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Study tips for distance learners - The Open College of the Arts
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Study tips for distance learners

You’re a distance learner? Great! That means you can study wherever and whenever is convenient for you, right? Yay! But how do you stay motivated, beat distractions, and avoid feeling isolated or anxious? Here are a few tips that students have shared with me over my 14 years tutoring for the OCA. 

Create the right study space

It’s a good idea to maintain a clear divide between work and leisure space. Even if you don’t have a dedicated office space available it’s worth setting up a ‘pop-up office’ on your kitchen table or building a simple folding desk somewhere – some students have been known to use a nightstand or a shelf as an alternative!  

Keep your desk as clear (and organised) as possible and get rid of as many distractions as you can by putting your mobile phone in another room, in a drawer, or switching it to airplane mode. You could even download a free website blocker on your laptop or phone to stop you from logging into social media while you’re studying.

Schedule your study time and create a workload calendar

Scheduling your own study is a key part of being a distance learner and this means planning ahead and being disciplined! Depending on your unit, you may have activities, exercises, and reading to complete, so take some time each week to plan what you need to do and check that you’re on track. (To-do lists can be a good way to keep on top of tasks but include some kind of ranking or way of identifying priorities.)  

Your tutor will work with you to set submission dates for projects or assignments, so record these somewhere (using an app or a physical planner) so that a deadline doesn’t surprise you. Build in some ‘slack’ or contingency time around these dates (for when family or job issues crop up).  

You will probably already know the times of day you work best in but be flexible too – this will help you discover new slots to study in and make the most of a streak of motivation. If you are finding it hard to stay focused, you could try the Pomodoro technique to break your study time down into short, manageable chunks with breaks (tea and biscuits optional) in between. Everybody works differently and there is no ‘perfect’ study method – try out several approaches.  

Find out who your fellow students are

Distance learning can be lonely at times, but just because you might not have face-to-face teaching doesn’t mean you have to study alone. There’s a thriving community of students and opportunities for group work at the OCA, as well as local meet ups that can help you place your learning in wider contexts, so check out your relevant unit forum on OCA Learn, visit the OCA Discuss site and get support from the OCA Student Association. Get involved and engage with your peers to share successes, problems, ideas, or solutions.  

(A quick side note: a lot of your communication with other students and your tutor will be online – being careful with online etiquette can help avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and potential conflicts.)        

Ask for help

Remember that asking for help is a strength not a weakness. Yes, trying to work through a problem yourself first is important (you learn something by making the attempt!), but if you’ve spent a lot of time on an issue, need a concept explaining, or you don’t know what an activity (or essay) requires, ask your tutor to help you. A quick email can do wonders if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed!  

Similarly, make the most of the OCA’s services. Student Services will assist you with any queries you may have around study resources, time frames, finance and funding, and Learner Support will help if any personal circumstances or disabilities begin to impact you and your ability to study. There’s also lots of support and resources available in each department space from Programme Leaders and Programme Tutors.

Record your progress

Even if you are feeling a bit stuck (or fed up!), it’s likely that you are still making progress, so try and stay positive. Just ticking tasks off your to-do list will help you recognise what you have achieved and enable you to maintain a sense of momentum. Look back at how far you’ve come and feel proud of your learning journey. Don’t forget to reward yourself for accomplishing a key task (whether that be submitting work to your tutor or finishing your unit) – celebrate your hard work. 


Most importantly, enjoy your studies, be kind to yourself, and remember that distance learning might be an independent affair (you are in control), but you are not on your own. 

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Posted by author: Julia
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4 thoughts on “Study tips for distance learners

    • Hi Melanie. I am thinking of enrolling my son in BA Creative Arts. Could I ask for some feedback from you regarding your experience when the schools and the support they give to a student? Would appreciate it very much. Thank you.

  • I started the Illustration Course in May 2022 and am thoroughly enjoying it. I have just come across these tips and they are great, and I am pleased to read that I am already doing some of them…creating the right study space and scheduling time. The scheduling has been a work in process due to other responsibilities and so being flexible is great advice!!
    To-do lists seems like a great way forward to help me focus more, so I will try that.

    I love this part – Most importantly, enjoy your studies, be kind to yourself, and remember that distance learning might be an independent affair (you are in control), but you are not on your own.
    So true1! The support on offer is invaluable – I have utilised tech support, student services and of course my tutor and they have all been awesome for me!!

    Rewarding myself is the area I lack in and it’s great that it is validated here!! Ill take that on board for sure. So off I go to make a to-do list and think of some suitable rewards for me!!

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