How to succeed with online learning

It’s one thing to sign up for an online course, and another to succeed with online learning. Here we’ll share some tips and ideas for increasing success and, ultimately, satisfaction with your online learning experience. 

These days, you can learn almost anything online, from academic subjects, to trades, to skills for personal enrichment and development. In this post, we focus on the latter: online courses that support personal endeavors that aren’t required for a job or degree. 

For over 15 years, we’ve been teaching in–person classes on real skills for personal empowerment: permaculture, gardening, carpentry, natural building, survival skills, herbalism, and more. In the past few years, we’ve produced a few online programs with the same goals: to share top-quality education so that folks can feel empowered to actually do things differently in their day-to-day lives.

students in a hands on building class

Based on our experience working with hundreds of students and dozens of teachers, we’ve learned these are the keys of how to succeed with online learning:

  • Identify and embrace your why
  • Engage early and often
  • Create a schedule 
  • Reduce distractions 
  • Optimize your study space
  • Participate and ask questions
  • Network with peers; choose an accountability buddy
  • Take learning into your own hands; engage in the material offline
  • Give yourself rewards
  • Take regular breaks
  • Take notes
  • When in doubt, reach out!

Identify and embrace your why?

There are great reasons why you’ve signed up for an online course. Maybe you’re curious about the subject matter, you want to learn a new skill, or the class was on sale and you wanted to take advantage of a good deal; perhaps all three weighed in to your choice. Since you’re participating for personal enrichment rather than a requirement, the reasons why you got into this class – your why – are intimate and can be numerous.

The more clearly you can connect with your why, the better your chances of success. This is because online learning is an incredible way to access tons of really valuable information, build community, and get support on your journey. However, it can also be overwhelming, abstract, lonely, distracting, and easily buried under a full inbox in a busy life. When you identify your why and return to it regularly, you’ll have an easier time staying focused and engaged.

So, why did you sign up for this course? What are you hoping to learn? How are you hoping to feel? Who are you hoping to share your learning with? Where are you planning to practice your new skills? What are your short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals here?

Take some time to write down the answers to these questions, and get as specific as possible.

woman holding a basket of vegetables and flowers

Here’s an example of this exercise featuring a hypothetical student in our gardening classes online:

Why did I sign up for this course? I want to grow all my own food in an organic, permaculture oasis where children play and birds sing and my neighbors come over to picnic

What am I hoping to learn? When to plant what, how to turn my lawn into a garden, how to deal with pests, how to make compost, how to nourish the soil, how to start seeds, how to deal with weeds.

How am I hoping to feel? Empowered, capable, abundant, in deep connection with the earth, happy, proud.

Who am I hoping to share my learning with? My family and neighbors, especially my kids and Mrs. Nuñez who lives alone next door. 

Where am I planning to practice my new skills? In my backyard and at my kids’ school

Short-term goals: Get 4 garden beds established in my backyard, help out once a week at the school garden

Medium-term goals: Grow 15 percent of my family’s vegetables by next year, organize parents and teachers to expand the garden at school from 2 beds to 6 beds

Long-term: Expand the backyard garden, plant perennial crops, grow storage crops in Mrs. Nuñez yard with her permission, to share with her.  

Engage early and often

An online course offers you an opportunity to learn, and it’s your job to engage and take advantage of that opportunity. In order to really reap the benefits of your online education, we suggest that you dive into the material right away. This could mean immediately logging in and looking around when you get your credentials, watching a few lessons, or taking notes on which ones you want to start with. If there’s a place to introduce yourself, do so. Indeed, this is a great opportunity to solidify your why and get accountability around it. Create a quick-link to the class in your bookmarks bar or elsewhere, so it’s easy to come back to and hard to forget about.  

woman succeeding in an online by engaging
Photo credit: California State University

Create a schedule 

Just like in a garden of plants, the gardens of our lives thrive when we give them our time and attention. Whatever your goals for this online course, create a schedule so that you can prioritize your learning moving forward. Consistency seems to help most folks, so try to make a schedule that’s the same each week or each month. Maybe this means committing to two hours per week, or more, or less. If you’ll be using the course as a reference, maybe commit to logging in at least once a month, so you don’t forget that it’s there. There’s no need to give yourself school-bell nightmares with this one; it’s not about pushing yourself beyond what works for you. On the contrary, it’s about creating a structure so that the benefits of the course fit into your lifestyle. This way, you’ll get the most out of what you’ve dedicated your energy and resources to. 

Reduce distractions 

These days, we all seem to have a lot going on, especially online. How is it that we end up on Wikipedia when we intend to order socks? Or down a social media rabbit hole when we were just checking what time the concert started? To reduce distractions during online learning, open a new window just for the online classroom. Turn off notifications and turn your phone on “do not disturb.” This doesn’t have to be forever, just for however long you’re choosing to dedicate to learning at that moment. You can also let family or roommates know that you’re “in class,” so they respect your focused time.   

