Christine Talbot, author ‘Studying at a Distance: a Guide for Students’ offers expert advice on how to successfully study a distance learning or online course.

Studying at a distance can be a mixed blessing: a great opportunity and a lot of hard work.

The good news is that people perform at least as well studying as distance learners as they do studying face-to-face, and some people perform better. Many find that the advantages of being able to progress at their own pace, and choosing where and when they study, far outweigh the disadvantages associated with distance learning.

There are many aspects of studying at a distance that are now very similar to studying faceto-face. For instance, with developments in technology for learning that are increasingly incorporated into on-campus courses as well as distance learning courses (videoed lectures, VLEs or portals for course materials, and so on), the differences are becoming less pronounced. Similarly, many personal attributes and skills needed for studying successfully at a distance are the same as those required by any other learner, but some take on greater significance when learning at a distance. It is important that you have realistic expectations about the experience that awaits you and that you are honest with yourself about possessing the necessary qualities.

For example:

  • you need to be self-disciplined and to be capable of working alone most of the time;
  • you must be able to take responsibility for your own learning when not regularly meeting with tutors and other students;
  • you must have the motivation to set aside time to study when there are many other demands upon your time;
  • you need the determination to complete your studies.

Even though distance learning is not for the faint-hearted, the following suggestions should also help you to succeed:

Find out as much as possible about various courses on offer before making your decision, so that you know what to expect: the amount of support on offer; any attendance requirements; what form of assessments there are; how many modules you can study in one semester; and so on.

Accept all of the support that is on offer from your university: from academics, administrators, IT experts, Information Officers, and other students. Support from family, friends and those at work is also crucial. Family and friends may not be able to empathise with you at a subject-specific level but they will be able to give emotional and practical support.

Whether or not a formal mentoring scheme exists in your workplace, if your studies are related to your work, the importance of forging a good relationship with those from whom you will need information or co-operation cannot be overemphasised. They could be crucial in helping you to gain access to information and people within your organisation that are needed to help you complete your assignments. You may even find that you are entitled to a limited amount of study leave.

Distance learning doesn’t have to be an isolated experience. Keep in contact with other students and with your academic tutors and administrators by whatever means is offered (blogs, email, texts, FaceTime, post or telephone). Participate in online discussions as much as possible, including at the introductory, socialising stage. This way you will feel part of the student community and make contact with many more students from around the world than you might on a conventional course. You will also learn more about your subject by formulating your own ideas (and having them challenged by peers and tutors!).

Attend any residential days or weeks that are on offer at your university. You will find subsequent communication more meaningful if you have already met people face to face. On a practical note: obtain the best PC and/or laptop/tablet and the fastest internet connection that you can afford. Online learning is likely to be part of any distance learning course, and it can become very frustrating if your IT lets you down. Regularly save multiple backups of your work to data pens or an external hard-drive (even if you are also saving into a cloud account). I wish you well with your studies.

MastersCompare thanks Christine for her fantastic advice. Thousands of students have found that reading her book on which this article is based has helped them to be better prepared for distance learning. Find out more about Studying at a Distance: a Guide for Students. Next Steps Looking for a Masters?

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