12 Tips for Success in Online Classes

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Note: This site has been archived and is no longer being updated, as of September, 2014.

Whether you’re a first time e-learner or a veteran in the online space, I’m sure you understand that there’s more to online classes than just turning in the homework.  However, if you aren’t quite sure what all the aspects of online learning are, before you read this list, make sure you check out How Do Online Classes Work?  Then you can come back with enough foreknowledge to make the most of the following tips.

These 12 tips are designed to help you get the most out of your classes, regardless of your level or your technical understanding.  Take each one in turn, applying the principles to your personal situation, and you can be sure to achieve success in your online classes!

 

1. Manage Your Time

As an online student, there is perhaps no task more important than staying organized.  Because you are not constantly surrounded by people reminding you of the work you have to do, you have to take the initiative, and ensure all work is completed and all assignments turned in on time.

It is important to realize the importance of time management before you enter the virtual classroom.  Many students that are presented with the amount of freedom that an online education allows end up spending too much time on certain classes and assignments and too little on others.  The following steps will show you exactly how to keep track of your time and use it as efficiently as possible.

Create a Weekly Schedule

If a course you are taking doesn’t have a specific schedule to distribute the workload, it is a good idea to take it upon yourself to create one.  Make a schedule with clear times set aside for classwork.  It is best if this schedule is the same each week, as it shows you what your workload really looks like and gives you a heads up, so you know what to expect each day.

Plan Out the Semester

After laying out your regular (weekly) schedule, it’s time plan out the semester.  Using a calendar of some sort, lay out everything that is assigned for the class, from homework to group projects to tests.  Make sure that EVERYTHING is accounted for in this process because this will be your lifeblood for your online college career.  There are several ways you can approach this, depending on your personal preferences.  Two of those options are event-based (for you ‘planners’) and task-based (for you ‘list-makers’).

Event-Based

This is when apps like the Google Calendar come in handy.  Take every task that must be completed for the class and create an event for it, allotting a generous amount of time to ensure completion.  Note: These events are in addition to those already scheduled in the previous tip.

block-calendar-sample

Move right down your list of assignments in the syllabus or other source.  Mark in events that already have a date/time assigned.  For assignments that have specific due dates, estimate the required time necessary to complete the assignment, and create events that will fulfill that time requirement, allowing you to complete the assignment by the due date, provided you actually work during those times. Note: Always leave a buffer for estimation error.  For tests and quizzes, the process is virtually the same, the difference being you are planning for study time instead of homework time.

After all events and assignments have been accounted for in your calendar, schedule in the assignments that have much more room for flexibility–such as those courses where the only due date is the last day of the semester.  Then, repeat the process on any remaining classes you may have.

Now, in order for this system to work, you have to be confident that your planner contains all the events of each day.  You must be thorough and put EVERYTHING in the calendar for each day, or this will simply become another step down the path to a stressful life.  If you can rely on your planner, you can relax your mind, knowing that everything will be taken care of if you simply follow what you wrote down.  This process seems tedious and restraining, but if you can maintain the self discipline to hold yourself to it, you can accomplish great things and tackle massive workloads, while still having free time to spare.

Task-Based

RTM ScreenshotIf you are someone who loves making lists, this is the strategy for you.  In order to approach your education in this way, you will need a planner–either the physical, paper kind or an app, such Remember the Milk for iPhone.  This typically works best with an actual planner because of the way it splits up all your tasks and is easy to take in visually.  This technique also works well when supplemented by the event-based approach.

After you have picked your method of choice, begin with the first course on your list.  Find all the assignments and tests.  Instead of writing the times of each event, write down simply what must be done each day.  Events that have a specific time allocated to them may be placed in a separate location such as the Sunrise Calendar iPhone app.

For tests/quizzes, start with the day before the event.  Create a task, saying something along the lines of “Study – Quiz Tomorrow!”.  Then move back one day at a time, adding in tasks to study, until you feel confident that you can master the exam material within the allotted study time.

Note: When adding in tasks, set up a priority scheme, with at least 3 levels of priority, such as in this example:

  1. Would be helpful to complete today (Written in pencil or colored in blue)
  2. Must be completed today (Written in pen or colored in green)
  3. My life is over if this isn’t done tomorrow! (Written in PEN AND HIGHLIGHTED or colored in red)

The process looks very similar for assignments.  Only, instead of creating tasks for study time, simply make them for homework time.  Set these tasks as early in the semester as possible to make sure you knock them out with extra time to spare.  This relieves stress and gives you more time to better prepare in other areas.

As you progress through the course, make changes, be flexible, and make sure what you have written down is accurate.  Just like with the event-based style, if you can learn to rely on your planner, you can alleviate even more stress from your daily life by writing everything down and letting your planner do the ‘worrying’.

