The Learning Curve – Right on Schedule

I have recently entered my third term with Athabasca University, and trust me, the road has been bumpy.

It’s also been fast-paced, similar to the Zipper ride at the fair my daughter convinced me to ride with her. After standing in line for an hour with her in the sun, the term ?show no fear? took on a totally different meaning. During the ride, I was convinced I would either fall out of the safety harness while upside down (although I was wedged in there really well?the rides seem to be built for teenagers and I seem to be built more like a stereotypical farmer’s wife), or I would get very sick while at the top of the ride.

School stress can feel like that. Your course deadline is coming up fast, you’ve booked your exam, but now you don’t know if you will be able to write it in time. Or you need a higher mark to pass and don’t know whether to withdraw and get a WF on your transcript or take the lower mark. What are you going to do? Or maybe you have a six-month course you signed up for, but left it all to the last month and your tutor hasn’t acknowledged the two assignments you handed in at midnight!

It can all be quite nauseating. Not enough to lie down in the grass in downtown Kenora with a Slurpee resting on your head, but the physical effect can be similar. To combat that feeling, here’s a list of study and planning ideas I have come up with that I wish I knew when I started.

When you get that shiny new box of course materials, don’t jump right in

I’m a full-time partially funded student, so I have to finish three courses every four months. Minimum. And I optimistically signed up for a summer term as well. I learned quite quickly that going through every piece of paper in that box, and reading over the study guide to learn the expectations, is really important! Can we say English 255 online groups? A lot of people wait too long to sign up for them and then they miss out on one that fits their schedule.

Book your exams before you begin the work

Sound crazy? Actually, scheduling is a large part of distance education. Without a strict schedule you will fall behind. I plan out all my exams based on the weight of the courses (the amount of work they take and the credits they are worth), and plan exam dates that work with my local invigilator. I book every exam with AU at once through the exam unit?then plan my assignments and reading plan with my calendar. It is easier to keep on task and on schedule if you have a plan. And that way, my exams are requested a full four months before my course end date!

don’t sacrifice too much

Sounds silly coming from a single mom who works full-time and attends AU full-time, right? But with careful planning and thinking ahead, you will actually save yourself quite a bit of time. Working with your calendar from the start, you can plan your study activities around special events in your life, or your families? life.

An example: this summer we are spending a total of 19 days camping. I can’t go 19 days without studying, so I planned in advance, and the summer courses I chose can travel with me as they aren’t online based and don’t require a computer.

I study at soccer practice, but don’t study during a soccer game. Any student knows how easy it is to get burned out. Plan your course load and course schedule realistically, and with good balance and planning (and hard work, of course) you can find balance between the things in your life that are important. Sacrificing too much can make you bitter, and life is meant to be enjoyed!

don’t lose your textbook

Sound crazy? I might be the only person in the history of AU to lose a textbook, but I doubt it. I chose not to look at my ORGB 364 textbook for a week (I think I subconsciously hid it so I couldn’t find it again.) It was under the seat in my car while I spent three evenings tearing my house apart.

Every student needs a study area, even a small one. Keep your course materials and textbooks in a place you can find them and easily work on them for short periods. Pens, pencils, papers, erasers, etc. should be ready for your study time (I wrote a four-page essay on construction paper with a Sharpie pen during my first term, and it wasn’t a pretty sight when I was trying to type it to email to my tutor).

Give yourself a lot of time to finish your course

This goes back to scheduling once again. I always give myself a two-week buffer when planning out my courses, so on paper I do my three courses in three-and-a-half months. The two-week break is something to look forward to, but it also allows for those crazy things in life that seem to happen right when you don’t have time for them. Like mono.

Stay in touch

Find some way to become involved in AU. The AUSU forums are a wonderful way to remember that you aren’t alone, and are also a great place to get advice or to ask other students about their experiences with the school, or even a certain course. The forums aren’t a study board by any means, but there is a lot of good advice there that goes back years.

Reward yourself

Martyrs are only meant for novels and movies. I spent a full 14 hours working through my first math course with AU during my second month. Then I realized that I forgot half of what I was working on because my brain had turned to yogurt. You need breaks and you need motivation. There is nothing wrong with taking a few days off studying once you finish that course you’ve been hammering away at every day for a month.

Be realistic with your family situation

Family and school can coexist. No one has to be miserable, and you don’t have to miss out on important things. It comes down to scheduling, but also being realistic. A two year old is not going to let you study for too long before things get stressful. Probably five minutes, and I am being optimistic.

Try to save most of your study time for when they don’t need you the most. I do most of my studying after my daughters are in bed at 9:00, or while they are entertaining themselves. I don’t try and do my homework while they are doing theirs, because I know they will be asking for help and I’ll be distracted.

don’t do your school work at work

First, don’t work on math assignments at work unless you are specifically told the bosses don’t mind. For some reason, my boss was quite upset when my calculator and graph paper were all over my desk.

Draw a line between work and school as much as you can. I still read textbooks at work, but only during my lunch hour. Try not to bring your work home with you; you have enough school work sitting there waiting for you!

Also, many employers will be flexible (if you ask nicely) and allow you to take a half day off every few months as a training day to write your exam. Finally, make sure that your employer knows you are working on your degree. It is impressive that you are working and furthering your education.

Use your calendar

Everything was nicely laid out in my calendar, and planned out so I’d know exactly what to work on on which day. And then I put my calendar away in a drawer for two weeks! I thought I knew my plan well enough that I didn’t need it in front of my every day, and I almost missed my critical exchange for English 255. Keep your calendar where you can see it and use it, and keep it updated as well. If you suddenly have to go to a wedding, shift your calendar plan around so you don’t fall behind.

Talk to a course advisor

They really know their stuff. It is amazing the things you can ask them about course requirements and prerequisites. I worked out my entire AU course plan from start to finish and got them to check it to make sure it would satisfy my degree. Then, after my first two terms, I decided to change the program I was admitted to, and my course advisors were an amazing resource to help me through the transition.

Remember that there is always a way

don’t ever give up. Any situation you find yourself in while studying has a solution waiting for you. Online, the askAU feature is an amazing resource, but so is a phone call to the Info Centre. The Info Centre is there to answer your questions, so make a call and find out for yourself from the source. You can also contact department heads and ask them questions, or you can call your financial aid advisor if you have a concern.

If someone says no to your question, don’t always take it at face value because they just might not be right. This isn’t a matter of loopholes or lies; it is a matter of regulations and realizing that one person can’t know everything in the rule book. As well, the AUSU is willing to help out any student that calls them.

Sometimes it seems that studying is the easy part of distance education. We can’t just walk into an office and ask a question, but there is a seemingly unlimited amount of staff and resources that can help you with whatever crisis you find yourself in. It is simply a matter of putting the time in, staying calm, and finding the right person to ask your questions of.

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