Dear Heather

Dear Heather:

Last week, I answered June S., a new full-time AU student who wanted advice on how to juggle the demands of so many courses at a time. June is taking five courses every five months. I gave her some suggestions, such as planning ahead and giving herself firm due dates for each assignment. However, doing this for so many courses at once can be complicated, and there is another strategy that some students prefer.

This week I’ll continue my reply to June by outlining that alternative approach, and offering some insights into its advantages and potential pitfalls.

If you are taking five AU courses every five months, there is no rule that says you have to work on them all simultaneously. In fact, you can work on only one at a time, of you want to. In this case, instead of taking five months to finish each course, you take only a month for each one. This scheduling flexibility is one of the many advantages of studying with AU.

The one-at-a-time approach has a number of advantages. It simplifies scheduling, because you only need to plan the assignments and exams for one course at a time. It’s also less mentally taxing, because you only have to remember the information from one subject at a time, instead of having to remember material from five courses all at once. It means that your exams will be spaced evenly, rather than having to write finals in five different subjects at the end of the term, all within the space of a week or two. And, if you’re taking a course you really hate, you can get it completely over with in a month (though you’ll do nothing else for that entire month, so some people might not consider that an advantage)!

There are disadvantages, too, of course. If you generally want or need a lot of tutor contact, this approach is definitely not for you. If, for example, you have four assignments for a given course, you will have to do about one a week. This will usually mean that your tutor will not have time to grade the first assignment and return it to you before you send in the second one. There is a risk that you will repeat some major error on the second assignment because you couldn’t take advantage of the feedback from the first one.

In addition, if you finish one course a month, you will be moving through the material at a relatively rapid pace. If your tutor only has contact hours on Saturdays and you run into a problem on Monday, you may have to keep going and come back to that problem later. You can’t just stop and wait until Saturday, because then you’ll be a week behind, which is a lot in a schedule that’s only four weeks long. To do one course a month, you have to be an academically strong and generally confident student who doesn’t need a lot of tutor support and feedback.

The question I most often get asked about this approach is “Are you really allowed to do that?”. The answer is that you are. You can schedule your courses any way you like, as long as you get them all finished by your contract date [ed: see Editors’ Note below].

The second most common question is, “Is it really possible to finish a course in only a month, and still do well?”. It definitely is. In fact, I do a course every two or three weeks, and like everyone, I have lots of other commitments in addition to school. (My job is a particular thorn in my side… *sigh*.) My grades have actually improved since I started scheduling my courses this way, probably because I only have to learn the material from one course at a time. But like I said, this isn’t for everyone. You have to be focused enough that you can spend all your time on just one subject without getting bored.

If you need a lot of variety, you might be better off taking a few courses at a time (either five for five months, or maybe just two for two months) so that when you get tired of one, you can work on the other one for a while. And if you are used to using one course as a break from another one, you may have to find other ways of doing that (I use housework, yardwork, walking my dog, grocery shopping and other necessary tasks when I need a break from the course I’m working on).

A word about government student loans: if you are a loan student like me, you probably have to complete three to five courses every four months, and the loan people expect you to ‘show progress in your courses’ or they’ll cut your funding. However, this doesn’t mean that by month two you have to be halfway through every course. If they see that at the end of month two there are two courses you haven’t started yet, but you’ve got the others completely finished, they’ll be satisfied with that.

The only thing you need to keep in mind if you’re a loan student is that in any given loan term, they expect all of your courses to have the same start and end date. So you’ll need to register in all five courses at the same time. Then, when the box arrives, stick it in the closet and only take one course out each month. (One of the things I love about this approach is that I’m always really motivated when I start a new course. By starting a new one every few weeks, I’m freshly motivated so often that I rarely run out of steam.)

Just one more thing: if you want to write your final exam at the end of the month, make sure you book it during the first week or so of the course, since they usually need at least two weeks’ notice. (For a course with a mid-term, you may have to schedule that exam even before you’ve started the course.) This is not as restrictive as it sounds; having an exam looming can be a great motivator to stay on track.

You know yourself best: how you’re motivated, how much material your mind can retain at once, and how much tutorial support and feedback you require. Only you can decide which strategy to adopt: taking your courses concurrently, consecutively, or some combination of the two. The right approach is the one that works best for you.

Good luck with your courses!

[* Editors’ Note: Heather’s approach is an excellent one, which also works well for me. However, I have this to add: always read your entire Student Manual for each course carefully before scheduling, and before you put that box in the closet. Some courses (only a few) have special requirements that will stymie your attempts to create a custom study schedule. A few English courses, for example, are not shipped with the assignment topics for the second and third assignments. You must submit assignment one, and wait until it is returned to you before you can find out the topic for assignment two (likewise, assignment two must be returned to get the third assignment topics)].


E-mail your questions to Heather at Some submissions may be edited for length or to protect confidentiality: your real name and location will never be printed. This column is for entertainment only. Heather is an AU student offering objective advice to her peers; she is not a professional counsellor and this column is not intended to take the place of professional advice.

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