Learning with Purpose: 5 Ways to Study to Get the Most from Your Online Courses

By Denton Zhou | Published November 27, 2018

Online courses deserve a lot of praise. They’ve made knowledge and information broadly available to the masses. They’re also incredibly flexible, accommodating learners of many backgrounds who may have different goals.

Still, these courses aren’t a magic bullet. How much you get out of them correlates to how much you put in. If you want to learn with purpose, you’ll have to do more than just go through the motions of watching lectures and passing graded coursework.

The good news is, it doesn’t take that much more effort on your part. We’ve put together a few simple, but efficient, techniques that you’ll have no trouble incorporating into your study routine. These will help you learn from your online course with purpose and for comprehension.

Take thorough notes and take them consistently

Online courses do the legwork for us when it comes to gathering and organizing information. They collect lectures, notes, slides, and readings in one place, making it easier for us to retrieve what we need.

This makes learning convenient, but it also lulls us into a false sense of security. We might feel OK paying less attention to lectures and foregoing note taking, for example. Why bother, you might think, when you could just go back to rewatch a lecture or skim through slides?

That kind of thinking might make sense, but it causes us to learn less efficient and effectively.

Taking good notes is about more than just jotting down facts and details. It’s also about keeping us actively engaged with the material at hand. The mere act of handwriting or typing up our interpretation of new information helps us reinforce what we’re learning.

The process of crafting good notes also forces us to focus on new information. This is particularly useful in online courses because pre-recorded lectures don’t demand quite the same attention that a professor might standing in front of you.

If you aren’t taking notes yet on your online courses, start immediately. It’s the easiest way towards gaining a deeper understanding of what you’re learning.

Practice spaced repetition

In a traditional classroom, your instructor decides when you’ll encounter new material and when you’ll be tested on it. You might sit in on a lecture one day, take a quiz about it days later, and prep for an exam on it weeks down the road.

This pattern helps establish spaced repetition, a technique used to reinforce learning. The thinking behind the concept is simple. When you encounter new information, it tends to slip away over time. To prevent it from slipping, you can repeatedly expose yourself to it, committing it to long term memory over time.

If you tend to spread your learning out evenly through the week, you’re probably practicing some form of spaced repetition already. On the other hand, if you’re cramming a week’s worth of material into a single day, you probably aren’t. The result: you’re probably forgetting at least a few key details within just a few days.

There’s no rule that says you can’t cram, of course. If you keep a busy schedule full of commitments, it might be the only way to make progress in an online course. In fact, it’s commendable that you can fit a course in at all.

Cram or no cram, you should make a conscious effort to use spaced repetition. 

One easy way to do this is to review past notes and lectures every few days. If you’re a commuter or have lots of little pockets of downtime, you might even find ways to take your learning on the go.

In the next section, we’ll share our favorite method, which involves flashcards.

Reinforce your learning with flashcards

Our method for using flashcards helps you practice both spaced repetition and recall. It’s also a continuous process that lasts the length of the course, so make sure you set aside time for it. We prefer physical index cards, but you can also use a flashcard app.

Initially, you’ll start with a deck of ten or more cards. This is the “unfamiliar” deck and it contains concepts and material you’re just beginning to grasp. As long as the course is in progress, you’ll continue to add new cards to this deck. 

Every two to three days, spend 10-20 minutes to review this deck. Move cards that you can recall accurately and consistently into a second deck of “familiar” cards. You’ll review this second deck as you would the first, but on longer intervals of 5-7 days.

Once you’re confident you’ve retained the information on a card in this second deck, move it to a third, the “mastery” deck. You’ll review this last deck once every two weeks or before each exam.

Through this process, you might come upon cards in the familiar and mastery decks that you can’t recall in detail. Shuffle these back into the unfamiliar deck. Doing so gives you the opportunity to reacquaint yourself with the information on these cards.

For best results, you should continue reviewing your flashcards even after the course ends. Ideally, you review your cards until everything is in the mastery deck and you’ve tested yourself on the mastery deck at least twice.

As we’ve mentioned, this process is somewhat time-consuming, but it’s also one we’ve found especially effective. How much time you spend will vary. As a rough guideline, expect to spend two additional hours each week on flashcards if you currently spend 10 hours each week on your course.

Become an unofficial tutor

Online courses often provide their own discussion forums and/or chat rooms. Some learners use these venues to discuss relevant topics or bounce ideas off their peers. More commonly though, learners use them to find help when they’re stuck.

One way to enrich your learning is to offer help to those seeking it. In playing the role of the tutor, your goal is to help others grasp and understand concepts they struggle with.

This tutoring process does two things for you. 

First, it forces you to take stock of everything you know about the concept in question. In the process, you might discover that you have only a partial understanding of it. Alternatively, you might gain a fresh perspective on a topic you hadn’t considered before. If neither of these, then at the very least you can confirm that you have a comfortable grasp on it.

Second, tutoring makes you retrace the path you yourself took to understanding a concept. At some point, things clicked into place for you. What prerequisite knowledge did you need before that could happen? What areas along this path to the “click” could you see as being confusing? These are the kinds of questions you’ll ask yourself in helping diagnose why a peer is having trouble grasping something you can.

In retracing your steps, you’ll create associations linking concepts to others. This mapping tends to deepen comprehension while helping you think more creatively about them in broader contexts.

Taken as a whole, tutoring is a set of mental exercises that can help you solidify what you learn. You’ll have to break down what you know into component parts. Then you have to pre-digest, reorganize, and repackage those parts into morsels that others can easily consume.

The end result is that you’ll reinforce what you’ve learned already. If your response is helpful, you might also end up helping hundreds if not thousands of other learners. It’s one way to give back to a community of learners while also enhancing your own learning experience.

Explore communities outside of your online course

Chances are, there’s at least a handful of communities online relevant to what you’re studying. Many of these communities exist as forums or chats. Others are contained on platforms like Reddit, Quora, and Stack Exchange. A simple search will quickly yield these.

One way to supplement your learning—online courses can only cover so much—is to peruse conversations within these communities.

Active forums and chats host a wealth of information that you simply couldn’t find in pre-Internet times. You’re among the first generation to have so much information from so many disparate sources in a few searchable repositories.

By reading posts and discussions, you get a firsthand glimpse into a vast exchange for knowledge and ideas. You might even participate in these communities yourself to ask questions, contribute, and discover new opportunities.

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