Online Learning Tips for You & Your Members to Take Back to School

As fall approaches, you or your members might head back to school, perhaps taking an online class for the first time. We won’t sugarcoat it: professional development is a big commitment; you’ll have to make adjustments to fit it into your life. But the new habits and practices you develop will benefit you long after the course is over.

Ace your course with these online learning tips

These online learning tips will help you ease into this new experience and establish effective studying habits. You’ll soon see that one practice often strengthens another and benefits you in other areas of life. Share these tips with your association’s online learners so they get the most out of their programs.

Time management

Juggling a course with work and personal responsibilities is quite a challenge, but you can master it with these practices.

Know how much time you need to dedicate to the course. The course description should tell you, but if not, ask the provider or instructor. See if you can find someone who took the course—ask on industry forums—and get the real scoop on the time required.

Determine the best time to do focused work. You might plan to work on your course at night after putting the kids to bed, but you may not have the energy and focus then. Be ready to create a new routine, perhaps waking up early before everyone else is up or taking a mid-morning break at work to spend 30 minutes on the course.

Make a realistic schedule. Reserve time for classes and homework in your calendar app, planner, or whatever tool you use to keep your life organized. Put in all assignment and exam dates. Integrate work and personal commitments so you see the full picture.

Block time on your calendar. Set appointment reminders to work on the course.

Break big tasks into smaller ones. Working backwards from due dates, add small tasks to your schedule along with milestones you’ll pass along the way to complete larger assignments. Allow buffer time for the unexpected.

Identify daily goals. In your daily or weekly schedule or to-do list, identify what you need to work on each day. You’re less likely to procrastinate if you know exactly where to start.

Anticipate trouble. Think about all the potential ways your plans could get upset and plan how you’ll overcome those obstacles.

Learn to say “no.” If you say “yes” to be nice or please others, you’ll overschedule yourself and coursework will suffer. Saying “no” is a good practice to learn to maintain healthy boundaries.

Track your time. Use time-tracking apps to find out where your time goes. You won’t have to do it for long to see where you need to make changes.

online learning tips

Motivation and procrastination

Taking a course gives you the chance to achieve two goals—one obvious, one not so obvious:

•    Pass the course, make progress toward a certificate or digital badge, and acquire skills and knowledge you can apply at work now or in the near future.

•    Increase self-discipline. You’ll need it to stick to your plan—and it might be the greater of these two accomplishments.

Purpose. To fire up your motivation, think about your reasons for taking this course. How will it make your job easier, set you up for the future, or change your life? What impact will it make professionally and personally?

Procrastination is inevitable. It’s not laziness, it’s resistance. You’re choosing an easier thing to do over a more difficult one. Procrastination is sometimes your mind’s way of asking for a break, but, usually, it’s resistance.

Acknowledge when you’re procrastinating and don’t beat yourself up for it. Instead, get to the root cause. Are you bored by the work in front of you? Tired? Daunted? Overwhelmed? Now that you know what’s lying behind it, find a solution.

Don’t wait for motivation, inspiration, or the right mood. These exalted states rarely descend upon someone. You’ll get into the flow when you simply start doing the work. Pick a small task and just do it.

Pin this observation from Abraham Lincoln in front of you: “Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.”

Keep the end in sight. Set a timer for 10 minutes—you can commit for 10 minutes. Or try the Pomodoro method for 25 minutes.

Rewards. At the end of each week, if you’ve stuck to your schedule or accomplished what you intended, reward yourself.


It’s easier to procrastinate when distractions lie in wait. Although it’s tempting to handle just a few emails, you can’t multi-task during study time. Now’s the time for focus, the rest can wait.

You know what to do to eliminate distractions, but I’m telling you anyway.

•    Close other windows on your screen.
•    Maximize course video screens.
•    Put your phone on silent.
•    Turn off, hide, or mute notifications from email, Slack, Teams, social, etc.
•    If noise is a problem, use noise-canceling headphones or find a different study spot. A café’s noise is easier to block out because you don’t know the people talking.
•    Find an instrumental ‘focus’ or ‘study’ playlist on Spotify or other music service. It’s worth paying for an ad-free subscription. Music engages the areas of the brain controlling attention span and memory retention.

online learning tips

Social learning and accountability

Take advantage of any social learning opportunities offered by the course provider, such as online forums and group discussions. Even if you don’t care about making friends, social learning has many advantages. It helps you:

•    Recall, discuss, and apply what you’re learning—retrieval practice in action.
•    Ask and answer questions to help each other understand.
•    Hear different perspectives and experiences.
•    Talk about mutual challenges and share success stories.
•    Learn how others plan to apply new information.
•    Hold each other accountable.

Hold yourself accountable. Let family, friends, co-workers, or your boss know you’re taking the course. Ask them to check in with you and help you stay on track.

If you’re taking a live, synchronous course, form a study group with classmates or find an accountability buddy. If it’s an asynchronous course, ask on industry forums if anyone else is taking it or a similar course. Ask the provider for ideas about accountability. See if you can get a friend or colleague to take a course at the same time. If you come up empty, search for an online study group using #StudyWithMe on YouTube.

Learner’s toolkit and habits

Spaced learning. Your brain functions best if you feed it small bites of content, repeated over time. This is how habits form and why retrieval practice is so effective. Consistently repeating an action creates physical changes in the brain’s neural pathways and builds connections between neurons—the miracle of neuroplasticity.

Remember, no matter how old you are, your brain is not fixed. Just because you’ve had trouble in courses in the past, doesn’t mean you will now. Making mistakes and feeling frustrated is part of the learning process. Don’t quit, learn from your mistakes.

Note-taking. The brain remembers things better if you write them down. But if your handwriting is atrocious like mine, make notes in a Word doc.

Workspace. Help your mind relax and focus by decluttering your study area.

Breaks. Your brain needs breaks to maintain focus and recharge. Get up and move around. Give your eyes a break from focusing intently on the screen.

Physical and mental wellbeing. Your brain and immune system do better with regular exercise, 7-9 hours of sleep, and a healthy diet. Take a quick nap if you need one.

Reflection. A few weeks in, take stock of your progress and challenges. What’s working or not working? What strengths have you discovered? Where do you need help?

Support. To meet your course obligations, you’ll have to maintain boundaries and say “no” to requests. Explain the importance of this endeavor to your supervisor, colleagues, family, and friends. Don’t assume they understand.

Give your association’s customers the best chance for success by sharing these online learning tips with them too. Compile them into a tip sheet or animated video and send them before the course begins and then again a few weeks later. You’ll help them get the best learning experience possible, earning their loyalty and referrals.

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