Tips for Time Management With Online Learning

By Sarah (Sally) Northam PhD, RN

Citation: Northam, S. (October, 2005). Tips for time management with online learning. Online Journal of Nursing Informatics (OJNI), 9, (3) [Online]. Available at


Online learners need both computer and learning skills. Students benefit from beginning the online learning experience with typing skills, a home computer and internet access. Then participating in an online orientation can help master the skills necessary to participate in the online course. Most online learning involves skills unique to web based education including downloading course materials, participating in online activities, and submitting course work via a digital drop box. So mastering these skills early can prevent stress and missed course content or deadlines. Other challenges unique to online learning include managing emails, reading online and multi-tasking.  Organization, identifying and using productive time regularly can facilitate success for most learners. Interaction with faculty and fellow students can occur via email, discussion boards and online chats. Some study skills including flash cards and positive self reinforcement benefit the online student as well as the traditional student. Mapping the course requirements and planning study activities early in the semester can help prevent getting behind and overwhelmed later in the semester.  Online learning requires students to be self directed, critical thinkers. This article offers hints to help online learners succeed.

Key words: online, learning, time, management, multi-tasking.

        Many students juggle school along with a myriad of other responsibilities. It can be quite a juggling act! This article presents some hints to help students organize and use precious time wisely. Not all may work for everyone, but a few might help increase productivity particularly when learning online. Some online challenges can be addressed before the course begins such as being sure to have the required hardware and software. Other challenges emerge during the course including interaction with peers, faculty and time management. A variety of challenges are discussed with some suggestions for solutions. The most important point is to think about what works and doesn’t work so students can do their best in school.

Initial obstacles unique to online learning

Online learning requires some computer skills and students can inquire whether their college or university offers an orientation or instruction for online learners. Many institutions have staff designated to support online learners and they can offer input on computer hardware and software necessary to use their online learning platforms such as Blackboard or WebCT. These individuals can generally be identified by asking personnel in academic advising for help. Simply ask who manages online learning and online course enrollment. Then either contact them in person, by telephone or via email to ask questions. Many orientations can be done online and take learners through the skills necessary to participate in online courses, with the exception of typing. The expectation of online learners is that they have basic skill in typing.  Some other online skills are best mastered before the semester begins so students are not faced with trying to learn how to do tasks at the last minute. Those skills include accessing and downloading course materials, reading announcements, participating in online discussions and chats, taking online tests, and using the digital drop box to submit assignments. These basic skills are often part of the orientation program.
Slow computers can pose challenges for online learners. At the university where I teach online, Texas Woman’s University, the online orientation begins with a presentation of system requirements for either a PC or Macintosh user. The orientation is readily available to anyone at the university’s website noted in the reference list. The optimal distance learning can occur if students have both computer and internet access where they live so they can schedule their learning at their convenience. Sometimes learners must use alternate sites for learning such as a local library. There are some downsides to not having ready access to a computer with internet access because learners may not be able to regularly check online for course announcements, read email notes from faculty, participate regularly in online discussions, or download course documents. The optimal set up is to begin online learning with a home computer that meets the requirements of the college or university, so students are encouraged to identify and obtain the necessary hardware, software and internet access before registering for an online course. Many of the software programs used by the teaching institution are available free online as downloadable programs including Acrobat Reader for viewing and printing .pdf files and Microsoft Power Point Viewer for slide programs.


       Organization helps control stress and gives students a sense of control to foster better learning. Students can benefit by developing a routine at the beginning of a semester. An important first step is to create a list of learning activities that need to be accomplished. The list should include learning activities broken down into small tasks. One such small task can include listing specific pages of assigned readings for a single week. Making the tasks as small as possible helps prevent feeling overwhelmed and accomplishing each task can build confidence. So rather than listing all the assigned chapters, breaking them down to reasonable parts and listing them separately is recommended. Then progress is evident as each part is finished. Yes, it is a bit of a mind game, but it works!
It is optimal to have a consistent study area with ready access to books, resources, the computer, printer, and other items consistently utilized during learning. Then using the same study setting with access to the resources eliminates the time required to retrieve the items. Again, the focus is on optimizing the time for study.

Productive time

Students can benefit by identifying and using their most productive time for the hardest schoolwork. Individuals may be early birds or night owls, but they probably have already recognized when they feel and think the best. Planning to use the most productive time and mapping out what will be accomplished can foster better productivity. Then students should stay with the plan! Do not get distracted by answering cell phones, or breaking often for something to eat. Some breaks to move around, improve circulation and eating to provide brain nourishment can be helpful, but taking frequent breaks undermines the process of learning and reduces productivity. Students can gain a lot of insight into their learning by keeping track of how long they work and what they accomplish. Once they get to the point of reading and re-reading the same line in a text or they have hit a brick wall in writing, students can ask themselves if they have worked well and now deserve a break. There is a difference between working productively and just wasting time. Students benefit most if they are self directed in their learning and hold themselves accountable for working productively.

