The Open University
You may find yourself studying at home for a number of reasons: whether you’re pursuing distance learning or online learning, you’re at home for the holidays, or if teaching moves online temporarily, like during the Coronavirus pandemic.
While distance learning or studying online has its advantages, it has its challenges too. We dive into these below, including some tips and hacks to work around them, and help you study effectively at home.
- Get rid of distractions – turn off notifications for apps, remove them from your homescreen, or even leave your phone out of sight. The same goes for other distractions, like games consoles.
Try keeping a diary of how you spend an average week. The results might shock you into putting certain activities on hold, like spending too many hours on social media, or late nights out that can hurt your productivity the next day. This way you can free up time, and use this more wisely.
- Get into study mode – working in bed might sound like the dream, but it might not put you in the right mindset to focus
Stick to a structured routine, including having a shower, getting changed, having breakfast etc. Then treat studying like a proper job or task, with clear, achievable goals. Having a proper study space can help with this.
Having days dedicated to just studying can help you focus your efforts, though this might not always be possible.
- Learn how you work best – studying independently from home gives you (some) control over your study environment or schedule, so mix things up.
For instance, are you more productive first thing in the morning, or later on in the day? Does a morning workout energise you, or tire you out? Does any particular music help you concentrate? You may discover some new genres on Spotify that aid studying.
- Talk to those around you – whether it’s family living with you, or friends pinging you funny memes, they may not realise that they’re distracting you, or just how much work you have to do.
Make it clear when you need to get your head down. Be nice of course, and don’t let key responsibilities and commitments slip by the wayside. Tell people when you’ll be free (e.g. ‘I can’t now, but I can after I finish this chapter…’), so it doesn’t seem like you’re just blowing them off.
Plus this way, they can push you to get back to work, if you’re slacking.
- Reward your accomplishments – studying non stop without a break or reward, will wreak havoc on your wellbeing, as well as your ability to focus.
The human brain can only concentrate for so long. Take breaks, and use these productively – ideally in ways that don’t require much thinking. Catch up on household chores, go for a run, or reply to messages from friends.
Use rewards as motivation. Don’t forget to recognise your progress, or remind yourself of what you’re working towards, either. This is particularly relevant for online learning or part-time students, or students working towards long-term goals.
- a desk, that’s big enough for your computer or laptop and other accessories, books, notes, beverages, snacks etc. – a standing desk can be a good option for your posture
- a comfortable chair, that gives you the right back support (so you don’t slouch), and puts you at eye-level with your computer screen
- sufficient room lighting, or an additional desk light
- folders, files, or a dedicated drawer for study materials
- laptop/computer plus accessories like headphones or speakers – make sure expensive items are covered by insurance in case of loss or damage. Back up work to a cloud storage service, or on an external hard drive.
- strong internet connection – make sure your broadband package can handle streaming lectures, downloading materials etc., especially at peak times or when several people are online simultaneously in your household
When living or studying on campus, students and university staff are always nearby if you need help. There are lots of ways to connect with students, tutors, and other university staff if you’re studying remotely, or can’t make it to campus, thanks to technology like Skype and Zoom, and social media.
You can get face-time with your tutors, even if you can’t make it to their office or the student union cafe. You can make an appointment to catch up regularly one-on-one, via video call.
You can reach them via email or phone too, though they may not reply immediately. Ask about their availability when researching a course.
Online lectures and teaching
While distance learning degrees allow students to study at their own pace through recorded lectures and materials, your own course may involve scheduled lectures or seminars that you attend in real time with other students, via video conference call. A tutor will lead them, and depending on the format, there may be capacity for questions, or some kind of discussion.
- Find a quiet place to call in, with an appropriate background behind you i.e. not your family kitchen, with others wandering around.
- Check your equipment beforehand, to ensure everything works so you don’t miss anything. Avoid downloading or streaming things in the background, which might slow down your internet connection.
- Turn your microphone off when others are talking, to prevent background noise or annoying audio feedback for everyone else.
- Have an appropriate display name and profile picture.
- Always be aware when others can see or hear you.
- When leaving a call, make sure you have indeed left properly. It helps to have as few tabs and windows open, as possible.
Typically, universities have some sort of intranet or centralised online hub, that can be accessed anywhere by students and staff. Think of it as one massive noticeboard in your student union. It’s where key information and announcements are posted, including latest news, upcoming events, or urgent issues like problems with the IT network.
Check this daily. It’s a simple way to stay in the loop, and a reminder that you are indeed part of that student community.
You can find key student services here too, and you may be able to post your own messages, like if you’re looking for a study buddy or have books to sell.
Dedicated social media groups or channels for students, staff, and even alumni, may be less formal than other platforms, and lend themselves better to socialising. There may be specific groups for your subject or course at your university, or even particular interests.
If you start to make friends on your course, you can always add each other, or move things to Whatsapp or Facetime to stay in touch more regularly. Perhaps you can schedule a weekly coffee via Zoom, or if there’s a film to watch for your course, have a watch-along via Skype?
Studying a degree via online learning? Learn more about how it works, including how you learn, and how you’re assessed.
- Not getting outside enough – it’s easy to lose track of time studying when you’re already at home. Before you know it, you’ve been inside all day, staring at books and screens.
Many studies have highlighted the benefits of exercise, or sunlight on the body’s serotonin levels to reduce depression and regulate anxiety. Even just going for a walk with some music can give your brain – and your eyes – a well-needed break.
- Poor diet – the moment your stomach starts to rumble, you may find yourself rummaging around your kitchen cupboards for a naughty snack.
Either save them as a reward, don’t buy them to begin with, or balance them with healthier alternatives that release energy slowly to help you study, like fruit and nuts.
Also, rather than hop on Deliveroo or Just Eat, try to make proper, healthy meals part of your routine – cooking can be a great break for your brain, too. Avoid heavy, carb-centric meals that will induce napping or make you feel sluggish. Reheat leftovers the next day, for a second quick meal.
- Not establishing boundaries – we talk about the importance of having a dedicated study space to help you concentrate and relax, above.
While sometimes easier said than done, try not to let studying bleed over into other parts of your life. Instead, set yourself strict windows of time to complete work in, so you can switch off properly when you do. This can help you stay focused.
Also, give yourself a buffer between studying and bedtime. Sleep is where your body recharges, so you can function properly the next day. Again, a routine helps. Unwind before bed (without looking at screens) by reading a book, listening to a podcast, or taking a bath.
- Isolating yourself – while studying from home gives you a lot more independence and autonomy, it can be quite isolating at times, especially if you live alone, or you’re separated from your friends.
We talk about maintaining connections with other students and tutors on your course, above. While there will be periods where you have to work, don’t disappear from your family and friends’ lives altogether. Manage their expectations the right way, and make plans when you’re less busy, so you have rewards to look forward to, and to keep you motivated. In the meantime, have set times to call or message – like when you’re on public transport, or waiting for food to cook – and stick to these.
If you do find yourself struggling, reach out to family and friends, or speak to your university. Their student services department can support you in a number of ways, including putting you in touch with mental health services, and working with your tutors to help you manage your workload.