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Skills Guides

Studying online

What is 'studying online'?

Studying online can be when the majority of your academic work, learning, and other activities are done over the internet, or can be when you're using internet tools and technologies to support face to face learning. On this page we've collected up tips and resources on a range of areas for studying online.

The links will take you to other useful pages and resources. If you click on the headings in each box, you'll find more in depth advice and suggestions for studying online.

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Studying online session resources

For tips on a range of things to consider when studying online or using digital tools, see the slides from our Studying Online session.

Full Studying Online slides on Google Slides

Being digitally organised

When studying online, there are many ways to manage your time and tasks effectively, and also many distractions! Finding methods that work for you is important, and here you'll find suggestions for tools and techniques.

Managing your time and workload

Studying online might feel difficult to structure, but there are different options to help you manage your time.

  • Use a calendar application like Google Calendar or a paper diary to block out time for different tasks.
  • Create a to-do list, either digitally or physically, and add how long you might need for each task.
  • Tip: You can use Google Keep or Tasks for to-do lists, or you can use this Google Sheet template to create a more detailed to-do list with dates that you can use to tick off items.

  • Schedule in breaks as well as work. If possible, move away from the screen for your break.

Digital distractions

Trying to get things done when the entire internet is just sitting there can be difficult. Our Being Organised slides have some ideas, but here's some top tips:

Limit your time on certain websites. If you need it, there are a range of tools out there for blocking certain websites or limiting your time on them each day.

Turn off notifications. You can set Do Not Disturb on both Android and iOS to stop notifications temporarily on a phone or tablet.

Separate work and fun. Use different web browsers or profiles to separate out work and fun on one device. For example, you can set up a personal and a university profile in Chrome by adding multiple profiles.

Embrace distractions (sometimes). Give yourself set times to get distracted by the internet. Let yourself scroll news sites or catch up on messages from friends at certain times.

File and folder organisation

It is always important to keep your files and folders organised and save and back your work up regularly. When studying online, you can have a lot of windows and files open at once, so it is good to keep track of them.

Give all files and folders meaningful names. If you're creating multiple drafts, use dates to help keep track of timelines, and make sure notes on texts can be clearly matched to the text in question without having to open them.

Back up your work, preferably using a cloud storage system like Google Drive. Drive also allows you to easily share your work with other people at the University.

Reading and researching online

Researching, reading, and taking notes digitally can require different tools and skills. Our Skills Guides are full of information on doing these activities, so here are some of our top tips and useful resources to make the most out of doing your reading online.

Reading digitally

A lot of reading is done digitally these days, using websites and PDFs, and this makes material much more readily accessible. Reading digitally can bring different challenges, however: distractions, screen size, and eye strain. It is important to find a set up that works for you, for example using full screen where possible, adjusting font size, and taking breaks to look away from the screen.

It is also vital to keep track of any online reading, as you don't have the books sat beside you! You might want to use reference management software, or just record texts in a document or spreadsheet - the tool doesn't matter as long as you have a record so you can know what you're read and cite it later if needed.

If you're going to be reading a lot of PDFs of articles online, you might want to try Paperpile, a reference management tool that works in the Chrome web browser. It is good for collecting PDFs with their reference information so they can be found and cited later.

Note taking and annotating

When reading, learning, and researching online, you might want to change some of your note taking tools and techniques. For example, you might want to use a Word document rather than a notebook (or, conversely, it might be easier if you have a small screen to take notes in a notebook whilst reading on screen).

It is important to make sure that whatever tool(s) you use, you are taking good, active notes. Whether you're watching a recording of a lecture, participating in a video seminar, or reading online articles, you need to not just copy down material, but make sure to actively think about material and make notes that will be useful to you now and in the future. See our Note taking Skills Guide for more information on note taking techniques and tools.

You might find it useful to annotate documents as you read them. There are lots of free tools that allow you to annotate PDF documents, including the Microsoft Edge web brower, the Preview application on a Mac, and iBooks on iOS devices. Make sure to save any annotated PDFs with clear names and locations so you can find notes again.

Critical reading and evaluating information

Whether you're reading digitally or with physical books, it is vital to think critically about what you are reading, and to evaluate the sources you use.

When studying online, you'll find a wealth of internet sources, but it is important to evaluate these for reliability and credibility, as well as thinking about tone and purpose. See our Evaluating Information Skills Guide for more on not believing everything you read on the internet, and on finding reliable sources of academic information.

Communicating online

Geese gathered, looking like they're chatting

Whether you regularly use social media, video calls, and emails to communicate with people or not, they are all useful to keep in touch with people when studying online.

Video calling

Video calling (aka conferencing) is crucial when studying online. Teaching sessions and office hours may be held using Collaborate Ultra, a video calling tool that is built into the VLE. Other meetings and events might be held in other tools, like Zoom or Google Meet.

It is useful to familiarise yourself with these tools to ensure you know how to log in and use their features during teaching sessions and meetings. You can find out more about attending a Collaborate Ultra session arranged by your tutor or look at the UoY guide for joining a Zoom meeting or check out Google's Meet cheat sheet for further help on a specific platform.

You may use tools like Google Meet or Zoom to keep in touch with friends, family, and classmates, hold group study sessions, and find new ways to relax and hold social events. Group video calls or chats can be a place to keep up with work on your course and share ideas and questions, though it might be worth planning ahead whether the call is for specific work to keep focused!