Regular Work

        Students should work regularly, everyday if possible. This helps them progress without backtracking. Long periods between studying results in forgetting and then they have to catch up before they can move on. Worse yet is having waited so long to study again that they cannot even remember what they studied last. So a little regular work is better than trying to be productive for long periods, like all day? Not many people can really be productive all day long. They hit the wall and spend a lot of time sitting and staring. In fact, the adult attention span ranges from 7 to 20 minutes (Spencer, K., 1998). So students are advised to recognize their own attention span, work regularly and be productive.

Overcoming Obstacles

        Students can benefit by listing their obstacles to learning and then writing at least one solution next to each one. Obstacles might include noise, hunger, fatigue, or interruptions. Some people say they study well with music in the background, other students require quiet. Recognizing what facilitates success and working to overcome obstacles can foster better learning.
        Students with children who have to wait until they go to bed to study may be so tired that it is difficult to be productive. Trying some different solutions and seeing what works best can improve learning. Some possibilities are drinking coffee and doing some exercises to feel stimulated, or they may benefit from a short nap. The worst thing is to say they are studying when they are too tired to accomplish anything. Students need to admit when the time is not being used productively and search for more solutions.
            Another issue sometimes perceived by students as an obstacle is the need for assistance during evening, night or weekend hours when the faculty or internet assistance staff are unavailable. Identify and post the hours of their availability and plan ahead to get help when they are available. Avoid leaving tasks like taking tests or submitting required course items to the last minute or for times staff is unavailable. This helps prevent the stress that can occur if the internet becomes unavailable or students have other online problems.

Email management

            Many students voice difficulty managing emails particularly when the computer flashes a notification when an email arrives and it interrupts the learner’s train of thought. The best bet is to ignore the notification or turn off that component of the email program so it does not interrupt learning.
Managing emails is also important so valuable time is spent learning and limited amounts of time are spent in communicating via email. If students think of things they want to email while studying, such as a question about material, it is best to simply jot it down on a piece of paper or open a word document. Email doesn’t take a lot of thought, but it can break concentration and take a lot of time away from studying. So save the emailing until after they have studied and then include all of the noted points in a single email. Multiple emails take time to send and if each one gets a response it takes them additional time to read the responses. Students can create rules for organizing emails into folders so they read all new emails pertinent to their course at one time, rather than skipping around from course topics to personal emails and back to the course. The rules function of email is available in Microsoft Outlook and can search for words within both the subject line and text. Also ask the instructor to create an online discussion board forum for course questions and answers. Often the questions students have were already asked and answered so having the online resource can save them the time of sending email and reading the response.

Online reading
        Reading online is slower than reading printed pages since they have to click on next screens, scroll down and wait for loading. If possible, students are encouraged to print copies of reading material so they can read faster. Reading printed items also reduces the eye strain involved with prolonged online reading via a computer.


        Students can multi-task when learning online by having multiple internet windows open on their computer at one time. To do this just click on the computer icon for internet access and log into the online learning program. At first the students might want to download the course syllabus or a course power point presentation. Depending on the size of the downloading document, it generally takes some time for items to download. As soon as they click to download, the online student can use the minus sign in the upper right corner of their internet software program to minimize the screen and go then go through the steps of logging into the course again beginning with clicking on the icon for internet access, logging into the course and then clicking on something else to download. All screens become visible as rectangular items visible on the bottom task bar of the computer and can be quickly maximized again by simply clicking on the item.  Creating multiple open windows enables the learner to be doing one thing on the computer while the computer is performing another function and thereby multi-task. Multi-tasking by having a number of windows open can also involve opening a word document program so the learner can jot down important points on the computer rather than writing them down on paper.

Course Objectives

        Students need to be sure they can identify material important to meeting the course objectives. Reading and highlighting everything is a clue that they are having difficulty discerning what is important. Learners who have this problem should make an appointment with the instructor and ask for help. In online courses, they can chat in the chat room, via discussion board, or email. The chapter summary can be used as a guide to the most important material. There is no law against reading the summary first and then reading the chapter. They also might find it helpful to make notes in the margin as they read so they are reacting to the text.

Cooperative learning

        Online learners are encouraged to talk to their instructors about the opportunity for cooperative online learning that might involve dividing up material to create learning outlines or creating study groups. If the instructor supports the idea, students might consider joining a study group that agrees to divide up reading material and create outlines. Sharing outlines may help them read more productively because they can follow the main points of the outline. Be sure to set deadlines for the outlines so everyone gets them with time to benefit before tests.
        Study groups can also be helpful for discussion, either online or in person. Students just need to be careful the time spent together is focused on studying and does not involve too much social chat or worse, sharing anxiety about the course. Anxiety can be contagious, so if conversations erode, bring the group focus back on the course material or suggest a break.

