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Distance Learning: Study Skills for Adult Learners

Adult learning from home

For students across the age spectrum, distance learning is an increasingly popular option. In fact, according to federal data, more than a third of all college and university students in 2018 took at least one course online, increasing from 33.1% in 2017 to 34.7% the following year.

In light of the spread of COVID-19, distance learning has increased dramatically at all academic levels — from preschool to graduate studies. For students at Northern Virginia Community  College and other higher education institutions, the switch to learning online is a valuable opportunity to continue their education despite campus closures that might otherwise have delayed degree progress.

Although learning online is a recent shift for many students, NOVA has a long and distinguished track record of offering online programs that engage learners of all backgrounds and aspirations. As a result, NOVA is uniquely equipped to help every student overcome any challenges associated with this online shift in education.

If you are an adult learner navigating online learning for the first time (or even a returning student who is still adjusting to the format), NOVA is committed to helping you develop the study skills you need to academically survive — and thrive.

The Benefits of Distance Learning

Though you may not have chosen to complete courses online under normal circumstances, the current period of disruption is a great opportunity for you to explore a learning format that has become increasingly popular long before COVID-19. In fact, for many students, learning online suits their study style better than traditional on-campus courses. After all, remote courses offer a number of unique benefits to all students, but the format can be particularly helpful for adult learners.

At its core, distance learning provides a flexible approach to education. Instead of requiring students to come to campus at set times each week, online courses enable busy learners to complete their coursework at their own pace, on their own schedule, and from a convenient location. This can be especially beneficial for adult learners, many of whom are balancing their academic goals with family responsibilities, jobs, or even just a long commute that may make it difficult to be on campus at certain times. As a result of this flexibility, many students find that distance learning actually enables them to keep moving forward with their education at a faster rate than if they were limited to courses on campus.

But the benefits of learning online are not a matter of mere convenience — some people find that they actually learn better through distance learning strategies.

“Online classes create unique opportunities for learning,” says Jennifer Lerner, Associate Vice President for e-Learning at NOVA. “You can replay your professor’s lecture as many times as you need to to understand it, and you can take your time really thinking about a fellow student’s comments in a discussion before you respond.”

Distance learning is also a great fit for students who are more introverted by nature. You may find that you are more comfortable asking questions and engaging with your professor and classmates from behind a screen — away from the pressure of a crowded classroom or lecture hall. By trying an online course, you can see whether the format works for you and your personal learning style. As an added benefit, practicing your participation skills in an online environment may make it easier for you to more comfortably engage in on-campus class discussions at a later time.

Distance Learning Challenges Faced by Adult Learners

While the benefits of distance learning are numerous, the format can pose several challenges for adult learners. One of the most significant is the technology itself. While new high school graduates or other younger students have grown up in a virtual environment, older learners may be less comfortable engaging in a technology-driven world.

The good news? NOVA offers a variety of resources to help you navigate distance learning, regardless of where you are in your academic journey. NOVA’s Remote Learning for Students page offers a wide variety of resources, including Zoom instructions, IT support, and FAQs. Additional tech support is also available at the IT Help Desk by emailing ithelpdesk@nvcc.edu or calling 703.426.4141.

Aside from technology, there is another major challenge that many adult learners face: balancing education online with other responsibilities such as child care, work, care for other family members, commuting, volunteer work, or other personal concerns. These added responsibilities can make it difficult to set aside time for attending classes or to find a quiet place to study.

But even with additional commitments, it is possible to succeed in distance learning if you are willing to put in the time and effort — and follow a few simple steps that can set you up for success. 

Tips for Succeeding With Distance Learning

If you want to effectively navigate learning in an online environment, you need to keep a few strategies top of mind:

  1. Stay organized

It may seem obvious, but being intentional about organization is key to succeeding in an online environment.

“The students who do best in online classes really focus on staying organized,” Lerner says. “They often keep a written calendar of what needs to be done each week in each course, and that can really help!”

Without the structure of being in a physical classroom at a certain time, it can be easy to become disorganized and let education tasks slip. Create a schedule that works for you — and stick to it. In addition to setting aside time for your classes, consider scheduling time specifically dedicated to studying and completing assignments as well.

  1. Put in the time

Online courses may be more flexible, but that does not mean that they require less time or effort. The time commitment for online classes is typically about the same as that of an on-campus class. While you may save time on your commute when you do not have to travel to a specific location, the other requirements for success in school remain the same — including attending lectures, reading the textbook or other material assigned, writing papers, doing research, and completing homework assignments.

To succeed in a virtual environment, you need to commit time to these activities just as you would for a traditional on-campus course. Remember, while it may be tempting to skip lectures or other activities because they are online, each component of your course is critical for success. To master any subject, online or on-campus, you must remain diligent about putting in the time.