Video calling is also a great way to socialise outside of your course. Watch films and TV simultaneously, play games, or have food and drink together over the internet to recreate your favourite social spaces.

Talking over video can have different etiquette to what you might be used to, especially if you've not used it in an academic context before. Use the 'mute' button when you're not speaking to minimise extra noise, allow for delay and technical issues, and use built in features like text chat or hand raise buttons to indicate you have something say. Remember, you don't have to turn your video camera on if you don't want (or don't have one)!

Email

Email may seem pretty straightforward, but it's important to think about how you're using it. Whether that's making sure you're using good etiquette when writing and sending emails or being aware of spam and phishing emails that might be trying to access your personal details, take a moment to consider how you're using email.

If you're finding your email inbox overwhelming, you might want to use different features of email to help keep it under control. If you're using Gmail at the University of York, you can use labels to organise emails, or move them out of your inbox into somewhere you can find them again. You can create filters in Gmail, which are rules that affect incoming emails, for example starring important ones or moving less useful ones out of your inbox.

Another top tip is to not store important information only in your email inbox. Instead, use to-do tools like Google Keep or Google Tasks, store important details in a document on your device, and put events into Google Calendar so you don't forget when they are.

Social media

Social media can be incredibly helpful for keeping in contact with people, including classmates when studying online. Check in on other people and use social media to orchestrate group study sessions to keep each other motivated.

Some platforms are used for academic and professional purposes as well, so you might find them useful to your studies or for future employment. Our Social Media Skills Guide has more information on various uses for social media platforms.

Choosing the right digital tools

There can be so many tools out there - and a lot of them mentioned on this page - that it can be hard to know what works best for you. Here is some advice for choosing the best digital tools for the task and that suit how you work, as well as some student tips on their top tech tips for studying.

How to choose the right tool

When choosing a tool, a task-based approach is best: what is it you actually need to do? Defining your tasks before you try looking for or using any new applications will make evaluating them easier.

When searching for digital tools, you'll want to think about:

  • What do you need to do?
  • What devices do you have and which do you ideally want to use the tool on?
  • Are there free tools? Does the university provide one? Is there a 'standard' tool for the task that people in your discipline use?
  • How much time do you have to dedicate to learning to use the tool? Is this for a big recurring task, or a small quick one?

It is important to try out the tool(s) you're looking at to see if they do what you want and work on your device. You might start using one tool, then find it wastes more time than it saves, and try another, or go back to a different method - that's okay! Sometimes it is important to know when technology is being more of a hindance than a help.

IT tips for studying online

Technology is full of hidden settings and useful tips to make life easier. Here we've collected a few, and you can find more useful IT help on our IT Essentials guide.

We've also create some tips on troubleshooting for when IT doesn't want to play nicely!

Shortcuts and screenshots

Computers come with a range of keyboard shortcuts, or keys you can press to do actions more quickly. For example, you can typically use keyboard shortcuts to copy and paste text and images. Our Operating Systems guide (linked below) has some common Windows and Mac shortcuts and links to full lists of shortcuts so you can find the tasks you do most often.

Also on the Operating Systems guide is how to take screenshots on different devices. Screenshots are images of your screen at a certain point that you can save or paste into documents. These are very useful not only for troubleshooting problems (as you can send error messages to other people for help), but for documenting things you might need again, like which settings you've chosen.

Online safety and security

Staying safe online is a key skill in the digital world. When studying online, it is important to be aware of things like the information you are giving out, and who really sent that email.

Just because something says it comes from the University, it might not do. Check the email address it came from, and if you're not sure, contact IT Support.

Keeping any devices and software up to date is also important for IT security, as these protect devices from malware or a security breach. IT Services has guidance on how to keep your devices up to date.

Also think about the information you share online, about yourself and about others. Be aware of the information you're giving particular platforms and be critical about whether they need that data from you.

Useful accessibility features

Devices these days have a range of useful accessibility features, which can be really useful when studying online and using digital tools.

Voice typing is available in Word (only the Office 365 version) and Google Docs, allowing you to speak your notes rather than type them.

You can also often get your device to read aloud material to you, so worth trying this out if you find it hard reading long chunks of text. Adobe Reader, which you can get for free, has the ability to read aloud PDFs.

Changing magnification, colours, and contrast on your device can help when you're doing a lot of work digitally, making content easier to read and reducing eye strain.

Learning the keyboard shortcuts for your device and most used applications can also make navigating screens easier.

Further details on these can be found on our Accessibility Skills Guide page.

Further online support

Here's some ways to get additional support with studying online, from academic skills to technological issues. If there's anything else you'd like to se on this page, please use the Feedback tab on the side of the page or email IT Support with your suggestions.

For support with technological issues, you can contact IT Support by email or phone. And if you have questions about library resources and services, you can get in touch with the Library remotely.

Often, technical issues can be solving by troubleshooting them using online guidance and other resources. We've compiled some tips on how to troubleshoot technological problems, even if you don't know where to start!

Academic skills support offered by the University is available online. You can get help with maths and statistics, writing, and referencing and integrity via online appointments or tutorials. See the Study Skills website for help available, and the Information for Students page for updates on services.

There is lots of online guidance around studying online, including students sharing their experiences. Talking to friends and classmates may help you solve issues and find new ways to work online.

You can still get careers support online from Careers and Placements and find out about areas such as searching for jobs online.