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Self-Paced Learning: Insider Advice Students Need to Succeed

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Few people realize just how many ways there are to earn a degree. The choices in today’s college programs go far beyond online versus traditional classes. While that’s great news for students who want to customize their education, some of these options may be completely foreign to students who’re only familiar with traditional formats.

One of the options you may not be as familiar with is self-paced learning. Self-paced learning is a model that is ideal for students who are working, caregiving or who just want to complete courses at their own speed.

Self-paced learning programs can come in a variety of forms, but one of the more popular models is competency-based education (CBE). These programs are designed to allow students to work at their own pace, achieving course completion as they turn in “deliverables” that prove their competency in each area. If you’re thinking that seems pretty different from traditional education, then you’re not wrong!

“Students who value the flexibility of self-paced learning are working parents, deployed military and those in occupations with nontraditional work hours,” says Elizabeth Malson, president of Amslee Institute. “Students may plan their schedule to fit course requirements into a specific timeline—but honestly, there are some days when they are just too tired to concentrate.” Malson says schedule flexibility allows students to engage in their studies at the optimal time.

The flexibility of self-paced learning probably sounds appealing, but it’s understandable if you’re a little unsure of what to expect. That’s why we’re here to help.

6 Tips for a successful self-paced learning experience

To help you get more comfortable with the format, we’ve compiled several expert tips for ensuring you make the most of a self-paced learning experience. Consider this advice:

1. Consider your commitments outside of education

What kind of time can you devote to school? Evaluating the other responsibilities and commitments in your life can help you be realistic about your timeline. Malson points out that even with the best of intentions, students who are also parents can face curveballs, like a sick child that keeps them home from class.

“If a parent spends an entire week caring for a child with the flu, the program is flexible,” Malson says. “The work will still need to be competed, but the student won't get penalized for not being prepared by a specific date.”

Students serving in the military or working jobs with nontraditional hours can also find accommodation. “A self-paced program allow students the option to work ahead or catch up as needed to maintain their employment as their first priority,” Malson says.

Ask a college representative about program structure and pace requirements to make sure you can complete your degree on the timeline you want.

2. Take control of the timing

“With an online course, you’re required to log in at certain times and complete work, like you’re a robot doing homework,” says Rasmussen College CBE graduate Kareem Richards. CBE and self-paced learning programs don’t have those same time constraints.

Self-paced learning allows lots of flexibility, which can make it easy to forget all about school when life gets busy. Richards strongly advises students to make a timetable for each course they need to complete.

“You have an enormous amount of time, and you think it will last forever,” Richards says. “I’m the goddess of procrastination, so I made myself a timetable to get portions done.”

Some students gravitate toward self-paced learning because it provides a greater opportunity to control the experience, Malson says. “For those who like to get ahead, they can move forward in the program and complete the requirements early. Having control over the timing creates a greater feeling of ownership.”

3. Be intentional about your learning style

“Understanding your learning style is important when looking at online and self-paced programs,” Malson says. “If your learning style is collaborative or best when talking through ideas with peers, you want to make sure study groups are available.”

Alternatively, if you know you learn best through reading, Malson suggests making sure classes will have study guides and textbooks available in addition to live lectures or on-demand videos. If you make sure you have the resources you need to learn at your best, then a CBE program will be much easier for you.

4. Talk to instructors and coordinators

Just because you’re a self-paced learner doesn’t mean you have to go it all alone. Sometimes you need clarification on a task or someone to talk you through a process. Richards encourages students to take advantage of available help. “You can call anyone and ask your questions. I called and emailed often; they’ve even heard me cry on the phone.”

“My CBE (advisor) always checked up on me,” Richards says. “‘Have you submitted a deliverable? When are you submitting a deliverable?’—it was so helpful.” Even if you are someone who prefers electronic correspondence, have a few numbers you can call if you really need help with something. Sometimes talking to an instructor or advisor in real time will speed up the communication process.

5. Don’t let failure stop you

No one likes failing. But in a CBE program, you only pass each course if you can demonstrate proficiency. This is a bit different from other courses, where you might be able to cram over a study guide, pass the exam and complete the course without a deep understanding of the material.

“CBE is fulfilling, because it’s something that makes you know you are actually learning,” Richards says. “I know I’m not just reciting it. I can tell you what this means because I did the work myself.”

Richards says her statistics class was a real hurdle. “I failed that class twice. It was one deliverable. You have to show that you are knowledgeable, and if you can’t—you can’t pass. So I knew I had to learn more.” This perseverance is crucial in a self-paced learning environment.

6. Apply coursework to your own interests

Some programs will have this kind of personal application built-in. For example, Richards found that many of her courses expected her to make plans or projects around her entrepreneurship ideas.

“Instead of answering questions about marketing—they ask you, ‘How would you approach this with your business?’” Richards explains. “It’s like you are building your business before you even have one.”

Since self-paced learning requires students to be fairly self-motivated, applying coursework directly to your career plans can be a good way to keep yourself engaged. If your program doesn’t ask for these customizations outright, do as much as possible to connect what you are learning to real-life scenarios.

How would you do in a self-paced learning program?

As you can see, self-paced learning might not be for everyone, but if you are excited at the thought of this much freedom in an education, it could be a perfect fit for you.

Now that you have a better idea of how self-paced learning works and what it takes to thrive, get a picture of how it adds up to a degree. Can you really pace yourself all the way through a college education? What would your experience look like? Learn more in our article, “What Is Competency-Based Education: A Beginner's Guide for Students.”

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She earned her MFA in poetry and teaches as an adjunct English instructor. She loves to write, teach and talk about the power of effective communication.

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