  1. Limit distractions

One of the major challenges of online learning is that distractions are everywhere, particularly if you are learning at home. Before you log in for a class, do your best to limit potential interruptions. Find a quiet location and silence your phone and other electronics. If you live with family or other roommates, explain that you are attending a class and need to focus. While creating a distraction-free environment is clearly easier said than done, doing your best to limit interruptions in advance will help set you up for success.

  1. Be present and participate

When you are attending online classes from behind a screen rather than sitting in-person with your instructor, you may find it tempting to check your emails, scroll through social media feeds, or otherwise multitask during lectures. However, it is important to remain present and participate in online learning. To give yourself your best chance at success, commit to engaging with what is happening in the class, and save your emails and other tasks for later.

  1. Take breaks as needed

When you study online, it can be difficult to separate your coursework from your home life. Try to be intentional about scheduling breaks into your day as needed. Whether that means taking a walk between lectures or breaking up an afternoon study session with an activity you enjoy, taking time to step away from your computer can help improve your focus and keep you from burning out.

Special Strategies for New Online Learners

Learning online for the first time can pose unique challenges for any student, but especially for an adult learner who also may be tackling some new technology at the same time.  If you are completely new to distance learning, here are a few additional tips to help you navigate your new normal:

  1. Practice, practice, practice

As with mastering any other skill, adjusting to online classes takes practice. If you are struggling to navigate this new learning environment, try using the technology in a more casual environment where the pressure is low. For example, try using Zoom to call a friend or family member and practice using the chat function and other tools. The more familiar you are with communicating in a virtual format, the easier you will likely find it to learn that way moving forward. 

  1. Review materials carefully

If you are not yet comfortable using online learning tools, the last thing you want is to be simultaneously scrambling to find assignments, chapters, and other information in the middle of a class. To limit any unnecessary stress, go through the course materials carefully ahead of class, if possible. That includes any new online requirements or supplemental materials. Try to avoid procrastinating until right before the class starts. You will likely feel more comfortable navigating the online format if you feel on top of the course material itself.

“When you’re new to online learning, the best thing you can do is be sure to review all your course materials very carefully, ask questions of your professor or of support staff, and be sure to work on your course regularly throughout the week,” Lerner says. “If you wait until the day the week’s work is due, you won’t have time to finish it all!”

  1. Pace yourself

As Lerner points out, pacing yourself is important. Leaving everything to the last moment can be anxiety-inducing under the best of circumstances — it will be even more stressful if you do so while trying to master a new learning format. To avoid unnecessary stress, try to spread your coursework throughout the week, and stay on track with the course syllabus to the best of your ability. Find yourself falling behind? Talk with your instructor sooner rather than later to create a plan for catching up. If you wait too long, you could find yourself trying to tackle a semester’s worth of material in the days before the exam — and that is definitely not a recipe for success.

  1. Ask for help

Finally, do not hesitate to ask for help if you need it. Your NOVA instructors and advisors are here to help you succeed — especially during this   time. Life can get in the way of even the best laid educational plans. There is no shame in asking for extra assistance or needing to talk through personal challenges with a professor or a member of our NOVA resource staff. Whether you need help figuring out a technology issue, finding support services, or need extra guidance with the course material itself, recognizing that you need help and then asking for it as soon as possible will help you stay on track with your academic goals.

Be sure to take advantage of NOVA’s support resources for distance learning. On our Remote Student Support Services page, you can access resources from a variety of offices and departments, including:

  • Enrollment services
  • Financial aid assistance
  • Virtual advising
  • Library services
  • Tutoring services
  • Disability support services
  • Computer lab resources

Remember that you are not alone. Have patience with yourself as you adjust to the new experience of distance learning.

Distance Learning With NOVA

Not a current NOVA student? This is a great time to start. We would love to partner with you in your academic journey — either remotely or in-person when we do return to campus. 

“NOVA is a leader among community colleges nationwide,” Lerner says. “Our students, our faculty, and our staff are regularly recognized for excellence and NOVA faculty and staff have come to work at NOVA because we care deeply about student success and helping our students achieve their academic and personal goals.”

As the second-largest community college in the United States, NOVA encompasses six campuses and offers more than 120 degrees at the associate level and many additional certificate programs. Despite the current disruption created by COVID-19, we are continuing to offer dynamic courses to learners of all backgrounds and professional goals. Click here to learn more about how NOVA can help you navigate the online learning process as an adult learner.

As the COVID-19 pandemic and related guidelines continue to evolve, we are committed to navigating distance learning as a community. Please do not hesitate to reach out to NOVA with any questions you may have by calling 703.323.3000, emailing information@nvcc.edu, or using the chat function on our website.

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is the largest public institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls nearly 80,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield (Medical Education Campus) and Woodbridge, through NOVA Online and high school dual enrollment. We offer more than 100 associate degree and certificate programs to help our students reach their academic and professional goals through university transfers and access to the most in-demand careers. At NOVA, we strive to ensure that every student succeeds, every program achieves and every community prospers. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, visit our website, www.nvcc.eduor call 703.323.3000.