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CSU faculty give students advice on how to best learn online

With finals fast approaching and many students still struggling to make remote learning work for them, it is more important than ever to adopt good online learning techniques. 

Colorado State University has put out many resources for students, professors and other staff to keep them working during this time, including tips for online learning. The Institute for Learning and Teaching at CSU has recommended utilizing its study skill resources, which offer tips for time management (such as keeping to a schedule), methods of note-taking and avoiding procrastination. 


Although some classes are maintaining a single lecture time, many have moved to a less personal approach. This changes how learning occurs.

“In a classroom setting, your instructor has some control over how the material is presented,” said Matthew Rhodes, a cognitive psychology professor at CSU. “With what’s happening now, there is simply material available for you online, and it’s your job to engage with the material. You’re, in many classes, entirely responsible for your own learning. We call this ‘self-regulated learning.’ You have to engage in what’s best for learning, and you have to make almost all of the decisions.”

Rhodes teaches the science of learning course, PSY 152, which focuses on teaching students effective learning strategies. 

Matthew Rhodes, professor of psychology in the College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University. (Photo provided by Matthew Rhodes)

“When you have a typical course structure with four or five classes, that’s imposing a structure on your day where you need to go to class, you need to show up, (and) there’s gonna be a quiz, lecture, exams,” Rhodes said. “In that case, we’re doing some of the regulation for you. We’re putting the structure in place.”

One way to create structure is do tasks in separate places.

“Have a place where you do your studying and where you do your schoolwork,” said Mekdelawit Desta, a learning program coordinator with TILT. “This could just be a table and a chair, and every time you sit over there, that’s an indication for you to do work.”

“In typical residential instruction, we get into a routine,” Rhodes said. “There’s a rhythm to how we’re doing our learning every week. Once we get out of that rhythm, it can easily make you feel kind of like a person out of place and out of time. My first recommendation would be to start creating that routine. Let’s start creating specific times we sit down and we get our work done.”

A routine ideally doesn’t rely on motivation to start it — it’s actually the other way around. Rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, beginning work is more likely to inspire motivation than waiting for the right moment.

“Create a routine,” Desta said. “The thing about motivation is it comes and goes. We can never depend on ‘If I find my motivation, it’ll stay here.’”


However, that set aside time should also be split up rather than doing one chunk of the same subject at a time.

“What I don’t want students to do is to think ‘The way that I need to effectively learn is to spend three or four hours on my biology class, have that done for the week, then move on to my composition class, and I’ll try to bang out that paper’ and so on,” Rhodes said. “Don’t schedule things where you’re working for huge swaths of time. Learning is going to be better if you can space that learning out.”

In Rhodes’ example, he suggests that this hypothetical student should instead do 45 minutes of biology, then start outlining their paper and then work on other classes’ readings for 45 minutes. 

“It’s not easy,” Rhodes said. “If you’re taking a full course load, that’s a fair amount of stuff you have to work on. I think it can be daunting to be like ‘I know I need to get all of this done, but there’s no class time, but at some point I should do it.’ That probably doesn’t seem very appealing. It can be difficult to be proactive.”

Desta suggested using simple tasks to get moving and start preparing for work by getting into a good mindset.

“If I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is look at my phone, that takes a good 30 minutes,” Desta said. “Having a good morning routine — maybe to wake up and make my bed or open all the windows in the room so there’s sunlight. Actually get ready as if you’re going to class — that’s sparking an idea in your head that’s like ‘Hey, I have stuff to do today. This is me getting ready.’”

According to TILT’s “Finding Success in Online Courses” slideshow, traditional learning tactics should still work for online courses with a little tweaking. TILT suggests finding tactics that work in-person and adapting them for online rather than trying to build an entirely new strategy.

TILT provides semiweekly online workshops through Canvas, which can be accessed here. These include past presentations and many other resources for students.

“A lot of students right now are hard on themselves,” Desta said. “Give yourself a break. None of us are supposed to be perfect by now. We’re just learning how to navigate it.”

Graham Shapley can be reached at or on Twitter @shapleygraham

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