Last semester, I decided to go to school part-time, and took up a thirty-hour-a-week job to help us out financially. I wanted to do a few classes at the same time to keep moving forward with my studies, and ended up doing one class on campus and two virtual classes. It was a very rough and stressful semester for me because of those virtual classes. I was simply not prepared for them. If you are planning on doing a distance program or taking some virtual classes, there are some things you should think about.
Be realistic. I think this was the biggest mistake I made. I overestimated how much I could handle. My job was not demanding in any way (it was a simple data entry job), but I think the low mental demand of the job made it very tiring. Working four days a week meant that I had to do most of the work in the evening. By the time I was home from work, had dinner, and had everything cleaned up, it was usually 9pm or later already, and needless to say, was difficult to get to work after that.
Trying to balance three courses and a full-time job was simply too much to handle. Looking back, I know I should have done one less course. If you are thinking about balancing a job and some courses like I did, be sure you carefully think through how much time you actually have. Try to arrange your schedule so that you have free time during the day to do your work so that some of your evenings can remain free. There are a lot of other things in life that will get in the way, so you need to plan accordingly.
Carefully choose your courses. When I got the list of virtual classes I was able to take, I simply picked according to the name of the course and the instructor. What I should have done was requested to see the syllabus before I enrolled. If you look at the syllabus beforehand, you will know the amount of work that will be required of you and will be able to see if that is a load you can handle, or if it will be too much.
One of the courses I took had an inordinate amount of required work, far exceeding any other course I have ever taken. For that course, I had to listen to twenty-four 45-minute lectures; answer five or six questions for each lecture, all of which required at least 75-100 word answers (with 10-15 requiring answers of 500 words or more and additional research); read about 1000 pages of material corresponding to the lectures plus an additional 1000 pages of collateral reading; write a 25-page paper; participate in an online interactivity forum; dialogue with a mentor about the content of the course and then write a seven or eight page response paper on that conversation; and take a midterm and final exam. When my mentor (a college professor) saw the requirements, he couldn’t believe how much work was required. The work became tedious and redundant for me. I did not enjoy it, and in the end did not get much out of it.
I strongly encourage you to find out what level of work is required before you enroll in a course. Obviously you do not want to pass on a course simply because it is a lot of work; a good challenge is always a good thing. But you want to stay within the bounds of what you can realistically accomplish.
Find people to work with. Taking virtual courses is a solitary affair. Sitting at your desk late at night can be pretty lonely. Find some friends who have work to do as well (even if it’s not the same stuff) and hit up a coffee shop in the evening or on a Saturday. Even if you are not talking to each other, the presence of another person can be an important thing and a helpful motivator.
Take a break. If you get too bogged down and stressed out, you need to just step away from the work for a bit. Take a night off and go out for dinner with your wife. Go play a round of golf with your friends on a Saturday afternoon. Turn on the TV, lay back on the couch, and take a nap. Every once and a while you need those down-times to regain your composure and focus. Don’t feel guilty about it, just enjoy it.
Talk with others about what you’re studying. When you’re in a classroom setting, you will always end up discussing the material you’re learning with your classmates—that’s a significant part of the learning process. This doesn’t happen with a virtual course, however. Be sure to talk with people now and then about the material you’re studying. It’s a good way to collect your thoughts and critically engage with the subject of the course. Blogging can certainly help with this as well, but don’t do that at the expense of real conversation.
Prioritize and set goals for yourself. As much as we complain about deadlines in our classes, they are a good thing. When a professor sets a date for a test, there’s no getting around it. You have to do it on that day, and have to be prepared for it. Virtual classes don’t usually have those requirements, and so the onus is on you to get all the work done in time. This was one of my weaknesses, and if I do another virtual course, planning out the semester will be the first thing I do.
Get a calender, and mark out the time frame of your course. Look at the big assignments you have to do, and set dates to have them done by. Then try to schedule your reading and whatever other work you need to do. And stick to it. That’s the hard part, but it will make this process far easier, and you will get much more out of the process.
I will leave my suggestions at that. From the comments we have received on the site, I know a number of you have taken virtual courses or are enrolled in distance programs. So chime in—what advice would you offer to students taking virtual classes?