Studying as a Distance Learner


If you are reading this blog then there is a good chance that you are an RRC student studying by distance/ e-learning through our Learning Centre.

Distance learning is very appealing to both students and employers for various reasons such as the flexibility of the study schedule and the lower costs compared to traditional face-to-face teaching.

Inevitable there are downsides. Studying by distance learning can be a rather lonely affair, people often struggle to make a start and stay motivated and sometimes course content can involve difficult or unfamiliar ideas that would be much easier to grasp in a room full of like-minded students with a tutor to help.

So in this blog I would like to briefly focus on four ideas that might help distance learners who may be struggling with their studies.

  • Motivation

One of the hardest aspects of distance learning is making a start and then maintaining momentum through your course. The exam day seems like ages away and you have plenty of time, so you do nothing. As the exam date draws nearer you start to think about the fact that you should be studying more and more. But you don’t do anything about it. You put it off. Or you actively find a hundred other things that need to be done more urgently. It’s amazing how many little jobs get done around the home when you are preparing for an exam! Anything and everything is more appealing than doing the work you know you should be doing. As the big day draws nearer, the work you have to do becomes more and more intimidating, so it becomes stressful just trying to figure out how and where to start, and so the vicious cycle of creative avoidance is repeated.

Here are a few ideas to reflect on that might help:

  • The big picture – keep your long-term goals in sight. Whether it’s a job change, a promotion, more money or a completely new career, you are doing this for a reason. Keep it in mind.
  • A day at a time – you need to plan to succeed at study. But once you have the plan worked out your job is then to focus on the work of today. Don’t worry about the work you have to do tomorrow. That’s for then, this is for now.
  • Rewards – give yourself small rewards for working. Give yourself bigger rewards for passing milestones. Have a big reward stored up for after the end of the course.
  • Be realistic – you cannot work every hour of every day from now until the exams and you cannot know everything there is to know in the course syllabus. Success is about breaking down the work into manageable pieces and tackling each in turn.
  • Reading Course Materials

You may think that you know how you read words on a page or screen. Your eye moves smoothly and steadily along the line of words on the page and then goes back to the beginning of the next line and moves smoothly along that one, etc. And as your eye moves, you see each and every word on the page individually and comprehend that word by looking at each letter in turn to figure out what the word actually is.

Not so. This may be the way a five-year-old reads, because they have been taught to read this way. But it is not the way we read.

Our eye does not move smoothly along the line of words. It jumps from one word to the next. In order to focus on a word, the eye must be stationary. It cannot focus on a moving object. So our eye makes a series of tiny jumps down the length of the line of text, focusing for ¼ to ½ second at each pause and then skipping on very quickly to the next stop point. Our eye does not focus on every word. Instead we tend to see groups of words, focusing on key words in groups of three or four. Our eye does not recognise words by looking at each letter in turn, istnaed our eye rcensigoes wrods by likonog at the fsirt and lsat ltetres of each wrod and the mix of latetrs in beweten and rigeconsnig the wrod that way. And if you don’t believe me then read that last sentence again.

Having this information can help because we can use it to speed up our reading. Reading does not have to be a slow tedious slog. It can be fast.

Here are some tips that can help when reading study material.

First, the eyes tend naturally to wander. They focus all over the place, even when you think you are looking straight at an object. Try looking at the edge of the screen and then move your eyes around the edge of the screen to take in all four edges and back to where you started. You may have been aware that your eyes jump from spot to spot. They jig backwards to the edge you have already scanned and they are easily drawn away from the dull, non-moving edge towards more interesting features and movement (this is how many online adverts work).

But if you put your finger on the object and move your finger, the eye naturally follows the movement of the finger. Trace the edge of the screen with your finger and let the eye follow that movement.

You can use this trick when reading. Move your finger or a pen very quickly along the line of text. The eye will follow.

Second, if you were put in a field and told to run 20 metres and then jump over a fence, you might do it, but then again you might not. You might run quite fast, or you might run slowly. You might jump the fence in fine style, or you might climb over slowly and carefully.

Now put a bull in the field!

My point is that motivation is important even when reading. So give yourself a specific deadline to work to and read for a reason. What are you looking to gain from the reading? Is it a quick browse over the entire contents of a particular section of your course? Or is it a detailed understanding of one or two key ideas?

Have pen in hand. Have paper to hand as well. Use them both. Take notes. Draw doodles. Draw mind maps. Underline sections in your notes. Put asterisks by key ideas. Jot down bullet points for each new idea that you come across while reading. Set yourself the target of summarising the notes that you are reading into a set of key notes – the distilled essence as it were. And you can use the pen as a reading aid as mentioned above.

  • Managing your Study Time

Here are a few tips that might change how you manage your study periods.

Set yourself a time limit for a period of study; ideally between 20 and 40 minutes. Then take a complete break from studying and do something completely different. Concentration levels and retention levels are kept high by the breaks. Even when you are getting very involved in a topic and are perhaps starting to understand something that you previously found difficult, don’t stay working – take a break. Never work for more than an hour at a stretch without taking a break. It is simply a waste of your time. You may think you are working well, but your retention of the information will be very poor.

Recall of information drops away very steeply after a period of study. So quickly, in fact, that within 24 hours you are likely to only retain 10 – 20% of the information. What might surprise you, however, is that your recall actually increases immediately after a study period ends, for about 10 minutes before this very sharp decline begins. The reason for this is that your brain is still thinking about and digesting the information that you studied right at the end of your study period. You are still processing the information and working with it subconsciously. So when you have finished a one-hour study period, stop working, take a ten-minute break and then review all of the information that you have just revised. This review should take ten minutes. During this time you should go over all of the revision notes that you have made and you should rewrite them into a final revision aid form.

Stay healthy because your mental efficiency is linked to your physical well-being. Take breaks for exercise and keep up your normal sporting routine if you have one. Even something as simple as taking half-hour walks three times a week has been shown to improve mental effectiveness.

  • Use your Tutor

All RRC students have access to online tutor support. This can be invaluable when studying unfamiliar and difficult course content. It can also be invaluable when preparing for exams or other forms of assessment. My personal experience over the years is that students who make use of tutor support do better in their courses than students who have never made contact with a tutor.

You may be lucky enough to have friends and colleagues who are studying at the same time as you. Or you may have work colleagues who have done the same course in the past who can help you keep on track. But the reality for many of you is that you are studying in complete isolation. If this is the case and you want help or advice with any aspect of your course then drop a line to your tutor.

You do not need to suffer in silence.

Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH

RRC Consultant Tutor