We all have areas where we want to learn and grow in our personal and professional lives. You might want to brush up on your Excel skills because you need them to advance at work, or maybe you enjoy taking photos in your free time and would like to get better at taking portraits of your family. No matter what your motivation, you’ve probably considered taking a self-paced online course. And it makes sense — you can take these courses at any time, in any place, on any device, whether you’re commuting to work and watching on your phone, sitting on the couch at home with your laptop, or anywhere in between. And now with many people spending more time at home in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and prevention measures, you may be considering using this time to develop a skill (or two) through online courses.

In case you were wondering if self-paced online learning really is an effective way to learn, the verdict is in: Yes, it absolutely is! Studies have shown that people tend to remember more when they learn in a self-paced environment, they learn more online than in traditional lecture-based courses, and online learning is more equitable than classroom-based learning. Everyone gets an equal opportunity to engage with the material and review it in a way that works best for them.

If you’ve only ever learned in the classroom before, though, it can be a little intimidating to dive into the world of self-paced online learning. That’s why I’d like to share some tips and tricks to help ensure you meet your learning goals.

1. Set a goal for yourself

First things first: What outcome do you want for yourself? Focusing on what you’re trying to achieve by taking an online course will help motivate you to complete it. Create a goal for your online learning that’s tied to real-life outcomes. Perhaps you’re taking a course because you’re trying to earn a promotion, and you know you have your performance review in two months. Or maybe your goal is to learn a new hobby like photography or baking bread.

Don’t just think about your goal, though — write it down. A study by Dr. Gail Matthews at Dominican University found that writing down your goal makes you 42% more likely to actually achieve it. Her study also showed that committing to actionable steps leads to even greater success. Write down a specific, demonstrable goal that is tied to real-life outcomes, and identify the steps you will take to complete it so that your path to success is clear. Keep your written goal and plan somewhere you can view them frequently.

2. Spend time finding the right course 

Next, make sure you find a course that’s right for you. You probably have a set of requirements for the course — you’d like to cover certain topics, you prefer a particular teaching style, or you want to have a certain format for the course content. If you’re able to find a course that fits the goal you set for yourself, you’ll be more motivated to complete it.

Here are a few things to consider: 

  1. How to search: To find a course that meets your needs, search for online courses on Udemy using specific terms. For example, if you’re interested specifically in pivot tables on Excel, search for “pivot tables.” You may find a course specifically about that. If you just search for Excel, you’ll likely find a course, but it may not be the right level for you, or it may have a lot of other information you don’t need. Even if there isn’t a full course on your specific topic, Udemy’s lecture-based search will show you courses with lectures related to your topic. Also, be sure to use the filter options on the search page to further refine the course features that work best for you.
  2. The course content: Read about the course description and course content. The content on Udemy’s course landing pages is designed to help you make your decision. It should set expectations about what you will get out of the course. Be sure to read through the landing page to see if it aligns with what you want. Also, look through the curriculum of a course to get a sense of what will be covered and how you will practice or be evaluated. Each course will show available quizzes, activities, or assignments so you know how much practice you will get. 
  3. Teaching style/delivery: Take advantage of the free preview lectures on Udemy courses. You want to be sure that the instructor will provide a course experience you find engaging and interesting, or else you won’t be motivated to actually take the course.
  4. Social proof: Look through reviews and ratings to see what exactly people liked or disliked about the course. These can help provide insight on particulars of the course that may not be visible from the outside (e.g. on the landing page).

3. Manage your learning time 

Once you’ve selected your course, it’s important to think about when you’ll take it. Consider how much time you have available to spend watching lectures and doing practice activities. It’s a good idea to start with something manageable and increase from there. For example, start with 20–30 minutes once a week and then add on another session or more time from there. Align these sessions with the action steps you identified when you set your goal. Workplace productivity coach Melissa Gratias is an advocate of “microproductivity” or focusing on one small task at a time. She writes, “Breaking tasks down helps us to see large tasks as more approachable and doable, and reduces our propensity to procrastinate or defer tasks, because we simply don’t know where to begin.” To help you plan ahead and stay on track, you can use this Udemy 2020 planner. Download your 2020 planner here

Plus, if you start with an unrealistic goal, you are likely to get discouraged and lose your motivation. Be realistic with the time you have to devote to online learning and choose a schedule that you know you can commit to. Research into the psychology of goal-setting backs this up: Being specific about your goals and setting ones that are challenging but not impossible can lead to high performance.

