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Student Voices

Can’t Focus While Studying Online? These 32 Hacks Will Change the Way You Learn.

Having trouble finishing online courses? Learn how to master them quickly with these 32 actionable tips.

We’ve all been there. You’ve signed up for an online class that you’re super psyched about. You’re finally going to learn to code, or there’s a new program you’re going to master. Perhaps, like me (Laurie), you’ve got one more finance class to take before you’ll feel fully finished with your online business education. But you keep putting it off.

Perhaps you manage to log into the course and get started, but halfway through the first video lecture you notice that a new email has arrived in your inbox or someone has DM’d you on Twitter. Before you know it, you’ve been sucked into the vortex we call the internet, the video lecture is over, and you have no idea what the professor said.

Sound familiar? We know it does. We have both taken many online courses and built careers from the experience.

Pat has written many articles about learning on her website Online Learning Success and here, on Class Central, such as Eight Ways to Finish Your Course. Procrastination is her biggest challenge.

Laurie has finished over 25 online courses as part of a project to do an extremely low-cost MBA equivalent, so she knows what it means to drive back the dragon of distraction. A while back, Laurie asked her community of learners to help compile a definitive list of all the tips, tricks, and hacks that they use to stay on task while studying online. Here is what they came up with. And, we have added a few extras from comments below the original version of this post and other recent sources.


For your convenience, we’ve broken down the list into different sections. Click on a section to jump to the corresponding hacks:

Technology tips

  1. Maximize the course video. A simple but effective way to minimize distraction.
  2. Close all other windows. This is more aggressive, but it may be necessary.
  3. Log out of your email and social media. And while you’re at it, make sure you disallow these programs from sending you notifications even while you’re not logged in. The same goes for your phone. Many learners find this particularly helpful.
  4. Put your phone on silent. Maybe put it in another room, too, if you’re not taking the course on your phone.

Time management hacks

  1. Mark study times on your calendar. Then treat them like a real commitment.
  2. Set reminders on your calendar and on your phone. Don’t forget that you’ve set aside time to study!
  3. Do courses at work — but only with your boss’s permission. Many supervisors will applaud your efforts at self-direction and professional development. Some will even pay for your course certificates.

Physical environment tips

  1. Use noise-canceling headphones. Block out audible distractions and stay focused on the task at hand.
  2. Listen to music that helps you concentrate. Many learners use this method to keep their minds from wandering.
  3. Pimp your study space. Make your study space comfortable and enjoyable to be in. Put images in your field of vision that will inspire you to succeed.
  4. Close your door. Simple but effective.
  5. Tape a goal to your workspace. Similar to #10. Having a written goal in plain sight in your workspace can help you keep your eye on the prize.
  6. Exercise while learning. But be warned, it only works if you’re just listening to a lecture and don’t need to take notes or work on practice problems. Taking a walk during study breaks is another popular technique.
  7. Stand up or move away from the computer. Again, if you don’t need to simultaneously work on problem sets or answer quiz questions, it can help to move out of reach of your keyboard to avoid any lingering temptation to see what’s going on in other browser tabs.

Psychology tricks

  1. Reward yourself for completing small tasks. One completed lesson = one hilarious cat video.
  2. Pay for the course certificate. According to the online course providers, people who pay for a course certificate are more than ten times as likely to finish the course.
  3. Log your accomplishments. Whether you display your certificates on your LinkedIn profile or on an educational portfolio, or even in a private list, make sure you’re tracking your success.
  4. Announce your intentions publicly. When you register for a new course, post about it on Facebook, tweet it out on Twitter, and mention it to friends and colleagues.
  5. Make your online course a reward for finishing less pleasant tasks. Rather than thinking of studying as yet another to-do on your list, use your coursework as a reward for completing a difficult or un-enjoyable task.
  6. Use the Just Start technique. This simple technique says that if you simply take the first step, you are much more likely to continue. What is the easiest thing you can do to get started? Open the webpage, log in, or read through the syllabus. Or just open the first lecture and let it load. When you use the Just Start technique, you may be surprised to see that after you Just Start, it’s easier to Just Keep Going.
  7. Get dressed for work. This is a way of getting your professional game face on and keeping you serious, focused, and on-task.
  8. Give yourself small assignments. Like the Just Start technique, when you break up the work into very small assignments, like watching a single video or completing a single quiz, you can easily finish a course with just a few minutes of work per day.

