation and can also make learning faster and more fun. And, even if you don’t have any specific questions or problems, the community of like-minded people will help you find new resources, learning experiences, and opportunities for networking — all of which will enrich your learning experience.

7. Connect outside of class

While studying online is mainly a virtual experience, it doesn’t have to be a lonely one. If you’re craving some human contact, you can find other students in your area for in-person learning sessions. Or check out local meetups and groups for more chances for face-to-face connections. And if you’re stuck inside because of pandemic guidelines, join digital groups outside of class and engage via Zoom, Slack, email, etc.

Or share what you’re learning with people outside your course. Professional developers do this using a technique called the “rubber ducky method.” In other words, when you have a tough problem, find someone to explain it to. As the name hints, even a rubber ducky can serve as your listener. Or ask your best friend, mom, or kiddo to lend an ear. You’ll learn a lot when you have to clarify tech concepts to someone totally outside the realm. And bonus: your loved one will understand that part of you much better afterward!

8. Keep a record

Many online classes, like our Skillcrush courses, offer a built-in system for keeping track of the lessons you’ve completed. You should definitely take advantage of these features, but you can also go beyond that. Just jotting down a note (old school on paper or electronically on your phone,) about what you learn each day can help you solidify the concepts or at least appreciate your progress.

Be sure to also save the code snippets, design drafts, and various versions of apps you create. Looking back at them later will arm you against imposter syndrome by showing you how much you’ve progressed. Or you might decide to reuse an “old” idea someday! And, if you want to impress potential employers and strengthen your understanding further, you can blog or tweet about your courses and projects. It’ll be like the rubber ducky concept but for the whole World Wide Web!

9. Persevere

Learning anything takes time, and acquiring a whole new set of skills definitely requires some investment. So don’t be concerned if you don’t fully understand a new concept as soon as you read about it or when your code doesn’t work right the first time. Or the second time. Or the third time. Yep, just like your mom told you, “If you don’t succeed…” Well, you know the rest!

When you accept that, to become a designer or a developer, you have to do the work (your lessons, projects, etc), you can stop thinking about what’s ahead and focus on where you are now. Keep at it day by day, and your learning will pay off before you know it.

10. Look for your own answers

One of the most important skills you can develop in any profession — and in life in general — is knowing how to help yourself. Hopefully, wherever you work, you’ll have colleagues and supervisors to lend you a hand, but they’ll still have their own work to do. So, you won’t be able to run to them every time you hit a snag, which is why you have to figure out ways to sometimes get the answers you need on your own.

As a developer or designer, finding solutions yourself includes being able to critique your own work, debug your own code, and sort through Google search results and online forums like StackOverflow to find answers or ideas to try out. And don’t worry — honest pros in the field will admit that they also have to look up both advanced and basic info now and then. So, don’t doubt yourself when you need to look more deeply or refresh your memory. It’s a normal and important skill you need to have.

11. Ask (a lot of) questions

Can’t find the answer yourself? You don’t have to give up or suffer in silence. That, after all, is the point of having instructors and fellow students in your online course. Once you’ve tried solving a problem on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. BUT, when you do, here are some guidelines to follow to make sure you get the answer you need:

When you send an email to an instructor or post on a forum with a question, be sure to include:

  • The lesson, exercise, or project you’re working on
  • What you’re hoping to do
  • What you’ve tried so far
  • What happens when you try it

Be specific with the details and your question and include the relevant code, screenshots, or links to your project. And make sure the title of the message or post is descriptive (not just “Help!” or “Question”) and that you say thanks in advance. Then, sit back and be patient. Good questions usually get answered in good time.

12. Answer questions too

Now that you’re an expert at asking, you can also do some answering yourself. Although you’re still learning, you’re sure to know some answers that your fellow students don’t, or at least have constructive feedback or helpful resources to offer them. Just like knowing how to help yourself will be important in your career, so will knowing how to help others and give a useful critique.

Plus, beyond the karma- and career-building aspect, writing out some explanations or offering up some code solutions will help you double-check your own learning. Yep, that little yellow ducky is popping up again!

13. Focus on the present

The beauty AND the beast of tech is that there’s always something new to learn. New frameworks, new software, new trends. Exciting but possibly also overwhelming.

When you’re starting out, you can feel like you can’t learn it all fast enough. But you have to remember that every developer rockstar or designer unicorn was in the same place when they started.

How did these gurus get the skills you’re so dreaming of? One step at a time. And that’s how you’ll do it too. Follow along with your course lesson by lesson and try not to get concerned about the big picture. Build your foundation in one area and then consider whether you should go deeper into it or move on to another topic. No one will ever know it all, and you don’t have to either!

14. Have fun!

Just because you’re learning seriously important skills doesn’t mean you have to take yourself too seriously. There’s a whole part of the tech world that’s all about having a good time. So, you can enjoy yourself and still do lots of learning.

Check out some podcasts, go to a hackathon or tech conference, code up a game, or build a website for the latest meme. And spend some time doing something other than tech too. You won’t forget everything you’re learning. In fact, you actually need some R&R to process your thoughts and recharge yourself for your next challenge. And living a more well-rounded life will make you a happier, healthier, and more employable tech wiz.

15. Keep going

If, despite all these tips, you find yourself burnt out or behind, it’s OK. Catching up or restarting is always an option. The point is to continue moving forward, quickly or slowly. No matter how long it takes, it’s never too late. And everything you do toward learning new skills is another step toward your amazing new career!

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Kelli Smith

Kelli Smith is Senior Operations Manager at Skillcrush. She has covered tech skills, careers, and productivity for Skillcrush and The Muse, and her work has appeared in Inc. and Business Insider. She has an MBA in international business and has worked for over twenty years in education. Kelli is a huge fan of dancing, podcasts, and to-do list apps.