There was a time when distance learning meant books were mailed to students, students mailed their papers and exams back, and the whole process took months longer than usual. This was long before The Easy Button.
Online learning has come a long way. From video recording tools to instantaneous digital communication, today’s online learning can be as dynamic as face-to-face learning. But it does come with some challenges, especially when it comes to motivation. Because students are separated from their classmates and teachers, the burden of participation falls heavily on the learner. Sometimes it takes a little extra effort to simply open the computer, much less actually completing assignments and tasks on time.
To help push through the times when motivation is a struggle, online learners need the tools to avoid procrastination, practice good time management, and give themselves small rewards for their efforts.
One obstacle many online learners face is procrastination. In many cases, online learners are responsible for setting their own schedule so it can be easy to put off studying or working on an assignment.
The key to avoiding procrastination is setting goals and prioritizing school work. One way to do this is to create a study schedule that maximizes time spent studying and does so in a way that ensures school work is the priority.
The key to achieving this goal is getting the less interesting assignments done first while willpower is fresh. Make a schedule in which the tasks, classes, or assignments that are the least favorite are completed first. If learners put their favorite subjects or easiest assignments first, they will often get to the end of them and want to take a break, leaving the less-desirable assignments untouched. With their least favorite tasks in front of them, getting back into schoolwork takes extra effort. So, procrastination begins and can snowball until the learner is so far behind that catching up is hard.
However, by flipping their schedule so that their least favorite tasks are completed first, the learner is more likely to complete them. Then they can move onto what is truly enjoyable.
Think of it this way: if we ate ice cream before broccoli, would we be hungry enough for the broccoli, or would we leave it on the plate? If we eat the broccoli first, even if we feel full, we are more likely to still enjoy a bowl of ice cream.
In this same way, by putting the least favorite tasks, assignments, and subjects first, the learner is more likely to complete them and move onto what they truly want to do or enjoy working on.
The first step to maintaining motivation is pushing through procrastination tendencies. The key to avoiding procrastination is time management.
Managing time can be tricky. But once mastered, good time management can help make the online experience more meaningful and successful. Above, we discussed prioritizing the least favorite activities first in a learner’s study schedule. Tied to this is figuring out how much time to spend on each task, assignment, or subject. When in a face-to-face environment, students don’t spend the entire day on one subject. They move between them, spending set amounts of time on each. When the class period is over, even if the work or lesson is not complete, the student moves on.
When the same principle is applied to online learning, learners are better able to maximize their time. So, for example, if an online learner has five subjects in a day, and only has five hours to work on schoolwork a day, the key is to set up a schedule so that the learner maximizes those five hours. Giving enough time to the subjects or assignments that are the most challenging while also providing time to accomplish all the goals set for that day.
Once the student creates their schedule, the next key is sticking to it. One word: alarms. Learners should set a timer for the task at hand and work until the alarm sounds. Then, they save their work and move on to the next task. Doing this helps ensure that all tasks are attended to each day and progress is consistent.
Avoiding procrastination and sticking to a study schedule is hard. It requires strong willpower. To help energize this process, students should build in small rewards for achieving their daily or weekly study goals.
Students should choose a reward that will motivate them, like a bowl of ice cream or an uninterrupted 30 minutes scrolling through social media. Each reward gets a point count – say, 20 points. Look at the day’s tasks and give each a set number of points. If the learner has five tasks that day, they could give each four points. Each time one is completed, they earn points for that task. Note the achievement on the schedule so it’s easy to see progress towards the reward. That can be as simple as writing the points next to the crossed-off task or putting a fun sticker next to the completed work. Once the student earns 20 points, they get to enjoy the reward! This makes it fun to complete tasks and helps the learner track their progress.
Online learning provides a lot of flexibility for students. They have more control over how and when they learn. While this helps a lot of students, it is different from what they are used to in a traditional classroom setting.
These strategies for putting the less interesting tasks first, blocking off time for specific tasks, and establishing small rewards are a great place to start. As students progress with their online courses, consider taking these strategies up a notch. Bring study partners into your scheduling for additional accountability, even if they are in a different course. Tier rewards so they build on each other, and end in something truly exciting. And remember, the ultimate objective is earning college credit so the student can get closer to their long-term learning and career goals.
Elizabeth Contreras has been in education since 2004. She has a Master’s degree in History and a Doctorate in Education. She has worked in all levels of education from elementary school to college, in both in-person settings and online environments. While primarily in the Social Studies field, Elizabeth also specializes in gifted education, English as a Second language, and educational psychology.