Making the most of distance learning


As several of Liverpool’s universities move lectures and seminars to a distance learning format to help manage the current pandemic, we decided to take a look at the role that the internet plays within student life and how to make sure it remains a friend, not a foe, as we enter the final term of the academic year.

Online or distance learning has long been proven successful through the likes of the Open University and similar professional institutions, but for many undergrad students, this will be a new experience of managing their learning time and efforts from a remote location. Although according to a survey of 1000 students conducted in September, 50% of students thought that within the next 5 years all resources for learning would be online, removing the need for physical text books entirely, you may be finding it tricky to get traction with distance learning.

More than 50% of the students surveyed claimed that they became distracted easily whilst working, typically after about 50 minutes. Over a third blamed social media, while a sixth said YouTube distracted them most. To help you overcome these distractions, we’ve pulled together some tips/ideas that you may find helpful.

1. Time chunking

As we’ve mentioned, one of the common complaints even during the normal course of study is being easily distracted. You go online, find a few articles to inform your essay, collect a few citations to spectacularly quote in support of your train of thought, and then somehow, you’ve hopped to Facebook, to Buzzfeed, to YouTube, and you’ve lost an hour. It happens.

Breaking up your day into a timetable is a good way to help you monitor your time. When doing this, make sure to work in breaks and time for relaxing too. At the end of the year, there’s a lot of work to get through and it’s important to maintain balance.

2. Focus management techniques

We’re just not wired for laser focus for hours on end, so there are a few popular methods for helping you to get focus and keep it for long enough to feel like you’re making progress. Lots of professionals swear by these techniques.

Do you get distracted whilst working?
The first rule of getting focused is understanding that multitasking is not your friend. Flipping between two or three tasks means you spend more time than necessary re-focusing and settling back into each task in turn.

To help you focus on a single task at a time, give the Pomodoro technique a try. The crux of the technique is timers and here’s how simple it is:

  • Choose a task from your list
  • Grab a piece of blank paper to keep nearby
  • Set yourself a 25 minute timer on your phone or on Google

And then you go at the task, with as much focus as you can manage, reminding yourself that it’s just for 25 minutes. If something pops into your head during that time which needs your attention, just write it down and come back to it when your 25 minutes are up. Then give yourself a five minute break before repeating.

With a bit of practice, you’ll find that you can take chunks out of your reading, research or writing with each of these manageable stints, and maybe train yourself out of some of your instant-response social media or messaging habits. The breaks are important for allowing you to keep focus during those 25 minutes, so don’t skip them!

Are you more likely to procrastinate in the first place?
There’s a philosophy for that too, geared towards disciplining yourself to do the tasks that you don’t want to do. There may be a task on your list where the topic feels difficult or unappealing. In the Eat the Frog principle, you plan your day the night before and start each day with the least appealing thing on your to-do list. If that’s a chapter of reading on an intimidating topic, you get it done and out of the way early on in the day. If it’s an email to a lecturer that you don’t really want to send, just get it done. Once the difficult stuff in your day is done, you can progress to more enjoyable tasks: the frog has been eaten and you can move onto tastier things!

3. Be in it together

A great way to introduce some solidarity and structure is to set study hours with your friends or housemates. Even if you’re in different properties or studying different courses, agree set hours where you’ll each focus on a specific essay or some exam revision, for instance. You don’t need to be working on the same stuff to keep each other honest but sharing your goals with each other helps keep you all accountable.

4. Distance socialising

This can be a great way to ensure that the isolation of working alone doesn’t get you down too much. The same miracles of technology which allow you to attend lectures from afar can let you socialise from afar too. Better than simply scrolling through Facebook aimlessly for half an hour at a time, invite your friends to watch the next episode of The Stranger “together”. It works with one other person or a whole group.

  • open a Whatsapp chat
  • everybody loads up Netflix
  • somebody give a 3, 2, 1 countdown and hit play
  • let the GIFs fly

Being able to watch and react to shows together is a great way to get a sense of connection even when you’re apart. This can also be used as a great incentive for getting those other tasks done and dusted!

5. Ask for help if you need it

It’s your responsibility to make sure that your work gets done, but that doesn’t mean that you have to achieve it alone. Asking for help can take a few forms.

From an academic perspective, your lecturers are on hand via telephone, email and even Skype to help with any questions relating to your studies.

If your issue is simply one of discipline, you can ask for help from those in your house.

“When I was at university, one of my housemates used to come into my room, hand me her phone and her laptop and get me to change her Facebook password whilst she was working on an essay,” says Jess, our Marketing Manager. “She knew herself well enough to know that she just didn’t have the discipline to resist social media on her own, so she called on us. It was always up to her when she got her access to her Facebook back so we weren’t responsible for policing her progress, just facilitating it.”

6. Take it offline

If you know that you have no self-control, remove yourself from the screen and get ready to set yourself up for success a different way.

Grab your physical books, plan your outlines on paper, whatever it takes to get a sense of momentum going. Note down pages which contain particularly relevant information or great quotes/snippets so that you can come back to when you’re at the computer ready to do your write-up. By doing this, you’ll arm yourself with a structure and prompts to keep you moving without getting distracted when you’re back online.

So there you have it. Some tips and ideas to help you get the most out of distance learning: let us know on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter if you have any other techniques that are working for you right now!