Online academic programs are convenient for many reasons, including the fact that they are often available on accelerated schedules that allow you to complete the requirements and earn your degree faster than you might on a traditional academic schedule. In these programs, courses are accelerated or compressed, taking place over a shorter duration of time. Instead of a typical semester length course that may take place over 15 or 16 weeks, many online programs offer courses that are completed in much less time with academic terms ranging from 7-10 weeks or even less. These courses often carry the same number of academic credit hours and seek to achieve the same learning outcomes as their traditional length equivalents.
The overall timeline can be convenient, but it also means things happen quickly. Traditional terms and programs may allow you to take four or five courses simultaneously while online programs are designed for taking only one or two courses simultaneously – focused on more specific subject matter during a concentrated amount of time. This focus can be beneficial, but only if you are prepared and engaged in the process.
Completing the work required, in a way that doesn't bypass your own learning and retention of the material, takes some effort and planning. There are steps you can take to build skills as a student and develop good habits. Let's take a closer look at some of the actions you can engage in before, during, and after your enrollment in an accelerated course, to enhance the learning process throughout.
Before the First Day of Class
A little preparation as you get ready to take a new course can make all the difference in how stressful the term turns out to be. What can you do before the first day of class to make sure you are ready for the term?
- Enter the course site. Log in as soon as it is available to students, which can be as early as a week before or as late as a day before the first day of the term. This varies by school and program, so find out what schedule your system is using and put it on your calendar. Sign in and look around. Find all of the necessary materials and documents, and review the first assignments.
- Review the syllabus. Syllabi are often available even outside the course site. Check with your academic advisor to find out where you can get access. Review each syllabus for a list of assignments, course objectives, instructor contact information and special instructions, and a list of required course materials.
- Get your textbooks. There's no need to wait for the starting gun to open the books, articles, and websites that your course will be using and prepare for your initial reading assignments. Check with your instructor to see if reading ahead is advised. Many online courses rely heavily on reading assignments and the amount of reading you are expected to do can mount up quickly.
- Set up your calendar. Whatever calendar or scheduling system you use, print or online, now is the time to get organized. Add all of the due dates for your course to include major assignments and weekly activities such as discussion boards. How is a "week" defined in your program? Sunday though Saturday? Wednesday through Tuesday? Block study time on your calendar. GetEducated.com advises that assignments in accelerated courses can take two to three times longer to complete each week than in a traditional semester length course.
Being prepared at the beginning of the course can provide you with some flexibility if you need it later on, when the unexpected events of life begin to cut into your study time, as they always do.
During Each Course
With accelerated courses, the term itself can be a little chaotic. Staying up-to-date with your work will be a critical part of your success. During your course you should:
- Maintain a weekly checklist. And mark things off as they are completed. Some courses provide this in each week's lesson or module as a "to-do" list or "weekly checklist" of some kind. If so, print it out and keep it with your study materials or by your computer for quick reference. Include assignments as well as other tasks associated with being a student in the course.
- Check in with the course site every day. Yes, your instructor or syllabus may indicate that checking in only once per week is required for course participation or that checking in three times during the week is advised. Checking in every day should become a habit. This way, you stay connected with the course and its conversations, and are aware of any and all changes as they happen. A daily check-in should include reading course announcements and browsing the latest discussion boards for new posts.
- Ask questions as they come up. Don't wait. Consider all of the resources available to you that might be able to answer your question, whatever it might be. Your instructor will be a great source of information, as well as your classmates. Look for "student lounge" discussion areas in your course set up for students to ask and answer each others' questions. Who else can help you? Try the help desk, librarian, your academic advisor and career counselor. If you are not sure whom to ask, start with your instructor, who may be able to point you in the right direction.
- Stay current. Do what you can to keep up with reading and assignments. Review your calendar frequently to make sure you are working toward exams and major projects and papers in advance of their due dates. Some instructors will send out prompts and reminders, but that is not always the case. It is ultimately your responsibility to stay current with the course and ready to move forward.
- Accept some sacrifice. Accelerated courses require you to immerse yourself in your studies, especially during very short terms. This may mean you will need to reduce time spent with friends and family, watching television, or participating in other regular activities. Remember that the sacrifice will be temporary and will help you make the most of your learning experience.
- Preview the upcoming unit. Keep an eye to the future. Check to see when each unit is available. You may be able to see the entire course within the course site from the first day, or the course may be scheduled so that each unit is released at the beginning of the week. Take a quick look to make sure you are aware of upcoming assignments and activities.
After Completing Each Course
Many programs provide specific direction for which courses will be taken and in what sequence, each course building on the next. What action can you take after completing each course to ensure you are engaged in this sequence and building your knowledge and skills throughout your program?
- Reflect on the process. Whether you informally review what transpired in the course and how it ties in with your program and goals, or more formally journal or blog about the experience, take some time to consider your learning achievements in the course, looking back on previous courses as well as ahead to your next term. The reflective learning process can be helpful as you move forward, connecting your learning experiences throughout your program.
- Add to your portfolio. Are there any assignments from the course that would serve as good work samples in a career portfolio? If there is a project, paper, or other item that relates to your career goals and demonstrates specific skills, now is a great time to identify the work and add it to your portfolio. Make some notes about the context of the assignment and what strengths it demonstrates while it is still fresh in your mind.
- Review your degree plan. Check-in with your larger plan and see where you are and what you've accomplished so far. It can be very motivating to acknowledge milestones, such as finishing that first course, hitting the halfway point, and preparing for the last course in your program.
- Prep for the next course. If you have a break in between terms, this is an ideal time to get ready for the next course. The cycle continues.
It's easy to think of each course as an independent entity, especially as you are rushing to work through them, but take the opportunity to step back and look at how each course fits into your program as a whole.
Give it your best shot!
You can't plan for every situation that might emerge, but you can plan for many of them. Find out what techniques work best for you and put your own system into place. The results will include better time and stress management, as well as increased attention to both the subject matter and the process of achieving the learning objectives of each course.