Juggling Online Classes and Work

3 Keys to Achieving Work/Life/School Balance

Getty Images/Marc Romaneli.

Almost 20 million students are enrolled in college, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics. Close to 2.5 million college students are enrolled in distance learning programs, and the vast majority of them are working adults.

Staying abreast of academic requirements is a job in itself, but for students trying to balance a job while pursuing a college degree, it’s a Herculean task. Fortunately, with some planning and discipline, there are ways to successfully juggle both school and work. 

Dr. Beverly Magda is the associate provost for strategic partnerships at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, PA, and has over 15 years of experience in higher education with a focus on non-traditional, adult learners, continuing education, and online education. She believes that there are three keys to achieving success while working and taking online classes.

Change Your Mindset

One advantage of distance learning is the lack of time spent commuting to a college campus. Also, students can usually view classes at their convenience. As a result, there is a tendency to view this type of learning as easier, and this mentality can set students up for failure if they take a lackadaisical approach to their studies. “Students must set aside time weekly, if not a few minutes daily, to dedicate to the online courses,” Magda tells ThoughtCo, adding that online courses – whether core requirements or not - entail more time than most people realize. “Students think online courses will be easier, but once they get into them, they realize the courses take more work and concentration.”

It's a sentiment shared by Dr. Terry DiPaolo, executive dean for online instructional services for the LeCroy Center for Educational Telecommunications at Dallas County Community College District. "First, study of any kind isn't easy - it requires a great deal of time, commitment and perseverance," DiPaolo explains.   "In some ways, studying online can be harder for some students - feeling isolated from instructors and feeling like they don't get a chance to really to get to know others students is something online students commonly report."

Organize/Get a Head Start

Staying on top of assignments is critical, and getting ahead can provide a cushion if something unexpected arises (such as contracting a 3-day virus or a temporary increase in work demands). Magda recommends that students start thinking of ways to get ahead. “As soon as you sign up for the course, read the syllabus and think about what work you can do ahead of time and do it.”

Dawn Spaar also works at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. Spaar is the director of adult and professional studies, and she tells ThoughtCo that students need to organize and prioritize their academic work. “Decide what needs to be done today versus next week instead of procrastinating or cramming at the last minute.” Some assignments may include group projects. “Coordinate early with classmates for group work and/or to get together to finalize an assignment,” Spaar recommends.

Creating an effective calendar system will also help students hone their study habits during this juggling act. “Organize and plan—plan your semester on a calendar that incorporates due dates for projects at work, travel, your child's events, and other events.”

Manage Your Time

There are 24 hours in a day, and there’s nothing you can do to add more hours. However, as performance coach Michael Altshuler says, “The bad news is time flies; the good news is you're the pilot.” Managing your time and honing your study habits may be the most difficult part of the juggling online classes and working. “First, make a plan for the times and places you can complete school work with no or minimal interruptions,” Spaar advises. “For example, you may find it best to study late at night or early in the morning when the kids are asleep.” Also, Spaar says don’t be afraid to ask your family for some "alone" time. 

While it’s important to stick to your schedule, that’s easier said than done. “You can be sure that something will tempt you away, but be firm and stick with plan,” according to Spaar. And if you get off track, be willing to make the necessary adjustments. “Eliminate a favorite TV show and catch it later, and put off the laundry for another day,” she says.

The good news is that you don’t need large chunks of time. For example, Spaar recommends finding a quiet place at work to study during lunch breaks.

In fact, Dan Marano, director of User Experience at Cengage, tells ThoughtCo that students can study in 15-minute spurts. “You don’t need to have marathon cram sessions or pull all-nighters to get school work done,” he says. “Make the most of your commute on public transportation and time spent waiting in line to fit in readings and quick reviews of your course materials.”

And Marano advises students to take advantage of the various tools that may be available through online programs. “For example, many digital course materials come with free mobile apps that make catching up on readings or studying in short bursts easy and convenient on your mobile device, no matter where you are.” Marano warns against underestimating the impact of these short intervals of time – and he says they help students to avoid getting burned out. 

The final step in time management may sound contradictory, but you need to schedule breaks. Marano explains,Make the most of your free time by planning a fun or relaxing activity ahead of time so you feel less inclined to take unnecessary breaks.”

Several studies have shown that taking breaks can boost productivity levels. By effectively managing your free-time and scheduling designated breaks from schoolwork, you can avoid procrastinating and actually increase your productivity level and also spur creativity.