Time, pace, rewards, and obstacles in a distance learner’s journey

A family travel in Rajkot, India
A family travel in Rajkot, India

Here, I consider some of the strategies employed by students on a daily and weekly basis to maximise the value and impact of their limited study time. I discuss the manageability of distance study for these students. Above all, their resourcefulness and sheer determination were most impressive.

Engaging with the learners

Recently, over a two-month period, I enlisted the help of a small sample of distance-learning students studying an introductory health and social care module. I wanted to assess their experiences of studying. How do they engage with the materials, how do they manage their time, and what strategies do they resort to when time is short?

Most research asking these types of questions of distance learners tends to collect the data at the end of a study period, and I was interested in developing methods that would allow educators to gather useful data during study. This immediately throws up issues of time shortage. It is difficult to defend asking time-poor students to devote even more time in relation to their studies.

I anticipated that few of our entry-level students of health and social care would find the time or energy to maintain a study diary. Many of them were combining their studies with child-care responsibilities and full or part-time work. And as it turned out, only a very small proportion of the student cohort actually replied to my request for volunteers.

Diary keeping

I invited my volunteers to choose from a menu of methods for recording their study experiences and behaviours as often as required, but once a week minimum.

  • Receive a regular call from me, in an agreed time slot
  • Call an automated phone line to record a message
  • Make a short voice or video recording on a smartphone, tablet or pc and upload it to a secure website
  • Keep a written log of study experiences and send it to me

Of the seven volunteers, five chose to send weekly written diaries by email, and two elected for a weekly phone call. To my surprise, none chose to make audio or video diaries. I had previously believed that recording their voices would offer welcome relief from writing. But in fact they decided, probably rightly, that messing around with the technology would consume much more time than writing things down or simply speaking to me at a pre-arranged time.

Time and pace

Time and pace were fundamental concerns. The participants all found it a challenge to make time for study. This was a standard approach to time management: ‘I have been trying to do an hour of study every night when I have finished work and doing as much as I possibly can at the weekend.’ These good intentions could easily melt away, however, when other priorities crowded in.

Guilt commonly cropped up: ‘I’ve had some annual leave and have been trying to enjoy time off and do those annoying bits around flat which I’ve been putting off. Felt a bit guilty about putting the essay off.’ When one of the participants did use his holiday for study, he still came up against competing demands on time after his return: ‘Found it harder this week as I’m back at work and need to study other things for my work too’.

By contrast, experiencing a sense of speed could be invigorating – for example, one student triumphantly ‘flew through the last unit’ after consistently worrying about falling behind. Rewards were important, and for this student the reward was the ‘fun’ of speeding through number skills activities after grappling with copious reading and writing. The thrill and relief of receiving a good assignment mark also energised these students.

More often, the students tried to find active strategies to increase their pace through the module. This would sometimes backfire: ‘I have skimmed Block 3 in bed over the past fortnight, just concentrating on pages which I think are relevant to the essay. But I sat down last night to write the essay and soon realised I simply don’t understand the material well enough to do it. I’m having to go back through it in a linear way today so I can make another attempt.’

Those with dyslexia found the large amount of reading to be the greatest challenge. Alternative visual and audio stimuli could help to maintain momentum and motivation:

‘I’ve started using sticky labels to mark the case studies for future reference. When I make notes, I draw different shapes around each bit. I use highlighters in three different colours: one for the positives or general info; another for challenges or difficulties; the third for the references. I write notes to myself in the margins, which helps to keep me focused. I fall asleep at night listening to the audio book.’

Life events

The diarists experienced many life events and study situations that presented obstacles to study. For example, one explained that ‘there was so much going on, it felt everybody wanted a piece of me.’ Furthermore, serious health and personal issues could be real obstacles to successful study: ‘I’m literally hanging on by a thread due to personal circumstances, work, social factors, physical and mental health problems, computer breaking down…’

One participant reflected the experience of many of our students when she described family responsibilities that demanded flexibility in order to maintain study progress: ‘It was half term. I have three young children – we had family trips and attended two weddings, so we did a lot of travelling. I did the DVD activities in the car.’

Maintaining motivation

Motivators for continuing with their studies fitted under three headings: being kind to yourself and finding a balance, seeing the relevance of the new knowledge, and personal strength and determination.

Being kind to yourself:

‘I’ve found myself adopting a ‘that’ll do attitude’ just to get through everything – sometimes you just haven’t got the time to do yourself justice’
‘I’m feeling motivated and tell myself not to be too hard on myself. I’m so tired but getting a good mark in the last assignment refreshed me.’
‘I struggle to get started without doing anything first so on Sunday I went out for the morning and spent the afternoon doing the bulk of the essay’

Seeing the relevance of knowledge gained:

‘The stuff I have learnt has actually came up in topic while chatting with family’
‘I can make personal links with the social model – it helps me to look at things in a different way.’

Personal strength and determination:

‘I’m not the sort of person who would let go – I keep the pressure on.’
‘I keep going because I chose to do this and I want my degree in 3 years. This week I’m going to prove to myself I can rise to the challenge’
‘What has kept me going this week has been sheer determination not to give up.’

What did I learn?

In some ways, I learnt nothing new – I have supported distance learners for well over a decade. But by thinking hard about some of these recurring themes of time, pace, rewards, and obstacles, I am developing new insights. Perhaps we can design in more quick-and-easy quizzes that provide a sense of speed and achievement. We should design formal continuous assessment so that it reflects progress more sensitively than it currently does, saddled as we are with the blunt instrument of learning outcomes. Most of all, we can surely apply our creativity in steering time-poor students along a journey that can fit alongside their often chaotic, busy, and unpredictable lives.

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