Taking college courses online brings a level of flexibility to your schedule that can be freeing, especially for students juggling work or family commitments. But the freedom that comes with online learning also presents a host of challenges for the unprepared.
Below, we offer some basic guidelines for getting organized in advance that should help set you up for success in the new year.
Digitally Declutter to Start
Your digital space is essentially your mental space. Untamed email inboxes and chaotic desktops can easily put a damper on productivity.
Whichever email service you use should offer tools for filtering out junk and organizing email conversations. Take the following tools for example.
- Gmail filters let you automatically categorize, archive and delete messages or mark them as spam.
- Gmail’s Priority Inbox tool separates essential messages from everything else.
- Microsoft Outlook’s Clutter feature helps users filter low-priority emails.
Organize your desktop and document folders so you know how to find everything. Create individual folders with clear names for documents, photos and other media files, as well as special projects.
And finally, back up your information regularly via either the cloud or an external drive in case your device gets lost, stolen or hacked. PC users can refer to Microsoft’s instructions for backing up Windows apps, settings, files and photos. Apple users can set up Time Machine, the built-in Mac backup feature, to automatically save all their data.
Find the Right To-Do List for You
Students all have different ways of taking notes and staying organized, but few methods are more practical or beneficial than an old-fashioned to-do list. When you’ve listed all the things you need to do in one place, you can then decide which ones are priorities and mark off the ones you’ve completed. Tracking this progress can help motivate you to keep going.
The following tools can elevate your to-do list experience.
Among to-do list apps, the highly rated Todoist comes in both free and premium versions for Mac and Windows and pairs smoothly with Gmail and Outlook. Todoist’s streamlined interface, robust tagging, and easy-to-use collaboration tools also get consistently good reviews.
Any.do also integrates with Outlook and Google calendars and includes a daily “plan my day” feature. One software review site even called Any.do the “best to-do list app for people who forget to use to-do apps.”
If you want to get more basic with your to-do list, the reminders app on your phone can be an effective default option. Or you may simply prefer the tried-and-true pen-to-paper approach. The key is to find which method works best for you.
Plan Out Your Assignments
Sitting down at the start of a quarter or semester and writing down all due dates is a savvy way to begin a new course and stay on top of assignments.
Review the syllabus for each of your classes at the start of the term. Make note of major due dates, and mark those dates on a calendar so you can refer to them regularly and plan your schedule ahead of time according to your upcoming workload.
Create a Study Schedule
Study schedules are especially important for online students. Without the regular reminders that come with in-person instruction, you may need more self-discipline to get your work done.
Review your schedule at the beginning of each school day so you’re clear on what needs to get done before you commit to any one task. Doing so should allow you to set the pace for each day according to your top priority.
Consistency is vital to a successful study schedule. Develop a plan that you can follow throughout the term, understanding that you’ll need to factor in more time for completing papers and studying for exams in the last couple of weeks.
Make Sure to Take Breaks
To be truly sustainable, your study schedule should include time for breaks. Taking breaks is essential to morale, and stepping away from your computer at regular intervals relieves eye strain, gives you a chance to move your body and improves concentration in the periods when you’re working.
Many people swear by the Pomodoro Technique, which entails taking a five-minute break every 25 minutes. But consider taking a longer break after a couple of hours of steady work, too. Some tasks, such as writing a term paper, require longer periods of sustained concentration and should in turn be followed by longer breaks.
Regardless of how long your rest time is, breaks should include opportunities for stretching and otherwise moving your body, refocusing your eyesight and drinking water. Note that research from the Journal of Behavioral Addictions suggests that scrolling on your phone doesn’t qualify as a mindful break and can even defeat the purpose of taking a break at all.
Create Separate Folders for Classes
Store all your files for each class—lecture notes, writing assignments, related media, etc.—in a dedicated folder for that class. It’s fine to keep those folders on your desktop or in your documents folder, but for peace of mind, consider an online option as well.
Consider creating a Google Drive folder to store all your coursework. This allows you to access your files from anywhere, and the files won’t be affected if your laptop crashes.
Set Up an Effective Workspace
The physical environment where you study every day is just as important as your plan. Don’t slip into the trap of working in bed or on the sofa; a professional setup at a desk or tabletop is more likely to put you in the proper mindset for sustained work.
A reliable high-speed internet connection is a basic requirement, as are adequate lighting and a decent chair, preferably with lower back support. Don’t overlook ergonomic considerations, either. Too much time on a laptop touchpad can lead to strain, so it’s worth investing in a mouse and wrist pad.
Your space should have as few distractions as possible. If you can’t find a quiet place to work, consider getting a pair of noise-canceling headphones to tune out the noise around you.
Consider Your Support System
You might reach out to classmates to form an online study group. An online group can help keep you accountable for the duration of the course. In addition to fostering accountability, a study group creates a collaborative environment that can lead to fruitful discussions and mutual support.
To remain focused, try keeping your group small (three to five students maximum) and focused on the work at hand.
This post was orginally published on https://www.forbes.com/advisor/education/student-organizing-skills/