Online courses are great… but do they work?
Continual learning is essential to advance your career in every field. There are so many free learning opportunities and resources online it is a wonder we are not experts in everything by now.
Online courses are also great to fill in the gaps while you are between jobs. (PS… I should know!)
On LinkedIn people have been posting their online course certificates showing off their efforts. The “certificates” are digital pieces of paper you receive upon completion of courses which can be as short as a single hour to weeks of time commitment.
Over the years I have completed many of these online courses. These courses range from learning geophysics concepts, understanding machine learning, programming, marketing, and copyrighting to software usage and resume writing.
You can get these courses from Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, and hundreds of other sites on the interwebs. Whether you want to write better, learn how to make a paper airplane, start a blog, do a hobby, or do #GIS, there are courses out there.
But do these courses help? The short answer is maybe… and but probably not.
You might just be wasting your time (but you can change this).
Here is why.
According to research people will have forgotten 50% of what they learned within 24 hours, and forget 90% within a month.
As you power through your machine learning course, introduction to Python, and “Cooking on the Go”, in a month you will have a nice digital certificate… and (most likely) barely remember what ‘print “Hello World”’ does (Hint: It prints “Hello World”)
This memory retention is not just about online courses. This also applies to school, college, university, and corporate training. This is a big reason why I dislike rote memorization.
Having been in academics for many years, I could talk endlessly about the problem with rote memorization. This cycle of “learning” is not ideal, but does have its place. For most people, it is a setup to “win” in the short term, while losing in the long.
Just “Doing”/”Memorization” does have its place. If you need to retain definitions, names, dates, or terminology… memorize them away. At least with memorization, you are practicing which can lead to long-term retention.
But online courses, with short videos, hand-holding exercises, and (if you are lucky) an actual exam… will be gone from your memory banks in a few days or months.
Here is the good news. This is ok as I like to remind people, knowing what is happening means you can game the system.
If you know you are going to forget, you can plan to focus. If you know you are going to forgot 90% of what is coming at you, focus on the 10% that matters most.
This works. I went from an average student, to straight A’s with this method.
I have 5 tips you can ensure that those online courses are more effective for a longer period of time.
Use what you just learned… RIGHT AWAY.
Did you take a course on Python? Don’t wait for a project to come up at work, find something to solve right away.
Did you take a project management course? Again.. don’t wait for a project to come up at work, use the work in your own life.
This may not be possible with high-level courses, so do the following.
Repeat the course… again… and again… and again.
Repetition is the key to retention. For students and people between jobs, this HAS to be your first go to make your learning stick.
Repeating the course is most likely free, you can use different data (maybe) or tools or ingredients. This is important especially if you are unemployed and do not have access to projects.
When I took GIS at college, I made a point of redoing all my assignments from the start, twice. Doing the assignment once wasn’t enough to understand. Doing an assignment once could be randomly correct. Don’t do the assignment twice… better… three times… BEST.
Go to the next level.
There is always more to be done. There is no “last course”, there is always something to solve.
This is a mistake that most beginners have… thinking there is an end.
There is no end. Keep going.
Teach what you just learned.
Something happens in our minds when we are required to teach others things we know. I experienced this often as a grad student.
I don’t know what it is, but our brains force us to understand something more deeply to not look like idiots to others.
As a grad student, I was often asked to teach laps or tutorials for lower-level geoscience classes. I literally had one to two days to “learn” a topic and teach it. I probably learned more in a day teaching those classes than I did in weeks in normal classes.
Not a grad student? That’s ok… be the go-to student to help people out with assignments or advice. Make a YouTube video. Help your kids.
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