Knowledge is useless unless applied.
Have you ever paid for an online course and failed to finish it?
In 2020, 183,744 courses launched on Teachable alone. And while the number of new courses keeps rising, their quality doesn’t. Studies show only one in seven people completes them.
In the last months, I spent around $2,000 on online courses. And if I’ve learned one thing then it’s this:
Whether you spend $900 or $50 dollar on an online course, chances are your course creator doesn’t know much about evidence-based learning design.
If you don’t take charge of your learning, nobody else will. Here are the things that will help you make the most of any online course.
1) Start with what you need the most.
E-learning is often ineffective because it’s distant from the actual application.
How often have you watched an aircraft’s safety video? Every time before take-off, you watch how flight attendants put on their life vests. With every flight, you re-watch the video. But it’s ineffective.
This study shows, putting on the inflatable life vest a single time would be more valuable than repeatedly watching another person doing it. You acquire mastery by performing the procedure yourself.
Ultralearner Scott Young labels this the principle of directness. But how you call it doesn’t matter. Simply focus on what you need the most and skip the rest.
How to do it:
Why did you take the course in the first place? Decide on your learning goal and start with the lessons closest to your objective.
When I took my first online courses I felt like disrespecting the course creators by not watching from start to finish. What I didn’t realize is I disrespected my time.
Online lessons aren’t created equal and not every section is worth your time. Many times you find fluffy filler sections. When you see one, skip it.
Treasure your time and jump ahead whenever you feel lessons are a time-waster. Prioritize what you need the most and ignore the rest or save it for later.
2) Find a way to apply what you learn directly.
In my first months of online writing, I took three online courses. And while watching successful writers inspired me, it didn’t help me advance my craft. I ignored that the only way to get better at anything is by practice and application.
“The one who does the work does the learning.”
Online courses can help you create better products, earn more money, and help you live a happier life. But unless you apply the lessons from the instructors, the courses remain mere entertainment. Knowledge is useless unless applied.
How to do it:
Just like the minimum viable product, find a minimum viable action. What is the simplest thing you can do based on what you just learned?
If you take a course on e-mail newsletter, write your first e-mail. If you take a drawing class, do your first drawing. If you take a course on online writing, write your first article. Foster a bias towards action.
You don’t learn by watching things. You learn by doing them. The more you engage with the content, the likelier it will stick with you. Knowledge trapped in online courses is meaningless unless applied to your life.
3) Form an accountability group with fellow learners.
It’s difficult to hold yourself accountable if you’re sitting alone in front of a computer. Last year, I learned it the hard way.
Studying has always been easy for me. I finished my Bachelor and Master studies with great results. So when I started part-time studying philosophy, last year I was nothing but thrilled.
Yet, five months later and I didn’t take a single exam. The reason? I didn’t connect with fellow learners. I lost motivation. I stopped.
I’m only a month into the new semester but my accountability group makes a difference. We e-meet once a week and share tips and resources, ask probing questions, and encourage each other.
Accountability groups add personal layers to online environments. Community-based learning can work on different levels: as a motivational safety net, learning practice, relationship builder, and accountability tool.
How to do it:
If your online course has a Slack channel or private Facebook group look at the most active members. Reach out to them personally, to form an accountability group.
Schedule weekly check-ins. Discuss what you applied. Listen, talk, read, write, and think about the new material. The more work your brain does, the more connections you establish. And the more connections the higher the chances that you remember what you learn.
4) Take effective notes using a Roamkasten.
Our brains don’t work like recording devices. Learning and memory need two components: the learned information itself and a so-called retrieval cue that helps you find the learned material.
In the last years, I experimented with various note-taking systems — outlining, sketchnoting, mind-mapping, Notion workflows, and BulletJournals — before I finally settled on the Roamkasten, an implementation of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten in RoamResearch.
Here’s why this note-taking system beats others:
- The Roamkasten gets more useful with every additional note you create.
- The system is built on state-of-the-art learning science.
- It offers you serendipitous idea discovery.
Through bi-directional linking, the Roamkasten helps you create connections between different domains and challenges your insights while minimizing effort and stress.
Former R&D lead at Khan Academy Andy Matuschak said if you had to set a single metric as a leading indicator for yourself as a knowledge worker, it would be the number of permanent notes they take.
How to do it:
First, decide on a digital tool. You can pick between programs solely built for Zettelkasten, like Zettlr and The Archive, or more functional alternatives like TiddlyWiki, Obsidian, RemNote, Amplenote, and Org-roam. I use Roamresearch ($15 a month) because of its clean design and its Readwise connection.
Second, create a page for your online course where you write down your standard course notes. They include everything the instructor said that you might want to remember. It’s easy to write them because you don’t have to think for yourself. Simply jot them down, one bullet at a time.
Third, create permament Zettelkasten notes. Look at your course notes and ask yourself questions like “Which new insights do you have based on the new material? How does it relate to what you already know? Where in your work or life will you apply it?”
Write exactly one note for each permanent note and write as if you were writing for someone else. Use full sentences, disclose your sources, make references, and try to be as precise, clear, and brief as possible.
When you’re done, relate the note to existing notes inside your storage system using bi-directional linking. That way, you implemented two strategies that are known for effective learning — elaboration, and retrieval.
Online courses can improve many aspects of your life. But to belong to the few percent who take away a lot from it, consider:
- Starting with the lessons that help you the most. Skip what you don’t need.
- Apply what you learn as soon as possible.
- Form your accountability group to boost motivation and learning.
- Use a personal note-taking system that helps you remember what you learned.
Don’t feel discouraged by these different ideas. What worked for me might not work for you. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, take what resonates and forget the rest. And most importantly: enjoy your learning journey.
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