How to Succeed in a Self-Paced Course


No deadlines

By Pat Bowden, published November 7, 2017.

In the last three months, 560 free online courses have been released from more than 200 universities. They cover a wide range of subjects and although most are in English, several other languages are also represented. Most are self-paced courses.

Perhaps you’ve enrolled in a self-paced course. No pressure of imminent deadlines, just the freedom to log on whenever you like and work through the materials in a relaxed way.

Three months later, the course is still sitting there. You’ve opened it up and it looked interesting and useful. Maybe you made a start on it. But other things intervened and that self-paced course kept sliding to the back of the queue.

Another three months or so have slipped by. What was winter is now summer. Let’s enjoy the outdoors while we have the chance! That course won’t be going anywhere. Yet, at the back of your mind is a little niggle. You should be doing it, but too bad, there will be plenty of time to really get your teeth into it when the weather cools down.

All too soon, an email arrives. Your course is going offline at the end of next month, because the course creator has moved onto other things and is no longer prepared to put in the time to keep it current. Suddenly, the relaxed pace has turned into a six-week scramble to finish. And, oh no! The hot water has sprung a leak all over the floor, a storm is bearing down or your parents/sister/friend needs your help to move house.

Is this scenario familiar to you? As a self-confessed online learning junkie, this kind of thing has certainly happened to me. I am most likely to complete a self-paced course when I know I have to finish it soon, before I lose the chance to do it at all.

Coursera’s Compromise

In the early days, Coursera had many MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that were 10 or more weeks long, with strict weekly deadlines for assessment items. As the popularity of MOOCs grew, so did the complaints. Online learners often have full-time jobs, family and social commitments, and one week may not be long enough to learn all the materials and do the quizzes and/or assignments. In many courses, missing more than one or two deadlines meant that not enough points could be earned for a pass.

Coursera introduced a few self-paced courses, but their preferred format is now to offer courses with soft (recommended) deadlines and a hard deadline at the end of the course, plus the option to transfer learning progress to a future session if the hard deadline arrives before students have finished the course. Most courses have sessions starting every 2-4 weeks. I have completed several MOOCs under this format, occasionally having to transfer my enrolment to another session.

Important or Urgent?

Self-paced courses fall into a non-urgent category. The lack of deadlines can be a double-edged sword. On one side, freedom from the stress of deadlines. On the other side, tasks with deadlines tend to be dealt with first simply because they are more urgent and need to be done before time runs out for them.

Our lives are filled with urgent tasks. We need to work out what is important enough to pursue. A self-paced course could be important even though it’s not urgent. For instance, a MOOC that teaches skills for resume-writing may be very important for a future career change, but not urgent because your prospective career change is a few months down the track. Will this material be as easily obtained later, or should I take advantage of this useful MOOC right now?


The key to success is motivation. How much do you really want to do this course? Will it be mildly interesting, or is there a more compelling reason to do it? Will your future career or your family’s lifestyle be enhanced by doing it? Are you finally managing to learn about a subject that always interested you?

Deciding whether or not to do the course

Self-paced courses have a habit of hanging over your head and making a nuisance of themselves by interfering with your conscience. Are you enrolled in a self-paced course that’s just sitting there? Think about whether or not you really want to do it. If so, hop to it! If not, un-enrol and move on without regret. You may be able to do it or something similar in the future if you change your mind again.

How to turn Desire into Action

Ok, so you’ve decided to get on with it. You know you want to complete this self-paced course, but it’s still a millstone around your neck.

  1. Get out your calendar or diary and block off sufficient time to finish the course, spread over the next few days and weeks. Estimate how many hours you need to spend each week, then divide it up into hours per day and decide exactly when you will work on it.
  2. At the appointed time, don’t procrastinate. Turn off your email and social media alerts and hide your phone in another room where you can’t see or hear it.
  3. Set up a Pomodoro and work for your allotted time, taking a short break every 25 minutes as described here.
  4. Keep track of your progress and give yourself rewards for reaching particular milestones.
  5. You can use this strategy for many non-urgent tasks. A friend recently told me she rewarded herself by watching a show on Netflix after writing emails.
  6. At the end, celebrate!

A Final Thought

If the course has no deadlines, set your own and stick to them.