New to Online Courses? 8 Tips for Student Success

If you are a student who hasn’t taken an online course before, and now ALL your classes are online, you may a little unsure about what you’re getting into. What you can expect is probably at least as much variety in learning experiences and strategies as what you encounter in the classroom. You will likely engage video (e.g., live-streamed or recorded lectures, links to Youtube or Vimeo, Zoom or WebEx conferences with your instructor and other students), audio (e.g., podcasts or other audio files), and text (e.g., announcements, written lectures, primary source articles, blog posts, and of course your textbooks). You may have live discussions you need to log in for during your regular class time, and/or threaded discussion posts you can follow throughout the week. Your exams and quizzes may be proctored using your webcam, open-book and open-note but timed, or transformed into a “take-home” project.  You will submit your assignments by uploading them. Some courses may still use group projects or activities, but many may turn those into individual assignments. There will be an adjustment period, but you’ll adapt quickly—and lots and lots of help is available if you need it. Your professors and TAs are still your professors and TAs; they will be just as available to respond to your questions as they were before, if not more so.

8 things you can do to succeed

  1. Familiarize yourself with the tech. Different instructors may use different platforms—most (maybe all) will use your school’s learning management system (Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, etc.), but some may also use Zoom, MS Teams, or WebEx for conferencing; OneDrive, Dropbox, or Google Drive for sharing documents; Youtube or Twitch for live streams. Your instructor will let you know what platforms will be used—take a little time to acquaint yourself with the look, feel, and functions of each before you need to use them (and definitely in advance of any important deadlines). Use the available help resources provided by each. There will be a learning curve, but you’ll figure things out quickly.
  1. Practice good time management skills. Some courses will be taught in real-time, during the same hours your class met in-person, but many others may not. The increased flexibility is a huge advantage of online learning, but it can be a major problem if you procrastinate, struggle to stick to a routine, or need frequent in-class reminders for when things are due. Review the most updated syllabus for each of your courses, and develop a week-by-week plan for completing major assignments. Then make a daily “To Do” list and enjoy checking things off as you complete them. Read (!) the announcements your instructor posts or emails and adjust your plans accordingly. It takes effort to develop good time management habits, but now is a perfect time to hone those skills, and your future self will thank you for doing so. 
  1. Establish a good study space. To the extent possible, claim a space that offers relative peace and quiet, free from distractions like TV or conversations with roommates or family. Establish “learning times” during which you silence your phone, turn off alerts, and keep your browsers, games, and social media off. Use noise-canceling headphones if you have them. Do your best to consider ergonomics, adjusting your chair, keyboard, and screen position so you are comfortable. Adjust the lighting to minimize eye strain. Brew some coffee or tea.
  1. Actively engage. Whether in-person or online, active learning is effective learning. The online environment generally lends itself well to this. If your class no longer requires you to “be present” at a specific time, choose times to engage the material when you are usually alert and motivated. Throw yourself into the discussion boards (figuratively, please). Ask thoughtful questions. Read or view videos and take vigorous notes, ideally by hand. Quiz yourself frequently. Spread your studying across several days rather than cramming in one night. Use all the resources available to you until you are confident you’ve grasped the material. Reach out if you are struggling or have concerns.
  1. Communication skills are key in distance learning. Your professors and TAs are available and willing to help, but they won’t be able to pick up on nonverbal cues like looks of confusion on your face.  It is up to you to reach out.  Look at the syllabus for the best ways to interact with a particular professor or TA—e.g., email, discussion groups, live chat office hours, phone, text, Skype.  It may feel awkward to connect in these ways, but don’t worry and don’t be shy. Your profs and TAs are there to help, they want to help, and it’s their job to help. Also, be thoughtful and appropriate in how you communicate. Use full sentences and proper grammar and punctuation when communicating in writing. Don’t let any feelings of anonymity prompt you to write or say things out of anger or frustration that you would never say face-to-face. Treat other people with respect and courtesy. 
  1. Exercise patience. If you are not used to online learning, remind yourself that some of your professors are not used to online teaching. Everything may be new to them, too. We are all doing our best to make this transition work well, but there will likely be a few hiccups along the way. Online platforms may not always work like they are supposed to (especially during times of increased traffic). If and when this happens, do your best to manage your frustration, and know that your profs and TAs are committed to being patient as well. Reach out for help. They will work things out, or come up with a Plan B or Plan C when necessary.
  1. Use campus resources. Even if your physical campus is completely closed, the same offices that have been working to serve you are still available to help. Have advising questions?  Reach out to your advising office. Concerned about your health? Reach out to your campus health office.  Experiencing tons of stress? Call your college counseling center. And paradoxically, this may be an excellent time to interact with your college career center if you are struggling with what all this means for your career decision-making.  They may be able to offer you online assessment and counseling using tools like PathwayU, and they’ll be eager to steer you toward the help that you need. 
  1. Hold yourself accountable. You are in the driver’s seat of your own education. You can turn this period of online learning into an opportunity to thrive or an excuse to fail.  You can seek ways to “game the system,” or you can honor your desire to be a person of integrity.  You know you are a mature, independent adult who is motivated to optimize your potential, and who wants to develop and express your gifts in ways that make the world better. That’s why you are pursuing a degree.  Leverage your internal motivation to do your best, and to do it honestly.  Hold yourself to a high standard. Be persistent and show your grit. You got this.