Actual application of the planner is simple, once it has been set up correctly.  Each day, look at that day in your planner, and you will see in front of you every task that must be completed that day.  All you have to do at that point is do it.

Set Your Priorities

When making decisions about what to work on and when, priorities can play a key role.  They help determine what should be done first, and you should always take care of high priority items first.  Always remember that priority will change with proximity to the due date.  Listen closely for any cues from your instructor about how they feel about priorities.  Oftentimes, this is subtle, but remember you can always ask if you’re not sure.  These opinions can play a strong part in your success as a student, so try to make your own priorities reflect those of the professor, in regards to schoolwork.

 

2. Prepare Your Computer

Confirm the Technical Requirements

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 10.58.45 AMWhen looking into what classes to take, it’s always a good idea to make sure the computer and software you have are compatible with all the requirements of the course.  If you have more questions about this, before joining a course, check out the resource on how online classes work for the section on Requirements.

Know Your School’s Recommended Software

Avoid headaches later on in the course, when time is of the essence, by looking up the recommended software before the course starts.  Included in this software list should be the internet browser that is recommended for your program and courses.  As this is the primary means of connecting to your course materials, it is essential that you use the correct browser.  A fully supported program can mean the world of difference when so much time is spent inside it.  If the software information is not listed with the course info, you can find it by contacting either the IT department or college’s support line.

Test Your Internet Connection

Part of your success in online education depends on your ability to connect to the internet, for viewing lecture videos, listening to instructional material, and participating in group conversations via forums and discussion boards.  Slow internet is one sure way to kill your productivity.  Make sure your connection can handle the demands of your courses.  You can easily test your internet connection by streaming a movie online.  If you don’t have any issues with lagging or waiting for the video to load, you should be fine.  However, if the video has trouble loading, pauses often to buffer, or cuts in and out, you might need to consider investing in a faster internet connection.

 

3. Utilize the Latest Technology

Get a Skype Account

Skype is a free application used to video chat with people over the internet.  Not only is Skype a good way to connect with professors, it is becoming an increasingly more integral part of today’s job market, including interviews.  Those that don’t have a Skype account or are unfamiliar with the program are put at a disadvantage to those who can utilize it’s full capabilities.  Face-to-face connection is vital to establish        many aspects of what makes a relationship real, and Skype uses that principal to give you a head start in the world of technology that we live in today.

Use Mobile Apps

If you own a smartphone, yet don’t use it for your classes, you are wasting a valuable resource.  There are so many apps you can use to take full advantage of these amazing pieces of technology.  Oftentimes, colleges will offer an app that you can download to keep track of discussions, course materials, and schedules while away from your computer.  There are many other apps as well, some of which were mentioned in the “Make a plan” section of this article.  Here are some other great iPhone apps that can help you succeed in your online courses:evernote

  • Evernote – An all-in-one note-taking app that combines tasks and projects with text and audio notes, making it a one-stop shop for study management.
  • OneNote – One of the most organized note systems out there.  It started with the desktop version, but now includes mobile, making it easy to write notes and access immediately on any device.
  • Dropbox – A quick and easy way to store files in the cloud, making them accessible from the web or on any device with Dropbox installed.
  • Flipboard – News, personalized and organized.  It’s a great way to stay up-to-date with the world around you.  Flipboard is also very helpful when you need to make discussion board posts about current events.
  • Wolfram Alpha – A collection of apps that can wolfram_swizzhelp you compute just about anything, from Multivariable Calculus to the number of licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop.

 

Download a Reference Manager

It’s no secret that college involves a LOT of research.  You will write a lot of papers and work on a lot of projects.  Many of these require sources that you must cite, using a format such as APA or MLA.  You have a choice to make:  Do you want to…

  1. Manually type out every word of your references page by flipping back and forth between your source and the document, or…zotero
  2. Use a free program to manage the data for all your sources (some of which is collected automatically) and instantly generate a properly formatted works cited page.  Some of these reference managers can even be fully integrated into your browser to add websites at the click of a button manage your entire reference collection from one window.

Use the Resources Available to You

You don’t have to be limited by the way you were brought up or how they did things when you were in grade school.  Technology has come a long way in recent past, so take it and run with it.

  • youtube tutorialIf flash cards are your thing, look up online flash cards for a quicker, easier more efficient way to study.
  • If you enjoy reading away from the computer, download documents (or print as PDFs) and transfer them to an e-reader.
  • If you need help on a specific assignment but can’t reach the instructor, search YouTube for tutorials or access one of the many online studying and tutor sites made for people like you.

