Ever wanted to learn a new language? Pick up some computer skills? Perhaps brush up on some world history? It’s never been easier with the wide availability of open courses and online education. The world of knowledge is literally at your fingertips 24/7, merely a click away. But even with a resolution to expand your mind, it can be difficult to stay motivated when there is no external pressure to push through the work. For some it even brings back memories of groaning school days and exam stress. Yet, it doesn’t have to feel that way. In this age we are given such an opportunity to learn anything we’ve ever wanted to learn from scholars and experts all around the world. With a few tips and tricks you too can stay the course.
OpenCourseWare (OCW) lessons deliver educational content typically published by universities and posted free or at low-cost online. They include course notes, example problems, videos, articles, and more designed for independent study. A quick search will yield results from the likes of Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Yale, Tufts, and many others. In addition, stand alone learning sites have been established to provide general education on a variety of topics. Subjects range from personal finance to advanced robotics, with everything in between. Here are a few of my favorite sources:
So now that you’ve chosen a course, how do you approach it? Check out these ten tips to keep you on track:
1) Set a (SMART) goal
Before jumping into a course, you’ll be most successful if you understand what you want to learn and when you want to learn it by. For example, “I’d like to complete this course on introductory physics within three months in order to understand the fundamentals of mechanics.” Framing the goal will help you plan out the best way to achieve it.
2) Understand your motivation(s)
It’s not always enough to just want to do something without knowing why you want to do it. Ask yourself what you to gain by taking an online course: maybe studying up on personal finance will help ease the stress of tax season/family budgeting or perhaps learning to code will enhance your resume. Make a note of the reason and post it somewhere visible so it won’t be forgotten.
3) Set short-term milestones
Some of these courses are based on material that can be covered within a week, while others are built around semester-long college syllabi. Don’t let the longer ones discourage you! Break up the course into smaller chunks (i.e. units) and set a timeline to complete each of them. Mark the dates in your calendar so you have deadlines to meet.
4) Plan a reward
While the satisfaction of completing a course may be enough for some, it always helps to dangle an extra carrot at the end of the road. Choose a reward (or multiple small ones for short-term milestones) that you can look forward to at the end of the course. Share your reward idea with friends or family to help you stay accountable.
5) Dedicate a routine time block
In busy schedules it’s difficult to squeeze in time every day for an extra task. Look at your average week and find a routine time you can focus on your education. This may be 15 minutes per day or an hour twice a week; whatever works for you consistently. Try to pick a time when you can be free from other distractions. Sticking to a routine will get you a lot further than simply logging in now and then. Speaking of distractions, make those time blocks social media-free!
6) Choose a study space
Some people need complete peace and quiet in order to study, and others don’t mind a bit of background noise. Try both and see what works best for you. Noise-reducing headphones or white noise sites (like Coffitivity) are your friends. Whichever you choose, have a clear workspace and equip it with whatever tools you may need (notebooks, pens, highlighters, post-its, etc).
7) Dedicate a notebook/binder/folder
Speaking of supplies, it’s best to keep your course notes in one location. This can be a notebook and folder with a set of printouts or a comprehensive binder. Doing this keeps you focused on one subject at a time and lets you organize your thoughts for review.
8) Set reminders
Even with a routine, it’s easy to put aside personal development when there are plenty of other tasks to complete during the day. Set reminders for your study blocks and put your sessions in your calendars as standing appointments. Make them motivational, functional, or authoritative: whichever will get you back on the computer.
9) Keep a running list of questions to answer
Retention is always optimal when we are engaged in what we are learning. If you get stuck on a concept or you don’t understand an example, make a note of it and search out the answer. Allow yourself time to review your notes and clear up any confusion.
10) Supplement with real-world applications
Course material can often get dry, so make it a point to read interesting related articles or practice what you’ve learned. If you’ve been studying Spanish, try to have a conversation with a fluent speaker. If you’ve been studying finance, create a sample budget. If you’ve been studying engineering, read up on some of the incredible inventions being released. Tying everything together will help solidify the material in your mind.
I hope these tips can help keep you motivated as you pursue your independent study. If you haven’t explored OpenCourseWare before, now is a great time to try it. There is literally a course out there for everyone. Best of luck!