When I first started with Athabasca University I was unsure on how many courses I should take at once, or how long each course should take me. I tried to plan out my program without the necessary experience to understand these basic things. I see this question often in various AU social media platforms. And while I cannot tell you the answers, per se, I can tell you how I figured it out for me, and what worked best.
I was not a funded student. This made planning easier because I did not have to stick to a funded plan. When I started, I started with one course. I highly recommend this, because it takes time to figure out the layout of the courses and get into the groove of distance education. With a single course I was able to focus on that and not stress myself over too many courses or trying to figure out how to structure my time. With the first course it is important to take the time to learn the website, contact tutors, and develop an understanding of the university. Find where the library is, where the write site is, and any other resource which you will need throughout your program.
After the first course is out of the way and you have found your way around the website, resources, and contacting your tutor, you will be better able to gauge how you want to structure your courses. How long a course takes depends on how much time you have to dedicate to it and the course itself. Some courses are much more demanding than others and course-level (200,300, or 400) does not necessarily equate to the time needed to spend on one. I initially assumed that the higher level course would demand more time. But I found that 200 level courses took more time because there were more, small, assignments that you needed to wait to have feedback on, while at the higher level there tended to be fewer, though harder, assignments.
When I started taking my courses I would enrol in one course at a time. As I neared the end of one I would que up another for the following month so I always had a course on the go. As I became more comfortable with scheduling my time and more effective in gauging how demanding a course would be I was able to pair courses together and tackle 2 at a time. I slowly edged this up. What I found to be the most effective schedule, though, was to start 2 courses on a certain date. I would pair 2 separate topics together, never doubling up on the same topic (eg: 2 Engl courses). I would try to have 1 course that was more demanding in research and one that was more demanding in reading so when I tired of one I was able to completely switch gears and work on the other. When I got to this point I was averaging 2 months for these 2 courses. But, I needed to up my game if I wanted to make convocation, (and I really wanted to make convocation.)
To up my game and not my stress level (too much), I continued with the 2 courses every two months, but, I would add a course in the middle. So, for example, I would order Engl XXX and Wgst XXX to start May 1st, then I would order Phil XXX to start June 1st; as of July I would be finished Engl XXX and Wgst XXX and half way through Phil XXX so starting July 1st I would que up 2 more courses. This way I was always half way through something and starting something fresh. It was a good way for myself to keep things moving along, to keep me motivated, and to keep things fresh, exciting.
There were occasions where this plan would go array and courses would take me longer than the anticipated 2 months to complete. When this happened I would skip the next que and wait until I got to where I felt comfortable ordering another one without undue stress. Arranging them in this manner allowed me to have a staggered finish, just in case. I always had a month separating the end of the courses giving me a buffer should I require it. Having this buffer, mentally, made it easier for me to put one aside when I fell behind my goal in another.
While everyone will find a method that will work the best for them, when starting out I think it is important to not overwhelm yourself. You are taking on the task of distance education and, if you do not have experience in this, learning the ropes, as well as the course, takes time. If you give yourself the time in the beginning it will make the next courses easier, because you know where to find resources and help, should you need it. Staggering my courses worked well for me, but for others, taking on a more traditional full time course load, 4-5 courses over 4 months, works better for them. You need to allow yourself the time to find the schedule that works best for you and to understand that everyone learns at a different pace and with a different strategy.
Deanna Roney is an AU student who loves adventure in life and literature