Social learning hacks

  1. Become part of a study group. This is a powerful and proven motivator. Find a study group in the course discussion forum or bring your own to the course.
  2. Join a livestream study group. If you can’t find a study group for your particular course, find a generic online study group.
  3. #StudyWithMe. If the study time of online groups doesn’t fit your schedule, a search for #StudyWithMe on Youtube will bring up hundreds of videos of learners studying that might just help you stay in the mood. You can study with the video playing, maybe on a different device from the one you’re using for your course.
  4. Get a tutor or mentor. It may take some searching to find a tutor. Some programs, particularly those that involve a certificate, offer mentorship as part of the course.
  5. Find a study buddy. Meet someone in the course discussion forum, or sign up for a course with a friend.
  6. Get an accountability partner. This is a great technique for staying motivated. All you need is a friend or relative who is willing to check in with you once per week and listen while you list your goals for the coming week and your accomplishments over the previous week.

Expert tips

These tips were most frequently mentioned by the experienced learners that Laurie spoke with.

  1. Use the Pomodoro technique. Similar to the Just Start technique mentioned above, the Pomodoro technique teaches you to work in a series of 25-minute intervals by setting a timer and then actually stopping to take a break when it goes off. That way your coursework is more approachable, since you only have to put in the effort until the timer tells you to quit. Also, you are able to more fully integrate the knowledge by vacillating between the focused and the diffuse modes of thinking. This technique is covered at length in the extremely popular course Learning How to Learn and is popular around the world. 
  2. Listen to scientifically designed concentration music. Concentrate more deeply than with regular music by listening to tracks that have been specially designed to put your brain in a heightened state of focused awareness. Focus@Will is one such service.
  3. Crank up the speed. Course platforms like Coursera and edX allow you to set the playback speed. Multiple people recommended making the professor talk just fast enough that you have to pay close attention to keep up.
  4. Take notes. This was by far the most highly recommended way to stay on task. Type notes in a second window, draw them on a tablet, or keep a pencil and paper next to your device — because even in this new world of online learning, nothing beats old-fashioned note-taking.
Laurie Pickard Profile Image

Laurie Pickard

I got into MOOCs when I started a project to replicate a traditional MBA using free online courses. My blog at NoPayMBA.com resulted in a book called Don't Pay For Your MBA.
Pat Bowden Profile Image

Pat Bowden

Online learning specialist, still learning after 150+ MOOCs completed since 2012. Class Central customer support and help since 2018. I am keen to help others make the most of online learning, so I set up a website:  www.onlinelearningsuccess.org

Comments 82

  1. Avis

    How you go about doing this

    • Derek Anampio

      I use the Pomodoro technique.

      • Rose wamalwa

        I personally find taking note of important points while doing my online classes very helpful

      • Denis

        does it helps ?

    • Rose Wamalwa

      I personally find taking note of important points while doing my online classes very helpful

      • Chepkoech Faith

        me too

    • yohannes bahta

      i think the Pomodoro technique worked for me while i was in college the only thing i added was to walk or stretch on breaks so that my body doesn’t feel withdrawn

  2. Laza

    Note taking all the way!!!

  3. Pat Bowden

    Some excellent tips here!

  4. Debbie Kvacky

    These are great suggestions! I’m definitely going to give a few of them a try. Thanks!

  5. metarhyme

    Paste this article into an Open Office text document with its URL:
    Reduce to 12 point type (fits on two sheets), then print & post.


    I have taken many MOOCS, i have taken a certificate from an Australian Mooc platform [Learn 2 Study], some tips discussed here helped me finish my course.
    Now i am taking a Mooc to get more skills in order to change my job.

    • Chepkoech Faith

      need to know more about this.

      • Emnet

        Mooc coursework is more approachable

  7. Şerife Amine Mümin

    I am really excited for those MOOCs. In these quarantine days it is a nice event! Motivated with your guide, thanks for all !

  8. Nael

    I am really interested in MOOCs and I would like to get a benefit . I did my master’s degree in Busines, unfortunately , I did not finish my thesis coz I did not understand the steps very well.

    I hope I can improve my studying and then do it easily.

  9. Megha Bhalla

    I combine my courses with a walk. Surprising but it helps me completes 3 km walk in a day when I listen to a course and walk. This ofcourse is applicable only to courses where you are not required to watch the screen or perform actions on laptop. I did a couple of courses on Coursera and Lynda with this technique and it’s quite motivating 🙂

  10. Eric Magidson

    I would like to create a video for my own students where read through this article and provide a self reflection as to how I use most of these ideas to succeed when I am studying no matter the format of the course. Please let me know if you will allow me to post this video on YouTude.

    • Dhawal Shah

      Hi Eric,

      Please free to create the video.

  11. Anita Binte Hai

    I like the Pomodoro technique.

  12. Quintrell Thomas

    i really like the tips it gives me a better perspective on what to know

  13. Camaria Bledsoe

    This was extremely helpful I tend to get distracted very fast and have a hard time finding my way back to my work.

  14. Arthur K Moidokana

    Helpful tips.

  15. Renee Edwards

    These are great tips. I plan to put some to use. Thanks!

    • Esther Mugethi

      Me too

  16. Kassahun

    Finding helpful tested tips (solutions) at one spot is awesome.