Don’t place a limit on what you can achieve by assuming there is only one way to approach it.  The internet is a vast database of people finding new ways to do things; you just need to tap into that resource.

Back Up Your Data

This almost goes without saying.  Nevertheless, always back up your data!  Save often, and use whatever methods necessary to keep multiple copies in multiple locations.  Some options for backup:

  • Use a dedicated external hard drive for regular backup of your entire computer or a specific folder within it ($50-100).
  • Keep copies of all your course documents and files on a dedicated flash drive ($5-30).
  • Use a cloud storage service to back up all the data for your classes ($0-10 per month).

 

4. Participate

blackboardShare

What goes around, comes around, and that is all the more applicable to this situation, as so many of your classmates will be in similar situations but with very different backgrounds.  Aside from the rest of the internet, a major resource is your class.  Speak up, and use that resource to help others or draw from the knowledge base of many of your classmates.  Share with them your tips, helps, and questions.  Become a part of the community and you will quickly see the benefits when it comes time to ask a question.

Speaking up about the class, adding valuable input can also help you stand out from the crowd.  When you give your insight on a topic, it not only helps to keep the class interesting, but it engages the other students, spurring critical thinking and developed replies.  These kind of quality statements and questions are not easily forgotten by your peers and instructors.

Think Before Pushing ‘Send’

However, be mindful of what you are putting out on the internet.  Even if there is a Delete button, be careful how you phrase things because written communication can be so easily misinterpreted.  This is the downside to standing out from the crowd. Because you cannot set the mood by using your tone of voice, it is important to word your messages in a way that is not easily misconstrued.

Remember: Users Are People Too

That second look before hitting the ‘Send’ button is all the more important in tough times.  Everyone has those moments when you’re just fed up, when the world seems to be against you, and you just don’t want to deal with people for awhile.  This is precisely when you are confronted with that snide remark from a classmate, regarding your opinion on a topic.  STOP.  Take a deep breath.  Relax, and respond (if necessary) to the person in a calm, sincere manner.

Perhaps the issue isn’t a rude user but an instructor that is being uncooperative or simply unhelpful.  Before aggressively demanding your way, take a moment and remember: users are people too.  Even if you never have an in-person encounter with one of them, your classmates and instructors are on the other end of the web, thinking many of the same thoughts, having many of the same feelings as you.  They aren’t some mindless program, built to make your life miserable.  They are human beings and should be treated as such.

Be Patient

We are dealing with rather slow forms of communication here.  Now that smartphones are everywhere, email communications–among others–have sped up significantly.  However, it is important to understand that the instructor has to sort through all the messages from all his students, and yours is just one of the pile until he/she gets to it.  Responses can sometimes take more than a day, so plan accordingly.  Do not procrastinate until the last minute because in an emergency, you might not be able to contact anyone before it’s too late.

Be Persistent

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While it is important to be patient, it may take a few attempts to get through to someone.  It can be tough trying to make contact, but persist in your participation because your success depends on it.  That is why so many online instructors put a grade on participation–they see the value in it.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Many instructors appreciate this and will go out of their way to help you succeed.

 

5. Network

With all this interaction, you are bound to start to get to know some people.  Hang on to these connections because you will eventually see the value in them.  Genuine relationships are key to success in life for many reasons, and when in need of a job or recommendation letter, these people will be the ones to help you get where you need to be.

Connect With Instructors Early

There will be times in your online courses when you feel like you are struggling and can’t seem to keep up.  There will be other times when you don’t understand why the work you do doesn’t seem to be up to the professor’s standards.  It is in these times when it is good to have a previously-existing, educational relationship with your instructor.  The groundwork you lay for this relationship, early on in the course helps, in times of need, to bridge the student-instructor gap, getting you the help and answers you need in the most positive way possible.  Most instructors are happy to help out all their students, but just like with anything, there will always be those people that you can’t seem to connect with.  Those same professors are often the teachers of the classes that provide the biggest challenges.  However, you can prepare yourself for those classes before the issues happen by reaching out to the instructor, getting to know them, and opening the door for future problems that may arise.

Find Study Partners

Look for those people that can help you succeed in your classes.  Together you can study for tests, ask each other for help with homework, remind about upcoming deadlines, and just talk about whatever it is you’re going through.  If nothing else, going through tough times together is one of the surest ways to create lasting friendships.

 

6. Study

Let’s face it, in college you have to study in order to succeed.  You’ll be thanking yourself if you take the time to figure this out sooner, rather than later.  Follow these suggestions to make sure you’re using the correct techniques and creating good study habits.

