1. Find Your Study Zone
Even if your course is offered online, you’ll need more than a laptop to do your best work. Find a place with limited distractions and noise levels conducive to concentration, like a quiet corner in your home or a local library.
Not sure what your ideal space for studying is? Take this learning styles self-assessment to understand the way you best process information and help you determine the right environment for tackling your coursework. For example, auditory learners might want to avoid studying in a bustling café.
2. Train Your Brain
Your brain is just like any other muscle in your body. The more you exercise it, the stronger and more agile it will be. Build up your strength with some interval training: The Pomodoro technique advises breaking down tasks into 25-minute intervals and taking five-minute breaks in between. Taking frequent breaks can improve mental agility and prevent burnout.
You can also keep your mind in shape with mental puzzles and games. Pick up your favorite newspaper and tackle the daily crossword or Sudoku puzzle.
3. Get—and Stay—Organized
Get organized right from the start by getting in the habit of writing down all your assignments, upcoming deadlines, and important dates in one easy-to-see, easy-to-use place. How you do it–whether you use an “old-fashioned” written planner or an online system like Google calendar–doesn’t really matter as long as it works for you.
If you are taking a course with mandatory classroom time (either in-person or on the web), start by marking those times on your calendar or planner in advance. That way, you’ll be sure you won’t miss them or accidently overbook. If you are in a self-paced class, consider booking regular “class times” into your calendar each week, so the classwork gets priority in your schedule and you don’t fall too far behind.
Be sure to write down in advance as many of the assignments, projects, exams, and important dates as you can. Many of those should be available on the syllabus but pay attention to changes and update your calendar frequently as the course progresses. And don’t forget to include study sessions, group discussions, and even your professor’s office hours.
4. Connect With Your Classmates
You’re all in this together. Study groups can be a great way to explore challenging course concepts. Ask your professor if you can take a few minutes at the beginning or end of class to discuss organizing a group. Plan social outings to get to know your fellow students and remind each other to take breaks.
If you’re studying online, you can still make connections. Thanks to a wide array of social tools, your support network can reach far beyond a physical campus. Students today are well-versed in collaborating and even socializing online. It’s easier than ever to connect and collaborate using apps such as WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts.
5. Get By With a Little Help From Your Friends
… and family, coworkers, and neighbors. Set expectations for your availability during the semester, and see if they can offer support. Don’t forget to celebrate your successes with them when they do help you along the way, whether they’ve picked up your kids from school, allowed you to leave work early one day to take your exam, or lowered the music so you could concentrate on reading.
Most people can’t do this alone. Don’t wait until the end of the term to realize you could really use some help.
6. Know Your Resources
Your school has great resources to help support you too! Whether it’s your first time back in the classroom after 10 years or simply a return from a long vacation, many programs have tutors and specialized support centers to help you start and finish that paper, figure out that tricky math problem, or organize a complex project. Schedule an in-person, e-mail, or Zoom appointment; most tutors meet regularly on campus and online.
At Harvard Extension School, for example, the Writing Center and the Math Question Center offer tutoring to enrolled students.
And for additional help, many programs also have academic resource centers and career centers offering webinars, tools, and information on topics like improving concentration, overcoming perfectionism, strengthening your public speaking skills, preparing for exams, and managing stress and anxiety.
7. Make a Plan for Balancing Work, School, and Life
The best part about the wide availability of distance learning programs is their flexibility: you can reduce your travel time while maintaining high academic standards. Still, going to school while working isn’t easy.
Talk to your employer, family members, and friends about your responsibilities going back to school so everyone understands that your time will be divided temporarily. The more your support system knows, the more able they are to help you. On your own, decide what your main priorities are for the semester. Determining what comes first and what can wait until the term is over will help you keep your sights in focus when your to-do list starts mounting.
Finally, aim to make time for yourself to exercise or do something for your health. Ask a friend or loved one to join you if you want to get in some quality time while you’re at it. An hour of physical activity can be energizing and rejuvenating, particularly when you combine it with the social aspect.
Get additional tips on maintaining a healthy work-life-school balance from The Juggling Act, a panel of current and former students at Harvard Extension School.
8. Don’t Wait to Ask Questions
Get ahead of potential problems and issues by asking questions right away. Whether you have questions about a specific assignment or project, or you need assistance with the course material, it’s always best to ask questions or seek help as soon as possible. Waiting until the last minute might prevent you from completing an assignment or project on time.
It’s easy to be too embarrassed to ask questions; you might think you are the only one who has concerns. You are likely to be surprised, however: if you are confused, others probably are as well. So not only are you helping yourself, but you’re helping everyone in the class stay on track and succeed!