Study Opportunities

        Both traditional and online students can maximize their use of learning opportunities by making learning portable. Many students create and use flash cards for important points, using one side for a key word or question, and the other side for the answer. The beauty of flash cards is they can easily carry them and study even for short periods such as while waiting for an appointment or to pick up a child at school.


        Students can positively reinforce their success. A feeling of accomplishment can be obtained by checking off items on their study list. Positive reinforcement can also come when using the flash cards by creating two piles: one with the material they know and one with cards they still need to review.  As the pile of cards they know gets larger, they will recognize they are making progress.

Neurological learning

        Using multiple senses can reinforce and speed learning. The brain uses different areas to see material, process the words, hear the words, sing the words and write the words as evidenced by magnetic resonance imaging that shows areas of increased blood flow in the brain area that is working (Covino, 2002). So learners benefit by involving as many senses as possible to strengthen learning. With permission, students can tape lectures and listen while exercising, cleaning or cooking. While studying, writing key words and saying them out loud involves different brain areas and builds the connections important in learning and memory. They can even sing while learning and use yet another part of their brain. Amazingly, over one hundred and forty years ago a French doctor realized stroke patients with expressive aphasia could often sing and write music (Bouillaud, 1865, in Bella & Peretz, 1999). So clearly, different areas of the brain become involved by the use of different senses. Students facilitate learning by using multiple brain areas.

Planned Progress

       Most learners benefit by mapping the semester on a calendar and keeping up.  So students can note test dates, project deadlines and then backtrack and create some personal deadlines for test preparation and completing portions of the project. Getting behind can make them feel so overwhelmed that it is difficult to study productively. If they get in that bind, they are advised to chat with their instructor for help and direction.


        Adult learners benefit from taking an active role in their learning by asking questions and questioning what they learn (Knowles, 1975). Thinking and discussing points are components of critical thinking (Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2004) and help students learn and advance the discipline by not only understanding but also fostering new thinking about issues.
Consider two famous quotes: “It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.” (Bronowski, 2004); and “A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study.” (Chinese Proverb, 2004).


        Being a student involves learning material as well as what study methods work. Online learners can benefit by being oriented to the online program and its computer requirements. They must become organized and develop a study routine. Identifying and using productive time can maximize learning and help students avoid wasting time. Regular work helps prevent back tracking. Personal reflection and devising strategies to overcome obstacles can also increase productivity. Managing emails, reading some online and printed materials and multi-tasking can also be techniques that enhance learning productivity. Even though online learners may have little or no in-person contact with faculty, email, discussion boards and online chat rooms can be used to help learners interact with and receive input from faculty. These same tools enable the learner to interact cooperatively with classmates. Because online learning often involves more self-directed learning, students need to maximize learning opportunities such as carrying flash cards or notes and studying while waiting for appointments.  Students can reinforce their success by checking off accomplished tasks.  Mapping a semester and noting deadlines can help students meet deadlines and avoid getting behind. Finally, learners can benefit by fostering critical thinking to improve their learning. Online learning is a new experience for many students and these tips offer some guidance. Students are encouraged to try those that appeal to them. Ultimately, their learning will be their reward!


Bella, S. D. & Peretz, I. (1999). Music agnosias: Selective impairments of music recognition after brain damage. Journal of New Music Research, 28 (3),  209-216.

Bronowski, J.  (2004).Quotations about learning. Retrieved from the Web July 24, 2004.

Chinese proverb. (2004). Quotations about learning. Retrieved from the Web July 24,  2004.

Covino, J. K. (2002). What brain-based research means for educators and for the future of math, language arts, foreign language, the arts and special education. District Administration: The Magazine for K-12 Education Leaders. Retrieved June 1, 2005 from

Foundation for Critical Thinking. (2004). Our concept of critical thinking: Why critical thinking? Retrieved June 2, 2005 from

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-Directed Learning. A guide for learners and teachers, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

Spencer, K. L. (1998). Purposeful teaching: Design and instruction for adult learners. Retrieved June 1, 2005 from

Texas Woman’s University. (2005). Online Orientation. Retrieved August 9, 2005 from

Author Bio

Sarah (Sally) Northam PhD, RN

Dr. Northam is currently an Associate Professor at Texas Woman's University College of Nursing. She received her BS in Nursing from the University of Maryland, MS in Nursing from Northern Illinois University and PhD in Education and Human Development from the University of Maryland. She is a member of Sigma Theta Tau, ANA and e-Learning Guild. Dr. Northam is interested in infant mortality, maternal risks, secondary data analysis, and facilitators and barriers in graduate nursing education.