We can spend hours learning, but if we’re not able to recall, retrieve, or demonstrate what we’ve learned somehow, we’re doing ourselves a major disservice. And it’s going to take longer to achieve our learning goals.
In this post, I’ll share some tips, best practices, and strategies to help you succeed in your online learning journey. Following are excerpts from my Treehouse Festival presentation titled “How to Learn Online Like a Pro.” You can view the entire presentation in our library or on YouTube.
When you’re in control of your learning experience, there can be many factors that affect your engagement in learning. For example, finding the time, passive learning (vs. active), distractions in your learning environment, and other commitments.
These factors, in some way, affect memory and making what you’re learning stick. If what you’re learning is not sticking, you might start to feel a lack of progress, productivity, and motivation. And that often leads to giving up.
How can we best support ourselves to get the most out of self-regulated online learning? And effectively develop new knowledge and skills in a way that we can retain, apply, and adapt to new contexts?
Your Learning Environment
It all starts with your learning environment. Create a distinct space for learning. If possible, make it an area that you don’t frequently use for other activities like watching television, sleeping, eating, or anything that might cause unnecessary distractions.
Minimizing distractions is crucial and significant to learning and the memorization process. If you have anything distracting on your computer, or open browser tabs that are not relevant to what you’re learning, you might want to close them. Avoid social media notifications, keep the TV off, or podcasts, and music with lyrics that can interrupt your learning. You can use those as small rewards for when you’ve completed a learning task.
Self-regulated online learning is flexible, but it presents challenges in scheduling learning time and time management. Lacking a routine and time is often one of the biggest hurdles.
If you’re serious about getting the most out of your learning time, create a schedule. Create a learning habit by setting aside dedicated time for learning. Many of us have work or exercise schedules and routines. Learning is no different. Set up a consistent schedule and routine for studying.
Create a schedule where you spread out your learning time. Binge learning (or cramming) is not practical. You’ll find that learning more frequently but for less time is better than cramming your studies into one long session.
Studies prove that scheduling two separate study sessions with a fair amount of time between the sessions is more effective than one study session of the same total time length. It often results in twice the learning.
Staying Motivated and Avoiding Procrastination
When you’re learning online, at home, for example, there might be a lot of time where you’re sitting and staring at a screen. Be sure to give your body and mind some time away from the “glowing rectangle” by scheduling regular breaks.
It’s easy to get into procrastination mode, distracted, or lose motivation if you’re doing an hour or even a 2-hour long session with no break in sight. So schedule breaks, distractions, and rewards even. Distractions are inevitable, so schedule a time to check your phone, social media, email, Slack, etc.
After reaching a learning milestone, relax for a bit and do something you enjoy. Then return refreshed and focused.
Our brain does not usually retain its efficiency for longer periods, so it’s usually good to study for fixed time intervals. Short, intense bursts of learning might be more effective for you.
One technique I’ve found to help students stay focused and motivated during extended periods of learning and studying is the Pomodoro technique.
Set a timer for 25 or 30 minutes and start your learning task. When time is up, take a 5-10 minute break. That’s one Pomodoro set. After four Pomodoros, schedule a more extended break (20-30 minutes). Your brain will use that time to absorb new information and recharge.
Be an Active Learner
A common question I get from students is, “What’s the best way to retain what I’m learning and put it into practice?”
In online learning, you’ll likely watch lots of videos or read through tutorials. The most important thing I can encourage you to do is be an active learner versus a passive learner.
Active learning is when you are actively involved in the learning process. Passive learning is the opposite – when all you’re doing is consuming the material at face value (only watching, hearing, or reading the material, for example). It’s a one-way effort. In self-regulated online learning, it’s easy to fall into a passive learning trap.
Learning is an active and strategic activity. It’s difficult to retain information through passive learning. For example, you may think you understand the lessons and concepts being taught by just watching, but later struggle putting it all into practice.
Lean forward and engage with the learning material. If it’s a programming course, code along with the instructor, review any supplemental notes and resources or look for practice opportunities related to the lesson.
To make what you learn stick, you should form your own interpretation of what was taught, and that it’s accurate. Converting knowledge from abstract to practical is essential because it’s no longer something someone else has told you. You own that knowledge.
Space Your Learning
Our brains learn more effectively when we space out our learning over time – it’s called the “spacing effect”.
Instead of cramming one big new topic and any related concepts in one go, cover the topic in segments over multiple lessons. For instance, it’s proven that repeating or trying to practice something ten times in one afternoon is not going to stick compared to how it would if you practice ten times over several days.
Plan for spaced learning in your schedule. Allow time to pass (a couple of days, weeks, or months) and then review or practice the same concept again. The number of spaced repetitions and the time between them can depend on the complexity of the material.
For example, if you’re a Treehouse student learning the Python programming language, you might revisit a quiz, a code challenge, or practice session after a few days or weeks. Try spaced learning just when you think you might forget the material, or before you proceed with learning a new concept of the language, and see how much you can recall.
After adapting some of these learning techniques for some time, you’re more likely to recognize when what you’re studying does not make sense. At that moment, you can stop, regroup, and figure something out rather than passively continuing with the next lesson.
Have fun, and enjoy your learning journey. The more you make learning a routine, the easier it becomes, and the more natural it will feel.