Optimize your study space

Participating in an online course means using a computer, phone, or tablet as your classroom. However, your learning environment doesn’t stop here. Take the time to create an ideal study space, where you can sit or stand comfortably, easily hear and see what’s going on on the screen, and where you have a strong internet connection.

Wild Abundance’s online classes are a mix of lecture-style and how-to demonstrations, so you may need more than one study space. When you bring your phone, tablet, or computer outside for a gardening class online, take the time to set it up so that you can see clearly. You’ll want to be hands-free and able to focus on the material, rather than holding and squinting at your phone. This probably means finding or creating some shade for viewing clearly. In the case of our online tiny house building class, you might need dust-protection for your device as you set it down to practice making cuts.

succeeding in online learning by creating shade for a computer with a box
Photo credit: Bob Vila

Participate and ask questions

Online learning can include relationship building, but you have to make it happen. Most online courses have opportunities to engage with instructors and your fellow students by leaving comments, participating in Q&A’s, and more. Following through on this can enrich your experience and adds a layer of community building into the overall value of  the course. Even if participation is optional, push yourself to show up and participate wherever you feel called to. And, it should go without saying: use those opportunities to ask questions! This can involve a bit of a learning curve, as typing out questions or participating in Zoom calls might not be as familiar to you as chatting with a teacher after class. Still, online opportunities to ask questions can be just as helpful; and taking advantage of them is worth overcoming any online awkwardness you might have. 

Network with peers; choose an accountability buddy

We humans follow through on things more readily when someone is watching. Simultaneously, we tend to feel more motivated and excited about things when we’re doing them with another human (or humans). During your online course, connecting with your fellow students can be a wonderful way to create companionship and accountability. In fact, in both educational and business circles, the practice of “accountability buddies” has been shown to increase success. 

Put simply, an accountability buddy is a person to share your goals and intentions with, and to check in with regularly as you both track your progress. This could also mean co-learning: picking a time that works for both of you to watch videos together. Even if you’re not in the same classroom, physically, you’ll know that you have someone from your cohort learning alongside you. Ideally, they’re someone taking the same course, so you can support one another with the material. If that’s not possible, anyone who is also pursuing a goal can make a great accountability buddy, and you’ll both help each other stay focused and, well, accountable. 

Take learning into your own hands; engage in the material offline

Here’s where I state the obvious: you cannot actually build a tiny house online or grow a garden online. In our courses, and others, we share theory, techniques, detailed how-to’s, and more. Then it’s in your hands to do the thing. This can look like practicing what you’re learning exactly as it’s shown, and/or engaging with your skills in the context of a new or existing project. For example, a gardening student might grow a fantastic garden of their own, volunteer at a community garden or local farm, help a neighbor in their garden, or, after they’ve gotten comfortable with the material, teach an in-person class at a local nursery or school. No matter how much you “get it” in your head and on the screen, taking what you learn “to the streets,” so to speak, will ground it in lived experience. 

women gardening together

Give yourself rewards

Ain’t nothing wrong with a little carrot on a stick. Seriously… sitting down to watch a lesson might feel like a chore when your life is full, or if you’re more of a hands-on person and don’t love screen time. In these cases, you can sweeten the deal with some sort of reward. Here are some ideas: enjoy a tasty warm or iced tea while learning; roll out your feet on massage balls; take yourself for a walk after completing a lesson or goal; eat a piece of chocolate or other treat; combine study day with date day and follow up your study session with a fun excursion with a friend. 

chocolate as a reward during online learning
Photo credit: Medical news today

Take regular breaks

Online or in-person, learning takes brain power, and sitting to listen and watch can feel tiring or uncomfortable after a while. Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but taking breaks can help you learn. One way to do this is to use a timer and get up and move around at least once an hour. This can look like a stretch break, a short walk, snack time, or a mini personal dance party. Instead of zoning out, break up your study time and bring oxygen and blood flow into your brain so that you can be more alert and present for the material. 

Take notes

No matter how great the transcripts, descriptions, and written materials in an online class may be, the act of taking notes will help you engage. This is a way to flag for yourself the points, ideas, and techniques that jump out at you. Your notes are also a convenient place to jot down questions as they arise. It can help to choose a dedicated notebook that you enjoy the look and feel of, along with a pen that feels good to write with.

beautiful journal for taking notes during an online class
Photo credit: Tremundo Journals

When in doubt, reach out!

We online educators want you, students, to succeed. Our primary motivation is to share information and instruction widely so that more folks can learn and apply what we have to teach. If you’re having a hard time, please reach out and let us help you troubleshoot. Online learning is very new and can be challenging to adapt to. However, with creativity, communication, and commitment, you can craft an approach that helps you reap the many benefits of the “information age.”Online instructors on multiple devices