5 tips for successful independent study

Studying alone and online can be intense and it can be a challenge to adapt to a different way of working. However, there are lots of ways that you can set yourself up for success.

Here are our five tips to become more independent with your studies.

1. Set up a study timetable

You might have access to an online classroom but the structure of attending lessons and seminars is gone. Much of the responsibility to plan, manage, and structure your time is now left to you. In many cases, you will be set homework which you have to complete in your own time.

“Defeat procrastination by promising yourself a treat when you have finished your work – going for a walk, reading your favourite book, or watching your favourite film,” says Emily Coltman FCA, Chief Accountant at FreeAgent, which provides accounting software for small businesses. 

Emily studied for her first set of exams entirely by herself using textbooks and home study, and so is well placed to understand the challenges facing students who are working on their own.

“Plan as early as possible – if you know by a certain point that you will need to complete a course or textbook then build this into your timetable,” she says. When your schedule has been upended, it is important to create a new one, says Chloe Burroughs, graduate ambassador for the Open University.

“Identify the activities you need to do each day, including studying and then assign a time for each. Replace your usual commuting time with something else such as exercising or reading. Add pockets of connection to your day by video calling a friend.”

2. Proactively seek help from tutors and mentors

Emily Coltman says it is important to make use of support where it is available. This might include regular zoom meetings with tutors and fellow students. Sometimes a chat with a tutor, friend, or work colleague can help you get to grips with a concept that you have been struggling with for a while. There are also AAT forums where you can chat with other students.

“If you are in industry or in practice, talk to your colleagues,” she says. “I found two or three colleagues who were very helpful when I was studying. Also, talk to your boss. The senior partner where I was working let me go into the office at the weekend as I was boarding in a noisy home and I needed some peace and quiet to study.”

As offices are not being used much at the moment it may be possible to go in and work on your own there. Your boss will want to support you through the process and it may be OK if you clean the office down after you have finished.

3. Find additional resources

Online study can be supplemented with different resources – you can look at the AAT Learning Portal, online resources, and podcasts and use hard copy textbooks.

“Use the potential extra time you have in lockdown to read as much as you can online and in books,” says Emily Coltman. “Seek out books by business owners, how they set up their accounts and finances, books in general about small businesses and how they are run. You could find this very valuable when talking with your own clients in the future. Plus examiners like to see that you have been reading round when you answer questions in the exam.”

If you get stuck, search on Google or YouTube for a different explanation, take a break, go back to a point you did understand, ask a fellow student, or email your tutor, says Chloe Burroughs.

4. Find ways to stay motivated

It is important to stay disciplined and manage loneliness and anxiety. In the classroom, there is the mutual support of friends and teachers, but when you are working alone it can feel very isolated.

“Don’t spend hours without a break,” Emily Coltman says. “Spend half an hour to 45 minutes at a time and then get up and get some fresh air and have a drink. You will find you come back fresher than if you sit wrestling with something for hours.”

She also recommends using practice questions and past papers, as this will let you know how long they are going to take you to complete and you can see what topics have come up in the past. You could also listen to podcasts and or AAT study briefing and approach each topic by breaking it down into small chunks.

Nathan McGurl, founder of revision aid The Study Buddy, says the  important thing is to use your time effectively, rather than equating time spent in front of your books as being time well spent. 

“A well thought through plan can reduce levels of anxiety, giving students a clear sense of purpose. Not knowing where to start is one of the things that leads to feeling out of control and that can result in anxiety or simply giving up,” he says.

5. Protect your study time

“Make sure you set up a quiet space to study – your bedroom, down the bottom of the garden, a room away from noise and disturbance,” says Emily Coltman. If you cannot find a quiet space at home, you could always sit in the car.

“Everyone will have a slightly different way to approaching home study. While it can be helpful to share tips, remember to focus on what works for you,” says Nathan McGurl. Some people find background music helps them to work, while others need total silence. Some people find being tested helps them to consolidate what they’ve learned, but if this increases your anxiety it may not be the best tactic for you. “The important thing to remember is that you are the one in control!” he says.

Mental well-being is reliant on having a good balance, so ensure that your study plan factors in time with your friends and doing things that you enjoy – while sticking to the Covid-19 rules, of course. 

Further reading:

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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