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3 Tips to Avoid Losing Steam in Your Online Degree Program

8/19/2013 2:42 pm

By Derrik Legler
Student Mentor, Teachers College

Derrik Legler, Student Mentor

At WGU, each student is assigned a personal faculty member to work with them as a mentor throughout their time at WGU. Additionally, each course has its own course mentors, subject-matter experts who are available to help students get through course material. Advice from your mentors is invaluable as you make your way through your online degree program. But we also want you to benefit from the wisdom of mentors not necessarily assigned to you, so occasionally, The Night Owl features advice from WGU mentors in colleges throughout the university.

With the end of summer comes a certain bittersweet excitement as the weather starts to cool and the kids start back to school. In elementary school, back-to-school sales and the joy of a new pencil case were all I asked for around this time of year, but as we get older the whole back-to-school excitement might wane a bit.

So with that in mind, I wanted to talk about how we as adult learners can find that excitement again, whether August means the start of a new term, or you’re somewhere in the middle of one. Back-to-school can be any day that you want it to be.

As I have worked with students here at WGU for the past three years, the most important factor in student success has always shown itself to be …

Wait for it …

Momentum.

For students who are moving through their courses well and have built a good groove for themselves in their study habits and time management, the trials of their everyday lives tend not to derail them nearly as much as the students who are lacking in this area. Positive momentum, and the increased motivation to succeed that comes with it, allow students to succeed through situations in their work, family, and personal lives that would seem insurmountable otherwise.

So how do we get there? What does it take to build momentum and how do we keep it going when our lives are so full of other things? In my time here, I’ve identified a few techniques that have proved effective in helping students to build momentum—and keep it.

1. Time Chunking:

How often do you encounter situations when your best-laid plans for “fitting school in today!” just completely fall apart? Does that sound familiar? All the best intentions for a solid three-hour study session go completely out the window when you get a call from the babysitter/school office/your boss and something has come up. Johnny is sick, or the client needs something pronto that is days away from being ready. These things come up and there really isn’t anything we can do to prevent them, but there is a simple technique that allows for school to still fit in even the most hectic schedule.

The idea behind time chunking is that building momentum for school starts small. You may not have the three hours for school today that you were hoping for, but before you get into the craziness of your changed plans, take 15 minutes to organize what you want to get back to later. Use a small chunk of time to set yourself up for future success. Then when a lull in the craziness crops up later this evening, take another 15 minutes and move further in your studies. Take those hourly 15-minute breaks we’re all supposed to take for our own sanity and chunk in a little bit of school. Finding 20 hours in a week to work on school does not have to be in two- or three-hour increments. Put enough 15-minute chunks together and you can be just as successful on your own terms.

You see, the trick to building momentum is in small successes. If you can have a few 15-minute sessions when you’re able to work on school despite the craziness that was dropped in your lap, you can start to build more success in the future a little at a time. Start small and work your way there. You are in control of your own success.

2. Work TaskStream; Don’t Let It Work You:

TaskStream is a large part of every program at WGU. Submitting tasks and waiting for graders to get back to you—while you constantly hit the refresh screen on the second day because “the last task you submitted came back in 12 hours! I mean, where are all the graders today???” —can be a stressful feeling. (Anyone been there before?)

The truth is, our TaskStream evaluators are incredible and keep tasks coming back in better and better time. But how can we avoid the interrupted momentum as we wait to hear on that task that we spend hours of blood, sweat, and tears on? The answer is really quite simple. Move on to something new, and always finish what you’re working on before moving forward OR back.

Allow me to explain. Let’s say you’re working in an assessment with four tasks. You work for a week or so and are able to complete the first task. You submit. GREAT JOB!! Now let’s move on. You start working on task two, and two days in, task one comes back for revision. What do you do? Many students are so distracted by task one needing a revision that they stop their progress on task two in order to go back and revise. They spend a day reworking the task and resubmit; then they come back to task two. But something has happened in the meantime. You’ve LOST your momentum on task two. You have to try and recreate your frame of mind and build back the momentum you had in the new task all over again. But you do it, and submit task two after another day or so. Then as you’re starting task three, task one comes back for ANOTHER revision. (We’ve all been there right?) See where I’m going with this?

The challenge is in understanding what is happening to your momentum with each choice down this path. By interrupting your momentum on task two to revise task one, you’ve lost some of the energy that moving forward gave you. Your focus on task one is also not as great because in the back of your head you’re distracted by what you were doing with task two. And so the revisions aren’t as good as they could be. And the cycle goes on.

Break the cycle. Always finish what you’re currently working on BEFORE you move back to revise. The sense of accomplishment that comes with submitting that second task will carry your momentum forward even when you’re going back to revise something. Your focus will be better and momentum can continue to build. It works every time.

3. Borrow Passion From Those Who Have It:

Have you ever come across a subject you weren’t excited about? Why am I asking? OF COURSE you have! This is a university education after all! The problem comes when you’re working through that hated material and your forward momentum completely dies. This is especially frustrating at the beginning of a course when you just finished an assessment. Your momentum should ideally be at its highest. What can you do?

The best thing you can do when your passion for a particular subject is lacking is to surround yourself with people who have in abundance the passion you lack. That’s right—I’m talking about the Course Mentors. Now, you may be under the mistaken belief that Course Mentors are only there for when you’re stuck; that they are tutors, or instructors for remedial students. The truth is that Course Mentors are post-graduate degree-holders in the very discipline that you may find so boring it makes your teeth hurt. They like their subject so much they went to school (MORE THAN ONCE) to study that subject and nothing else! They are more than happy to talk your ear off about that subject you may hate. You can use their passion to help boost your own. Eventually you may even go from loathing to only mildly disliking that subject. Dare to dream!

Momentum is something that successful students find. If you want to be successful, you may have to start small, but you CAN build forward momentum and ride out the craziness of your life while you’re in school. The key is simple. Start small, build it up, and avoid interrupting momentum when you have it. But the real trick is in understanding that you can start over EVERY DAY. It doesn’t matter what happened last term, last month, or even yesterday. You can start over and begin building momentum TODAY. 

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