  17. Annie

    Great tips I’m sure to put to use. Thanks a bunch!!!

  18. Castrol

    Great tips indeed especially the use of Pomodoro technique.

  19. Brenda

    The tips are superb. I will surely practice them . Thanks

  20. Kassim ifeza

    Very good tips.

  21. Sharon

    Inspiring and motivating tips.

  22. Amna Ishaq

    These all are good tips. Strongly recommended to block notification from whats app, facebook, instagrams and many other.

  23. Samwel Ingutia

    Very encouraging and motivating tips

  24. cynthia james

    Most time i try to get in to a very quite place, to avoid distractions. Am very encouraged by the tips and comment . I will surely apply them.

  25. Rebecca

    In many cases i get to work on noisy places,and to avoid this i will surely apply all these strategies in order to avoid distractions.

  26. Ron Bruce

    I have been using Pomodoro for years. It worked in my freshman year of college and has been successful during my studies on my Guitar.

  27. Kajal Patel

    taking notes is for sure helpful to me


    Taking notes and using headphones really help me.

  29. Philgonah

    Taking notes and block notifications from social media are my best strategies

  30. Dorine Nyariki

    Dressing for work and paying for certificate worked for me

  31. Nelson Mbuvi

    I really love taking notes when reading or in a lecture class. It has helped me in grasping what I need to know.

  32. Jacky

    I take the notes during the course heps me to understand well and it’s good strategies for me.

  33. jason

    i like music and closing the door and my lava 70’s lamp

  34. Firehiwot

    I like taking note while I read or attend class that the best and easiest way to understand.

  35. Sileshi

    Silent environment, turning off phone and logging out of the social media are the best motivators.

  36. Triveni

    Taking notes is helpful for reference the classes

  37. Tsedenya Melaku

    The whole topic is so helpful Thank you!

  38. Grace

    Having an accountability partner works best for me and who happens to be my husband. He helps me to keep on track, set goals and that motivates me.

  39. Rosa benic

    Amazing tips!

  40. Elizabeth Nakhero

    Nice tipsto help me stay focused, I’ll surely put them into practice. Thanks

  41. Mwende Gladys

    Having an accountability partner suits me.
    This is because my boyfriend is very supportive and never hesitates in sharing knowledge and pushing me to be the best version of myself.

  42. Nelvin

    Taking notes will be a better technique and a future reference tool.

  43. Hannah berhe

    taking notes always works for me , but im excited to try the 25 min thing .

  44. Joy

    Putting my phone on silence ,putting it in another room is a good ideal. Also maximizing the video, while using using noise cancellaton airpods.

  45. Victoria H

    Stay committed!


    Taking notes and staying focused always work for me,,

  47. Flevian

    Notes taking , staying focused and putting distructors like phones away really work for me.

  48. Chepkoech Faith

    I like taking notes while a read to keep me understand more.

  49. Monika Attri

    Very useful information.

  50. Jotham Brooks

    Thanks for the tips, very useful.

  51. Zelalem Gobena

    Thank you so much for the tips,and the Pomodoro and taking notes will be helpful in my online learning process.

  52. Leysley Nasimiyu

    I find taking notes very helpful.

    • Phiona

      Thanks so much. I intend to make use of the tips!

  53. Sophie

    Take notes and remember the dream each day,
    take exercise daily.

  54. Edward Njue

    I would prefer taking short notes but sometimes you may get left behind.

  55. Vivian Bondo

    I find this very helpful

  56. Alayomi

    I use Pomorodoro.

  57. Nibria Diaz

    These are great tips and tricks. I love it

  58. Louie Hooper

    I like to take notes on things I feel may be worth extra attention after class.

  59. Brent Wyatt

    Most helpful information, Thank you.

  60. Rashmi

    I found it is helpful that keeping monitor in guest room so we will get to know our work time and [personal time

  61. Naomi Rono

    Notes taking-write down important information

  62. Lee Choo Tan

    I would like to try out the tip of Studying/seating for just 25minutes and switching between focused and diffused thinking.

  63. Isaac Fordjour

    have always liked taking notes during classes and it helped a lot…

  64. Leon Holland

    25 minute interval studying and taking notes really help me…sometimes I will do exercises such as push ups or situps to help during lectures

  65. Kelechi Ikeri

    Great Article. Very useful tips. I personally use most of these tips especially the Promo-doro technique

  66. Maissara Eladl

    Great Article. Very useful tips. I personally use most of these tips, especially the social learning hacks.

  67. pomodoro

    Thanks for your post.
    The Pomodoro Technique – Boost your productivity with a 25-minute timer.
    Thanks for your post.
    Boost your productivity with the Pomodoro Technique.

  68. Mahmoud Abdelhafiz

    i think taking notes and small breaks will help

  69. Elizabeth Adhiambo

    Great insight, I think taking notes and small breaks will help.


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