Signal icon301 Guidance for studying effectively online

Studying online can pose a number of unusual challenges. Where to work? When to work? How to maintain motivation? How to create and maintain networks of peers? How to avoid heightened feelings of isolation or anxiety?

This resource is designed to share best practice drawn from research into home working and distance learning to help you to stay on top of your workload and keep making positive progress on your university study. 

Explore the strategies and ideas below and please contact us at 301@sheffield.ac.uk and let us know if you have any other ideas or experience that we can draw on. We would love to hear from you!

Study Space

Whilst it may be tempting to study from the luxury of your bed, there is strong evidence that it is a good idea to maintain a clear divide between work and leisure space. According to Crosbie and Moore (2004) home workers emphasise that this is important in order to maintain a sense of being at work for your own benefit and to send a signal to those you live with. If you do not have a dedicated office space available, this may be as simple as setting up a 'pop-up office' on your kitchen table or putting on headphones to block out distractions. 

Getting dressed at the start of the day as you would if you were going out and about is also a good way to send a message both to yourself and those you are living with that you are 'at work.'

Develop a Routine

Just as space is important, so too is time. If you no longer need to leave your home to start work, it can be easy for the boundaries between work time and relaxation time to begin to blur - with a detrimental impact on both. Try identifying a start time and finish time for your daily working routine and build in planned breaks through the day. When you have finished work for the day, switch off and begin to recharge your batteries with some high-quality downtime.

If you are finding it hard to stay focused while you are 'at work', you might want to try the Pomodoro Technique to break your study time down into short, manageable chunks with (tea and biscuit) breaks in between.

Plan and Schedule

You may find that you have fewer hours of scheduled teaching sessions to provide a framework to your day and it can be tricky to structure your independent study time. Planning ahead is important to avoid procrastinating over what you are going to do, rather than getting on with your priority tasks. To-do lists can be a good way to keep on top of all of the tasks that you need to work on, but remember to include some kind of ranking or way of identifying the priority tasks (for example by allocating a level of priority from 1-3). That way, you won't be able to do the easier and lower priority tasks as a way to put off the more urgent and important ones! You might want to try out a digital to-do list. Todoist or Asana are good places to start. Once you have a to-do list in place, use your Google Calendar or paper diary to plan your time as you would normally. Try to identify exactly what you are going to do in each slot in your calendar so that you can hit the ground running.

Digital Learning Tools

Take time to familiarise yourself with the various digital learning tools that you will be using in semester one, some of which you may be using for the first time. Reviewing the Student Guidance for Online Teaching would be a useful starting point and includes a number of overviews and guides for the primary online learning tools you will likely encounter during your studies. It's a great idea to familiarise yourself with these now so you know what to expect and get a head start.

Blackboard  Blackboard Collaborate 
 Encore  Turnitin PebblePad Kaltura 

One of the tools you may use extensively during semester one is Blackboard Collaborate. To aid you in familiarising yourself with this tool, a Blackboard Collaborate test room has been established. Use this to familiarise yourself with the key functions of this platform ahead of your first sessions. You can find more information at https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/apse/digital/collaborate/testroom.

Be Flexible

Although organising your study space and study time are important, don't forget to be flexible! Your time is yours to use as you see fit, which can be a tremendous advantage. When do you tend to be most productive? Are you a morning person or an evening person? Work with your natural tendencies and be prepared to capitalise on a streak of motivation if you can. Equally, if you are finding it difficult to focus or get on with a task, don't fight it! Take a break, go out and get some fresh air, then come back to it later on with fresh motivation.

Don't forget to include some slack and flexibility into your schedule to recognise that things may take longer than anticipated or that you might need some contingency time built in.

Build Networks

Just because you might not have as much face-to-face teaching activity, doesn't mean that you have to study alone. You are still learning as part of a cohort of peers and it is likely that you are all experiencing similar challenges. It is also likely that your peers may have some ideas or solutions that you hadn't yet considered. 

Alongside your standard course tools such as Blackboard discussion forums and emails, you might want to start using social media tools to develop your immediate networks. Facebook and WhatsApp can provide great ways to build a virtual community; Slack and Google Hangouts are nice ways to organise group work remotely; and Facetime, Google Meet or Skype can help to provide some face-to-face interaction. See the University of Sheffield Studying from Home pages for more information.

Remember: you do not have to blur the boundary between your work and social identities in your use of social media. Set up new groups for specific purposes where possible and manage your account preferences to ensure that you can keep your private life private if you choose to do so.

Ask for Help!

Increased time spent on independent study can create an additional level or stress and uncertainty. In these circumstances, it is important to seek help as early as possible. Your tutor is your first point of contact for academic issues relating to your course and we would recommend you keep in regular contact with your tutors, but there are several other places that can offer support, advice and help.

Further information on support services is available via the University of Sheffield Support for Students pages

Set Goals

Setting clear and achievable goals is good practice at all times, but the more so when you do not have as regular face-to-face meetings to keep you on track. You might want to focus on smaller-scale goals as well as larger-scale ones, for example starting each day by identifying the key things you would like to tick off your to-do list (see Plan and Schedule above).

Keeping your goals SMART is important to ensure that you can make them practical and achievable to keep making positive progress on your work. You can find out more about setting SMART goals in the short video below.

Record Progress

Even if you are feeling a bit stuck, it is likely that you are still making progress, so don't despair! Use your to-do list or priority list to track that progress by ticking tasks off or adding a column for completed tasks. This will help you recognise what you have achieved so far and maintain a sense of momentum. If you are working on a bigger-scale task and feel that you haven't got far with it, make a note of what you have done so far so that you can pick up where you left off after a break.
You might consider using an online tool for this. Trello is a nice way to plan your tasks and keep track of what you have completed. Create cards for tasks and move them across to a completed tasks column to record your progress.

Reward Yourself!

Finally, reward yourself! Identify something that you can really look forward to - an evening off watching Netflix, a cup of tea and a biscuit, cake and coffee, some exercise outside, some time on social media. Once you have finished the task you are working on, take a break and enjoy it guilt free. You can use this on a micro-scale; i.e. to encourage yourself to get through the next half hour of work, or on a macro-scale; i.e. to take a weekend off at the end of a productive week. You have earned it!

Staying Productive at Home from Uni of Sheffield Student Comms on Vimeo.

Any questions? Please don't hesitate to get in touch with us at 301@sheffield.ac.uk