Distance learning, habits, and revision. A letter to my Y12 Psychologists

Dear Y12 Psychologists,

These are strange times. You are about to become participants in the biggest experiment on distance learning that has ever been. Of course, as we can’t control the independent variable it’s technically a natural experiment, but you could have told me that!

In many ways I have more sympathy for your plight than for Y13 students. Their race is pretty much run, all that we need to do is work out what to do with the finishing line. For you, you’re only just getting started, and suddenly everything has changed. You’ve entered a marathon and it’s become a triathlon half way through… and we don’t know yet how long each section will be. That’s going to create enormous challenges for you, and for all other students in your position. It also creates opportunities. If you are able to adapt and remain productive, then there is no reason why this should negatively impact your learning. To prepare you for this, before we even think about how to cover the course content, I want you to know about when distance learning works (and when it doesn’t), and the skills that students require if they are to make it a success.


When distance learning works, and when it doesn’t

People have been offering distance learning courses for quite a while now, so we know a fair bit about when they work and when they don’t. Thousands and thousands of people sign up for online courses every day, for example. On average less than 13% actually complete them! So what is it that makes a successful distance learner? People have analysed the characteristics of successful learners (those who complete courses, compared to those who don’t – if you’re interested in this research you can read more here and here). Successful distance learners tend to:

  • Have time enough to complete the work
  • Have regular contact with the instructor
  • Be motivated
  • Have good working habits and routines

Time certainly shouldn’t be a problem for you guys! Contact with the instructor won’t be a problem either. I’ll still be setting work for you and am looking into online systems for providing feedback and sharing our progress as a group. Motivation is harder. Obviously it can be difficult to stay motivated in a distance learning environment, as you don’t have a teacher lurking over your shoulder asking you to do things (and giving you feedback when you do). Motivation can be especially difficult in times of uncertainty, although of course the end goal of what you are working towards (your A-Levels) hasn’t changed. Having said that, motivation becomes less important if you get the last of the things on the list right…


Habits and routines

I know that I bang on about habits and routines a lot, but if they were important before, then they are three times as important now. Schools, for all their faults and irritations to you as students, are brilliant at ensuring that your days are structured, varied and (mostly) productive. That is now down to you instead. You now have to be the person responsible for scaffolding your day in a way that makes the most of it. It’s a difficult task, one that many adults never properly manage if I’m totally honest, but it is possible, and the way to do it is by making your routine so familiar and standard that it just becomes what you do, without you even having to think about it. That is the amazing thing about habits, we do them automatically, without having to think or motivate ourselves to do them. They’re just what we do. If productive working becomes just what you do – just part of your everyday habits – then you don’t even really need to worry too much about motivation. These habits can be hard work to set up at first, but the rewards are huge. As we’ve seen above they are a crucial feature of high-performing and successful students.

Below is a graph of learning over time, after a switch to distance learning. The gaps between students with different habits get a lot wider. Working independently may actually not make much difference for students with the best routines. It will make a huge difference if you allow yourself to be a student without a routine. Don’t be that student.

distance learning

Creating the right working habits: making school at home

If you want to learn as well at home as you would at school, then it makes sense to adopt as many of the features of school as you can into your home environment. For example:

  1. Workspace. Do you have a clean, orderly space at which to work, like the desks at school? If not, then try to create one. Make sure your workspace resembles your school desk. You don’t have your phone out on your school desk, so don’t have it out at home. You don’t have loud music playing at school, so try not to have it playing at home (if you’re doing reading or writing, then music with lyrics is especially harmful – see here for a study on this if you’re interested). Although I know it might be hard if you have other siblings in the house, try as much as you can to minimise background noise and other distractions from people around you.
  2. Time management. In school your day is arranged into a timetable of hour long chunks… so why not do the same and create a home learning timetable that looks similar? It doesn’t have to follow your school timetable exactly, but as a rough guide at school you will spend on average about 1 hour each day doing each of your A-Level subjects. Aim for the same with your home timetable. Your teachers will be using this as a guide for the work we set you as well. You are, of course, free to work at the time of day that suits you best, but my personal recommendation would be to try to get three hours of work done in the morning. E.g. starting at 9am, and with a ten-minute break between each subject, you can have three hours’ work done by 12.20pm. Lunch, and one more hour’s work and you’ll be finished by 2pm!
  3. Chunk tasks, and set goals for each session. In a school lesson it’s rare that we work on a single task for the entire time. Usually it’s split (or ‘chunked’) into a series of smaller tasks, each of which has a clear aim and outcome. Try to do the same with your own home learning. Of course, this might be easy if the work you are sent already does this, but if it doesn’t then try to break the time into chunks, and give each chunk a clear aim. For example, instead of an hour of ‘revise Social Influence in Psychology’, you could instead have ’25 minutes – answer 20 quiz questions from the online textbook; 20 minutes – review answers and identify areas of weakness; 15 minutes – write flashcards on areas of weakness’.


Doing the right work. Revise and review

Another thing that is important over the next few months is the type of work that you do. Another common reason that people fail on distance learning course is because learning brand new material without a teacher is really hard. Being in charge of your own learning on a topic that you have no experience of is much harder than trying to improve on a topic that you already know something about. As a result, distance learning works best for revising what you’ve already covered, rather than learning lots of new material.

As it happens, we will need to cover some new material, as we still need to be progressing through the course, but we’ll do this very slowly. Much more important, as far as I am concerned, is that you take this opportunity to make everything that we have covered so far is completely secure. Whenever you return to school, it’s likely that we’ll have to cover quite a lot of new material. We will have absolutely no time to be re-teaching material that we have already done. In addition, whether you come back in the Summer, or September, or even later, you’ll be coming back to an assessment to help us finalise predicted grades. That will be based on work you’ve done so far, so you need to be ready for this. Your aim for the next few months should not be to practice until you can get the questions right, it should be to practice until you cannot get them wrong. I’ll be sending you more information on how I think you should do this in our first lessons next week.


You’re not alone

This will be a difficult time for all of us, with many distractions, worries and commitments that might draw us away from thinking about school work. I want to emphasise the importance of making time for your learning. Partly that’s because you’ll be examined on this stuff, but actually there’s a more important reason. Learning is a good thing in itself, and your education (although you may not always realise this now) is one of the most valuable things that you will ever be given, and something that you will treasure and be grateful for as long as you live. Value your learning, and the chances that you are given to learn, as highly as possible. I believe this very strongly, and that’s why I am absolutely determined to be with you every step of the way here. I’ll be in regular contact, and we’ll work out ways that groups of you can be encouraged to come together virtually as well. You are not alone.

So make a schedule, get a routine, and do some work. Not because you have to do exams, but simply because the more you know, the better and more interesting you will be as people, and the more you will be able to look back on this awful and difficult time and be proud of your reaction to it.


Take care of yourselves, stay well, and let’s get learning.



Distance learning, habits, and revision. A letter to my Y12 Psychologists

One thought on “Distance learning, habits, and revision. A letter to my Y12 Psychologists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s