Studying at a Distance

Distance learning is rapidly growing in popularity.  It takes many forms but the general principal is that the student is displaced from their institution of study relying on their own motivation to complete the course.  Embarking on such a course can be a daunting experience and Christine Talbot has aimed to address concerns and provide useful advice in her book “Studying at a Distance – a guide for Students.”

The guide is published by the Open University Press.  The Open University is a renowned and well known UK distance learning institution that has been supporting and adding students to obtain degrees from home for over 20 years.

Starting a distance learning course may be the first bit of studying you have done in years or it may be a continuation of your studies, either way this guide is a helpful refresher and ideal to have on hand throughout.

The guide is separated out into 8 chapters after an introduction that begins to layout the challenges and commitment you have to make to be successful. The chapters are as follows:
Preparing for Distance Learning
Know yourself as a learner
Practicalities of studying
Getting Support
Resources for studying
Reading and Note-Taking
Essays and Written Examinations
Research Projects

*Preparing for distance learning*
Like most people taking these courses you will have considered how it will fit in with your daily life but this chapter is about facing up to the realities, the book contains activities every few pages so that you engage with the advice being offered. One of the first activities is to make a note of the reasons your doing this course. This chapter is all about examining yourself and making you question the potential issues that could come from distance learning for you as an individual. For example it examines how to maximize your time, if you have a long commute can you combine some reading with it. It also forces consideration of how this type of study will affect your family life and also your personal health, encouraging breaks and being realistic about your goals.  You may feel these are considerations you have already made but the key to succeeding in distance learning is planning and as the guide outlines you cannot get enough of it!

*Know Yourself as a Learner*
As you are in control of your own learning this is quite a fundamental chapter. It examines how you will learn and what will generally be expected of you on such a course. It does consider some basic learning theory such as reflecting on what you have learned, and considering the learning process. It may seem to be a chapter devoted to theory but many distance learning courses contain an introductory module that examines similar presumptions.

*Practicalities of Studying*
 A lot of this chapter is common sense, establishing an area to work, considering whether this will be at home or whether you’ll stay at work. Who will do the dinner on those particular days? In fact it was all reassuring, the panic that grips you when the work arrives means that sometimes you can become lost with the minor details so this is a good refresher chapter. It also features information on registration on courses and the payment of fees. All such references are general and not course specific.

*Getting Support*
A key chapter for any distance learner, a fundamental part of such a course is being able to know when to hold your hands up and say “help,” and then knowing who the right person to go to is. Not only that but feelings of isolation can make studying feel impossible, the chapter encourages as much interaction as possible. A level of daily contact with fellow students and course staff really does prove to be a useful lifeline, it is incredible how much you really do need others to bounce ideas off. The end of the chapter also looks at taking a study break for a few months if need be, life can get in the way of these types of things after all!

Some of us are not blessed with being computer savvy and this chapter would be a blessing for those who don’t understand or have been out of practice with accessing any material online. The chapter provides a glossary of common terms and looks at Virtual Learning Environments (VLE’s) which the majority of these courses are based on, pc video streaming, email, blogs etc. The information is in depth with simple steps taken to introduce the concepts. As you would expect it also highlights the need to back up all your work.  Nothing would destroy your motivation more than having to redo all your work.

*Resources for Studying*
This chapter looks at the more archaic of ‘traditional’ study methods such as accessing journals and how to conduct effective internet searches. This is really relevant as it is easy to waste time idling over sites that will never offer the level of information you require. A section on referencing is also an ideal way to top up rusty Harvard referencing skills.

*Reading and Note-Making*
Self explanatory really but an examination of how to gain the most out of your very valuable study time. Sometimes brief and concise notes of the first page of a report can be as productive as lengthy assessment of an irrelevant piece of text. This section would be useful to anyone that has not studied at degree level before.

*Essays and Examinations*
The dreaded topic, the key points are planning, timing and digesting the feedback when its over. Finding a way that works for you is the key and thankfully you have more than one shot over a period of years to find your style.

*Doing a Research Project*
Again invaluable advice to those considering taking on the daunting prospects of a dissertation or masters. 

This guide pulls no punches, it doesn’t beat around the bush and it certainly doesn’t lull you into thinking you’ve picked an easy ride. Do not be put off by this.  Talbot makes you question your inspiration and commitment to the course before it even begins. She makes you examine the reality of how day to day life will be for the next few years, it is tempting when starting such a course to look to the future, imagining your graduation day and the day you earn that promotion on the back of it and it is easy to block out the daily slog that is soon to become your existence. Having dealt with the nasty and hard facts Talbot moves on to her chapters and provides genuine and helpful advice.  
The activities that are listed every few pages do help you engage with the advice that’s offered and on the whole this is a fantastic guide.

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