Another trick is to block learning time on your calendar and make sure you don’t ignore it. This is time that you’re devoting to yourself, so don’t let it get scheduled over! Unlike in-person learning, you alone are responsible for creating the time to learn and committing to it. Here at Udemy, we’ve seen a lot of success with our Drop Everything And Learn or “DEAL” hour for our employees. This is one hour each month that the entire company dedicates to learning. You might see if your company is open to creating a similar program, or maybe just add it to your personal calendar at home and get your family involved instead.

If you use our Udemy app for iOS, you can help build your habit by setting learning reminders. Using this functionality will allow you to get a notification at your desired learning time (such as every weekday evening at 8pm) to remind you to learn! To set up learning reminders, go to your account settings in the app. If you don’t already have the Udemy mobile app, download it here.

How to set learning reminders in the Udemy iOS app

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4. Find an accountability partner 

If you’ve ever struggled to meet a goal you’ve set for yourself, you’re not alone. Changing our behavior on our own can be tricky, which is why finding an accountability partner is such a great tactic. This ensures that you have another person or several people you need to update on your progress. For many people, this is motivation enough to follow through with their goals. In fact, the American Society of Training and Development found that people are 65% more likely to meet a goal after committing to another person and their chances of success increase to 95% when they have ongoing meetings with their partner to check in on their progress.

There are many different ways to create accountability partners. You might find another person who’s interested in the same topic who wants to take the course with you, or you might find a group of people who’d like to take the same course on their own time and meet afterward to discuss it together (like a book club). Another option is to find someone to check in with and share what you’ve learned. This tactic can be especially beneficial since learning is solidified when we teach it to someone else.

5. Practice and apply what you’ve learned

If your course has practice activities (as it should), do them! When you’re watching a video-based course, it can be tempting to skip over activities and just keep watching. But practice activities give you the opportunity to reflect on the concepts and try them out. Udemy courses are often built with quizzes, assignments, coding exercises, or practical activities to help further learning. When you schedule your learning time (see step #3), make sure you’re allowing time both for watching video content and doing the practice activities.

Studies like this one by the University of Sheffield find that some learners are able to achieve more proficiency in the same period of time, simply by spacing out their practice (taking breaks between sessions) and varying the types of activities they practice.

And once you’ve watched the lectures and done the practice activities, be sure to apply what you’ve learned. If you’re taking a course to help you professionally, look for opportunities to try out your new skills in the workplace. If the course is for a hobby or your personal development, it’s just as important to put the skills you’ve learned into practice. Not only will this prove that all that time and energy you put into learning was worth it, but it will also help you reinforce what you learned. Studies show that applying our knowledge to new situations helps us better acquire knowledge.

Use all of the above to create the habit 

Finally, if you’re committed to making learning a regular part of your life, think about it like trying to pick up any other good habit. It takes time and repetition to make it part of your routine. The more you maintain the habit of online learning, the more easily it will come to you! James Clear gathered research on habit formation and found that it takes 66 days on average to build a new habit. So if you’re really committed to making online learning part of your routine, remember that it will take a few months to really develop the habit. The good news? Even if you slip up a couple of times, that shouldn’t prevent you from meeting your goal.

If you do ever feel that you’ve gotten stuck, go back to the first step: your goal. Why are you taking this course? What is your eventual outcome? Will the skills you’re learning help you achieve a specific goal? Are you hoping to level up in your job or transition into a new career? Or are you learning to gain proficiency in a new hobby? Pinpoint why you want to learn the topic and stay focused on what you will get out of taking the course.

Dedicating time to your own learning is something that can benefit you in all areas of your life. And with most of us spending more time at home these days as we practice social distancing, we have extra time on our hands to spend picking up new skills. I hope that the steps I’ve outlined here will help you achieve your goals!

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Page Last Updated: March 2020