For adults who are interested in a topic of their own choosing, starting the online learning process is easy. Enrolling in a course requires almost no effort and we get to choose what we want to learn. Starting assignments—whether they are lectures, discussion boards, or Q&A sessions—can even be exciting as we begin the learning process. Why, then, is it so difficult to keep up our interest and excitement about a course, to actually complete it over time?
Many online learning experiences outside of a college or a university setting may provide a schedule, but lack a detailed structure that tells us how to keep up with the provided timeline. Online learning may also provide limited to no feedback or social interaction. The most popular courses draw hundreds or thousands of students and staff are not able to meaningfully interact with so many enrollees. Instead, adult students are expected to structure their own learning which means figuring out ways to pace themselves and understand their mistakes, all while maintaining enough active engagement and accountability to complete the course.
In this post, I share my recent experience with an online course where I am fully responsible for completing all exercises and assignments. Because there are over 1,000 people in the course, there is no one available to check my work or to interact with, unless I have a technical issue. I decided to journal regularly about the course, to both keep my attention during the course and to remember the important lessons afterwards.
Regular Writing Is a Form of Accountability
For my online nine-month course on the nervous system offered by Sounds True, I created a simple GoogleDoc.
New entries are dated and appear at the top. After listening to a lecture or doing one of the exercises, I write about the ideas and my thoughts or reactions. Each person is different as to how to make this type of accountability work best for them. If you are motivated and have the time, a daily written reflection might be appropriate. For myself, with a six-year-old with special needs and limited child care, I aim for two to four times per week. If I write only once per week, or skip a week if things are very hectic, that’s okay. What’s important is regularly writing as a way of revisiting the ideas in the online course. This process can create what’s called a distributed practice schedule, which research suggests improves long-term learning 15% over reviewing only once, which includes cramming (also known as massed practice).
Writing in Our Own Words is a Deep (Not Surface) Way of Processing Information
When we transform ideas we have listened to or read into our own words, we have to do what is called deep processing. Reproducing a verbatim transcript takes only superficial processing—mainly listening, comprehension of word order, and typing those words. When we think about the ideas, comprehend them and then use our own words to restate the ideas in a way that has meaning to us, this activates more areas in our brains than surface processing, and builds new neural connections. Because of these changes, deep processing makes the information we have transformed more memorable.
Making It Personal Makes It Memorable
Expanding this idea of deep processing is the principle of making our learning personal. When I use my own words, I don’t just rephrase the words the course instructor is using.
I link ideas to my own personal knowledge and experiences—including emotional responses like feelings or body sensations, or vivid memories of something being rewarding, painful, or funny. Information that has emotional relevance to us and our lives builds very strong neural connections that make learning more permanent.
— BACCA Writer Emerita Claire E. Cameron is Associate Professor and director of the Early Childhood & Childhood EdM and PhD programs in the Department of Learning and Instruction at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). Claire studies how children develop “learning to learn” and school readiness skills like managing their attention and behavior and successfully navigating learning environments. In her creative non-fiction, she further explores individual stories of growth and change on the way toward well-being. Claire believes that great wisdom can be unearthed when we explore the things that we’re often taught to keep hidden, and that telling our stories helps us find our place in the world. Visit Claire’s website for more information.