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Online courses can be an incredibly fun, efficient, and cost-effective way to learn something new. Whether it’s an intensive paid course or a quick, free mini course, the investment of money and/or time should not be taken lightly.
As a course creator myself, I’ve seen hundreds of students both succeed and fail at online courses. In my opinion, success is directly linked to commitment and planning. (But at Soundfly, we understand that every now and then, obstacles that we couldn’t possibly plan for sometimes get in the way of our progress. That’s why, for the next Mainstage session starting this week, we’ve added a new feature to our mentored courses: two optional catch-up weeks. From now on, Soundfly courses will last 8 weeks, for anyone who needs a bit of breathing room during their session for whatever reason!)
So if you’re about to start an online course (hopefully of the musical kind), here are some tips to help you get the most from your experience.
How to stay on schedule:
Commit to the course structure on Day 1.
When you sign up for a course, you probably have some idea of how the lessons are going to be delivered. Some of the structural things you’ll need to know or find out include:
- Are the lessons live?
- Are the lessons given out each week?
- Do you have access to all the lectures at once?
- Are there group calls for clarification and workshopping?
The minute you enroll in the course, put any relevant live calls, homework assignment deadlines, and bonus perks like expert guest sessions in your calendar.
If the course lectures are dripped out over time, put reminders in your calendar to spend time on the new lessons. If the course is self-paced, you’ll need to impose some personal deadlines to make sure you make the most of your investment. I’ll cover how to do that later in this article.
Join the course community.
If you do nothing else, do this! Joining a community of musicians who are all going through the same material will be invaluable on so many levels. I consider my course community to be the most valuable aspect for my students for many reasons, including:
- You are all learning the same things, so you can participate in further discussion of the material to deepen your knowledge and connection with what you’re learning.
- You are much more likely to stay engaged with the course material because of the positive peer pressure a community provides.
- The experience of taking an online course can be isolating, especially if you are used to learning in a classroom setting. The community provides connection, camaraderie, and motivation to reach the finish line.
- A community includes learners at all levels of knowledge and experience. You can learn from mentors at all levels and maybe even help those who are less knowledgeable than you are. That’s a great feeling!
- More often than not, the course creators and staff hang out inside the community. You’ll have opportunities to gain recognition from the instructors and develop a deeper relationship with them.
So check your course welcome emails or your course portal for a link to the community. At Soundfly, when you enroll in a Mainstage course, you’ll be automatically invited to join our Slack community, where you can post new works-in-progress or stuff you’re digging, ask for help, meet other musicians, and more!
Set aside time blocks on your calendar.
You’ve already put the important live calls and deadlines on your calendar. Now you need to build in time to do the work associated with the course. I like to build time in immediately following a lesson or lecture to dive straight into the homework exercises. This way, the material is fresh and I can solidify it in my brain by applying it right away.
I also recommend setting aside about 30 minutes before watching the next lecture to review your work from the previous one. This will re-acquaint you with what you already learned and help you build on that knowledge with each new lecture.
If you’re taking a self-paced course, you’ll have to create your own weekly structure to ensure you don’t slack off. Allot a few hours every week, on the same day of the week, to devote to going through a lecture and doing the accompanying homework. Setting up a weekly routine will help recreate the feeling of a live classroom.
Create a distraction-free environment.
Besides setting aside time specifically for working on course material, another crucial ingredient for success is designating a specific place to do coursework. The place you choose should be as distraction-free as possible.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. What distracts me might not be distracting to you. For example, some people need the din of conversation around them to focus, so they prefer to work in a setting like a coffee shop. Others need complete silence in order to pay attention to lectures and think through concepts, so they’ll visit places like their local library or a private practice space.
Find the location that works best for your personality and work style. Then of course, make sure it has a fast and reliable internet connection. If that happens to be outside the house, make sure you are prepared with laptop or device, headphones, and paper and pen, if needed. Also be sure that you have the proper login information for the course on the device you’re using, so you don’t have to hunt for it. The more you can decrease the friction between you and getting your course material done, the better off you’ll be.
Find an accountability partner or group inside the course.
The course community is important for camaraderie and connection, but it’s not the best mechanism to hold your feet to the fire. For that, I recommend an accountability partner or small study group.
Some courses have these built in. Here at Soundfly where we provide a Mentor to coach you through the course and give you feedback on work submitted each week, to make sure you’re progressing through the learning activities. For me, this built-in option is a huge incentive to purchase a course. It adds so much extra value because I respond well to the consistent, friendly pressure that an accountability partner or group offers.
What if the course you’re taking doesn’t offer accountability? Create your own. Here are some suggestions on how to do it.
- Put a post in the course community asking if anyone is looking for accountability.
- Spend some time in the community looking for people who are active and smart. Private message them to ask if they’d be interested in being an accountability partner. This is how I found my first accountability partner who I continued to meet with for 3 years.
- If there is a community manager for the course, ask him/her if there is a planned accountability program or if they’d be willing to start a spreadsheet for people who are interested.
Designate a specific date/time to meet each week. In the last group I was in, we decided to meet a few hours after the live lecture so we could discuss it. It also made it easier to remember to show up. We all designated that day of the week as “course day” in our calendar. This group was so successful that we won a contest inside the course for accountability because of our consistency and productivity.
You will be amazed how much more likely you are to do the work for the course just because you told your Mentor, or this group of people, that you would. The positive peer pressure is very powerful.
What to do if you get behind
None of us is perfect, and I don’t expect you will be either. We all have off weeks. Life, responsibilities, and illness, among other challenges, can all get in the way. It’s not a dealbreaker if you get behind. What’s more important is how you react to it. Don’t waste precious time beating yourself up over it. Get right back to work when you’re able and rest when you really need it.
The best way to get back on track is to skip over what you missed and jump back in on schedule. You can always go back and make up what you missed. But if you don’t get back on track with everyone else going through the course, it will be demoralizing and detrimental.
Here’s an example of the downward spiral I’ve seen happen to students. They get behind, so they try to catch up sequentially. But because they are several lessons behind everyone else, they can’t participate in discussions in the community or on the live calls. That makes them feel even more marginalized. So they stop showing up altogether, thinking they’ll jump back in once they’ve caught up.
Guess what… they never do catch up. Instead, they usually give up.
So if you do get behind, don’t fall into this vicious cycle. Jump right back in with everyone else and schedule some extra time in your calendar for catch-up. This will exponentially increase your chances of finishing the course material and applying what you learn to your career and life.
New to Soundfly?
All of our Mainstage courses come with six weeks of 1-on-1 professional coaching, guidance and feedback on your work from a Soundfly Mentor. It’s like having a personal trainer, but for music! Whether you’re interested in a dive deep into a topic covered in one of our courses, like Modern Mix Techniques, The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony, and Orchestration for Strings, or just to work with a Mentor directly to achieve a specific goal, we can help you get there.