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I have to admit – organization has been one of those skills that I have had to actively work at improving over the years.  When I was a student, I was that kid desperately filtering through piles of paper at the bottom of my locker looking for my homework, but as I’ve grown and my life has become more complicated, I’ve learned that being proactive in staying organized not only reduces my stress, but also increases my efficiency in getting my work done in a timely manner.  

While learning in an online, self-paced environment may look different from the overflowing school locker scenario, many of the same organizational techniques apply. In order to be successful, you will still need to manage your books and documents so that you can easily find things, manage your time so that you can stay on pace, and organize your thought process so that you can stay focused and positive.

Organize your Information

Begin by thinking about your learning style. Do you prefer keeping everything on paper? Maybe you need to doodle and add color to stay focused?  If so, a 3-ring binder system is probably your best bet. Feel free to print pages, punch holes, and file them under the correct class tab in your binder. If this describes you, invest in a good printer/scanner or download a scanner app for your smartphone.  

Alternately, maybe you need a bit more mobility in your life, so keeping it digital is a better plan for you. There are several excellent digital notebook tools available that effectively interact with cloud-based storage.  Most digital notebook apps allow students to create multiple notebooks for organization, allowing for both typed and handwritten notes. Additionally, PDF documents can be inserted into digital notebooks, allowing students to interact with documents digitally without the need to print and scan. 

Regardless if you are paper-based or digital, learning how to organize your files on your computer and/or a cloud-based storage system is vitally important. In online learning, your file management system is equitable to your locker – if it’s a mess and you can’t find anything, then you will spend a lot of time redoing assignments due to attaching the wrong file again and again. Begin by creating a folder for each school year and adding a folder within for each course you will be taking that year. Make a habit of double-checking that your files are stored in the correct digital file and have been named properly. A good practice for filenames is to include your name, the course title, and the assignment title (Example: Smith-John-Biology-3.2Cells). 

Finally, as more and more textbooks and other learning resources become digital, take a few moments to manage your browser’s bookmarks. Clear out any bookmarks from the previous year that you no longer need and pin the most important ones to your bookmark bar for one-click access to the sites you use most. 

Organize your Time

One of the most challenging things about self-paced learning is staying on-task. It’s really easy to say, “I’ve got plenty of time. I can take a break today and finish this tomorrow,” but before you know it, the end date is approaching, and you’re not finished. How can you avoid this common pitfall? Through planning and goal setting.

First, think about your weekly plan and create a schedule for each day. Begin by blocking out chunks of time for personal and family events that happen every week (Examples: music lessons, team sports, or church groups). Next, block out time slots for each class, making sure that you have enough time each day for lessons and study. Also, be sure to schedule a few short breaks during the day as well as some free time at least once a week. Knowing that there is a break coming up can actually help you stay more focused during work times than the alternative – working non-stop until exhaustion. 

Now that you have a workable daily schedule, stick to it! Just like someone who has a job, if you are at work, your boss wouldn’t appreciate you dropping everything to grab a movie with a friend – the only difference here is that you are your own study boss, and having the discipline to say “I’m working (or studying) now. Can we meet later?” is a key skill for success

Organize your Calendar

Planning for the long-term is the final step in setting yourself up for success in a self-paced learning environment. At the beginning of each semester, take one day to preview each course, set goals, and mark dates on your calendar. For this activity, I prefer a paper calendar so that I can see several months at one time. 

 As with your schedule, mark out holidays and vacation dates. Next, determine your pace for each course. For some courses, you may want a traditional pace; for others, you may want an accelerated pace. Regardless, mark beginning dates and end dates for each course.  

Next, read through the syllabus and task list for each course and set completion goals. For example, if you want to complete an 18-week course in 9 weeks, then you would need to complete 10 daily lessons per week.  On your calendar, write down your end-of-week completion goals for each class.  

Now that you’ve created a few deadlines for yourself, do your best to stick with it. When you meet your end-of-week goal, reward yourself by doing something fun! If you get behind or miss a deadline, take a breath – calm down – and tackle the problem.  If you’ve made it this far in this article, you’ve gained some pretty awesome organizational and time management skills, so put those skills to work! 

Organize Accountability

Now that you have a big picture view of your semester, it’s time to think about the day-to-day. You’ve set some weekly goals, but now you need to prioritize and stay motivated. While I would love to think that I can totally do everything by myself, I’ve come to realize that asking for help is a good thing, and one great way to ask for help is by finding an accountability partner. Ask a trusted friend to ask you each week how you’re doing – if you’ve been able to keep up or not – and to brainstorm with you possible ways to tweak your schedule to be more successful as you go along. 

Another good practice is to review the week’s assignments with your supervisor at the beginning of the week and set priorities. Maybe there is an assignment that will need to be spread out over several days, so you should work ahead in this course so you have time to accomplish everything by your end-of-week deadline. Make a to-do list for the week and mark it off as you go along, or use a tool like Google Jamboard to create digital sticky notes that you can rearrange or discard as the week progresses. There is something very motivating about seeing your list get shorter and shorter as you complete tasks. 

If you still find yourself struggling, ask for help from your teacher, parent, or success coach, for the most important skill is being an effective self-advocate! 

Written by Shea Marshall