Three Tips on How to Help Your Students Study Online Effectively with a Smartphone

Student looks at phone in her free time

Mobile devices are useful learning tools for many students because they are easier, quicker, and more convenient to use than desktop computers and laptops (Sergio, 2012). The ability to learn almost anytime and anywhere brings support whenever and wherever the learners need it—but only if they know how to make effective use of the smartphone as a pedagogical tool.

The following three tips have come from in-depth interviews with ten of our postgraduate learners at Athabasca University on how they study effectively with their smartphones in the context of asynchronous, text-based, digital learning. These busy learners value the ease and convenience that the mobile technology provides for part-time, online, graduate studies when they are working full-time and have a family and other commitments.

Student Tip #1: Make use of tiny time slots

  • Identify the best tasks suited to the time slots available to you wherever you are.
  • Become aware of and leverage the tiny time slots that can appear unexpectedly during your day.
  • Read course content and activities in little bits throughout the week so that you have more time to digest the information.

A 40-year-old father of three and full-time working professional uses his Samsung phone to track and think about his classmate’s postings in the discussion forum during the day, contemplate everything that they have posted, and then writes his own post in the evening. He finds that this works better for him than sitting down and reading it all once or twice a week and trying to grasp complex information or think through the implications of an idea.

A 53-year-old nursing postgraduate student realizes she has only has 15 minutes before an appointment; she will use her iPhone to see what is going on in the course discussions or read an article that she knows that she should be reading. She studies more frequently than before. If she has a spare 15 minutes, she uses it to study.

A 32-year-old nursing postgraduate student tailors studying with her Windows phone to any available time she has. Whether she has 10 minutes or four hours, she will choose to read a couple of studies very briefly or read a big chunk of the textbook. She finds that she is quite effective when she can do a 15–20-minute spurt or a 45-minute spurt.

How to implement it as an instructor?

Provide bite-sized chunks of learning content for your learners and show them how x slots of y time per week will complete a particular aspect of the course.

Convert current resources into user-friendly and easily accessible formats for mobile devices, such as properly formatted PDFs.

Put the student at the center of the experience and think about how and where they will interact with the content or activity on a phone. Are they at home, at work, or commuting?

Student Tip #2: Focus only on essential tasks

  • Focus only on the elements that need to be done to succeed in a course and don’t waste time on unnecessary tasks.
  • Be judicious in the material you study with your phone based on the course requirements.
  • Notice for you what times of the day are best for what kind of task.

A 32-year-old nursing postgraduate student uses her Windows phone to only study the content that she is sure she doesn’t know or understand well, and will only do more than an overview if she has the time and interest to do more.

A 51-year-old business administration postgraduate student uses his iPhone at different times of the day for different purposes. In the morning, he will study more complex or complicated subject areas. In the afternoon, he will study easier subject areas or review that morning’s work. In the evening, he will work on an assignment or carry out research on the Internet.

A 30-year-old integrated studies postgraduate student uses his BlackBerry for one hour per day to read content, work through the course website, understand the course structure and find out what needs to be done. He creates his own essential course materials as an e-notebook with OneNote as a way for him to engage with the course and make it his own.

How to implement it as an instructor?

Make it clear in the course what the essential tasks are for the learners.

Use a secure SMS text messaging service to contact a large number of learners simultaneously about course updates and assignment due dates.

Make the assessment instructions available in an audio format so that the learners can listen to them on their commute and start to write the assignment when they get home.

Student Tip #3: Make and stick to your own schedule

  • Keep your due dates organized in the phone’s calendar and synced across all your devices.
  • Keep track of the steps you have to take to complete the course with a calendar and study schedule.
  • Make a commitment to deal with the inevitable distractions that come with a phone.

A 40-year-old nursing postgraduate student uses his Samsung phone to keep organized with due dates in the device’s calendar. He fits the mobile study in between other activities as opposed to setting aside dedicated time to complete it. He finds that he wouldn’t be able to complete a postgraduate degree without a phone enabling him to fit his studies into his busy life.

A 50-year old information technology postgraduate student studies on her iPhone and sets her own goals. She finds that her stress level does not get out of control because she is no longer afraid that she won’t complete the course. She then has the flexibility to deal with unexpected events that may come up that could take away time from her planned, small study times.

A 29-year-old nursing postgraduate student knows that she has to be determined to study on a tiny screen—she is not going to waste that time. The more she studies during the day on her phone, the less she has to do in the evening. She turns off the notifications on her phone to reduce distractions. Even if she wonders about the messages that she may have missed, she doesn’t turn the notifications back on until after her study session.

How to implement it as an instructor?

Make sure learners can use the calendar in the mobile version of your learning management system.

Teach your learners how to search with Google Scholar to find the information they need to answer questions and solve problems without having to rely upon the content provided by a teacher, course, or textbook.

Provide learners with tip sheets on how to set goals, create a study schedule, and deal with phone distractions.

Making effective use of a smartphone as a learning tool boils down to the learner knowing where to focus on for the amounts of time they have available during the day and knowing how to manage their time wisely with their phone. When they see for themselves the benefit of utilizing mobile technology in their studies, they can stop engaging with the phone as a distraction and start to recognize it as a powerful ally in their education.

Stephen Addison works as a learning designer for the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Athabasca University in Canada and has worked in instructional design, educational research, and online education for over 20 years. He often uses a Samsung phone to study, which makes him feel like he is teleporting in and out of a classroom.


Sergio, F. “10 ways that mobile learning will revolutionize education.” Retrieved October 22, 2012 (10).