Distance learning for beginners

Tips for studying online shared by students who're pros at it!

This image shows 'OU students' on one side and 'Other UK university students on the other. Underneath there is a handshake emoji, with the text 'online learning'.

Many students in the UK (and the rest of the world!) are experiencing a very different learning experience than they were expecting due to Covid-19. From university closures in accordance with the latest national lockdown to questions of facility cost, it’s a year unlike any other for students.

Open University students, however, are used to completing the majority of their students at a distance and are well-versed in online education. We asked them to share their tips for students finding themselves studying online for the first time…

OU Students Association // Twitter


Plan your time

Time-management featured heavily in most responses to our callout for advice. Students recommended making a realistic plan that includes both study time and breaks - then doing your best to stick to it!

Speaking of breaks, many OU students suggested trying the Pomodoro Technique to make the best use of your time, and to increase your productivity

How to use the Pomodoro Technique:

  • Break your available time into 25-minute chunks, with five-minute breaks in between.
  • After four cycles, take a longer break of about 15 to 20 minutes.


Create your ideal study environment

Studying from home can be tricky, especially if you're missing your preferred learning environment and don't have the space to replicate it. OU students recommended creating a defined study area (if space permits), and ensuring that where you're working is comfortable. 

Removing distractions was key advice from students - we received several suggestions to leave your mobile phone in another room! Where some OU students advised on working in a room by yourself, others recommended headphones and a great playlist to get you focussed.


Use support services

It may seem like a bit of an obvious one, but use the student support services that are available to you - that's what they're there for! 

Current OU Students Association President, Sarah Jones, wrote about the digital poverty that affects some OU students - and how the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. If you're struggling with internet access, equipment or space to study, talk to your student support team and/or your tutor. They may not be able to solve the immediate problem at hand of course, but they might have some advice on how to ease the stress and help to find a way forward that works for you. 

The OU Students Association has a plethora of support services for OU students, including support groups, peer support and mental health services. If you're not an OU student, check out the support services that your university provides. You can check if your institution is covered by a Nightline on their website.


Reach out to other students

It's so important to remember that you are not alone in this. Many OU students recommended joining Whatsapp groups for students on your course - or seeking out other students on social media. Whether it's to chat about your studies or to have a bit of a moan, establishing and maintaining relationships with other students will help you limit feelings of isolation. 

Comparison is the thief of joy

A lot of OU students advised to never compare your progress and performance to peers. One student put it very simply: "Focus on what you’re doing, don’t worry about anyone else. Everyone works at a different pace." Though discussing your module work with other students is a great thing to do, it might be worth skipping the grade comparison when it comes to assignment or exam results.

Though everyone is living through the same period of uncertainly and upheaval of plans, it's important to remember that our experience of this time will be different, depending on our circumstances. The writer Damian Barr commented earlier this year that: “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar”



It doesn't have to be all online...

Recent surveys have shown that increased screen use due to the lockdowns of 2020 and this year have had a negative effect on our eyesight. Following the 20-20-20 rule may help to give your eyes a bit of a break.

How to follow the 20-20-20 rule:

  • Every 20 minutes, try to look away from the screen and at something that is roughly 20 feet (6.1 metres) away from you, for 20 seconds.

It's distance learning - not just online learning! If possible, use books, notes and printed materials to give your eyes a rest from the screen. OU students suggested scheduling in time to go for a short walk in order to have a proper screen break. 


Celebrate your achievements

OU students were clear - recognise and be proud of your achievements! Life and study might be different at the moment, but you're still trying. And that's something to celebrate.

Give yourself a pat on the back, an extra snack or something else that motivates you (like a dance break with some seriously good tunes!) and lifts your mood. You've earned it.


Whilst designed with OU students in mind, this guide provides useful tips for all university students


Go forth and conquer, students. You've got this 💪

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Heather Bloomer
Heather is a member of the Students Association staff team and studied Creative Writing at the OU.


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