Play to Your Strengths

If you don’t know your learning style, find out what it is, now.  Once you know how you learn the best, you can use that information to create a school-work and study regimen that gives you optimum results.  If you are a visual learner, use flashcards and video tutorials to really help sink in.  If you are more of an auditory learner, record yourself saying key phrases and words to play them back for yourself.  If you are a tactile learner, use hands-on activities, such as tracing words with your finger.  However, regardless of your learning style, find the combination of techniques that works for you and stick with it.

Read Materials a Second Time

In your study-time, don’t forget that one of the keys to understanding is multiple readings, taking the subject one line at a time.  This applies to all learning styles because it’s all about repetition.  Blazing through chapters two weeks before the test and never looking at them again is a sure way to end up with scores that are less than satisfactory.  Return to the same material as often as possible to ensure maximum retention.

Don’t expect to know everything

You can expect that there will be many times when things don’t seem to make sense right off the bat.  Studying multiple times over the same material really help it sink in.  It’s important not to be discouraged at these times, even if no one else seems to be struggling with the topic.  Everyone learns and understands things at different rates, so be prepared to grasp some topics really well and others not as much.

Print Study Pages

You will be spending enough time in front of a screen during other activities.  Print studying material to review away from the computer.  This eases the burden on your eyes and frees you up to enable studying on the go.  It also keeps you away from the temptation of browsing the web or completing other unnecessary tasks on the computer. If you prefer–as mentioned earlier in this article–you can always choose to save the files on an E-reader or tablet instead.  The name of the game is flexibility, and distance ed is a master at it.

Read

Because of the nature of online courses, your instructor will most likely spend less time teaching, and more time helping you find the information you need to succeed.  Of course there are still lectures of a sort, but much more of your time will be spent reading than in a normal classroom setting.  It is your job to make sure you stay ahead of your classes, and in order to do that, you will need to read up on the various areas of the course.

Don’t simply glance over the syllabus and required reading material.  The professor is there to help you, and the readings they assign are a part of that help.  Take advantage of it early on, so you can have the upper hand and avoid playing catch-up, being forced to ask your classmates what’s going on in the class.

 

7. Prepare for Each Course BEFOREHAND

Review the Documentation

Review the help files and documentation regarding your classes and apps.  If you don’t understand something, read up on it.  This goes back to the tip on reading.  If you don’t like it, online college might not be for you–but hopefully you already knew that.  Help files are there for a reason, and you can learn so much just by browsing through them.  This could be for an app you are using for a class, a discussion board or forum, or any of the apps mentioned in this article.  Learn about them before the class starts so you can take full advantage of all that has been offered to you.

Familiarize Yourself With the Layout

user interfaceBefore the class starts, get familiar with the layout of the course’s homepage.  Web applications can sometimes be odd and less than user-friendly, so when the work starts, don’t add to it by ignorance of the interface.

Purchase all Required Materials

Required materials are required for a reason.  Purchasing them is one of the most important steps to achieve success in online classes because they hold much of the information the courses are based on, and typically are necessary to complete many of the classes’ assignments.  It’s true that textbooks can be a substantial financial burden, but you can save hundreds of dollars by buying them used online.  Just find out the ISBN number of the textbook and search for it on any of the many websites that sell used textbooks.

 

8. Be Diligent in Your Coursework

Check in Daily

Part of staying on top of your classes involves being able to react with time to spare.  Anything could be posted at any time, and you need to be ready to respond quickly and efficiently.

Check Your Email

How else are you going to get important announcements, many of which could be time sensitive?  The best way to handle this is to set up notifications for yourself whenever you get emails.  This can either be done through a mobile device, web browser plugin/extension, or desktop app.  If you aren’t notified for each new email, or if you tend to ignore notifications, it is vital to your college success that you check AT LEAST once a day to ensure you don’t miss last-minute updates.

Try it Yourself, First

It is incredible how much quicker you will learn if you find the answers on your own.  Answers that are provided by another are taken for granted and the brain doesn’t soak it in quite like when you work hard to find the answer.  This is especially applicable to mathematics, in regards to solving those tough equations.  Put the effort in, and you will reap the rewards.

Get Ahead of the Assigned Work

One of the quickest ways to find yourself needing to drop out of your online courses is to get behind.  You cannot afford fall behind in a distance learning situation.  The obvious way to avoid this is to stay ahead of schedule.  You can do this by following Tip #1 on this page and making sure you complete every assignment by your self-made due date.

Have a Consistent Workspace

consistent workspace

While one of the perks of distance ed is flexibility, it is important to realize that most people typically learn best when their environment and schedule are both consistent.  When you try to work in a new space, it is like starting from scratch; you have to take the time and effort to refocus yourself and get back to the mindset of productivity that comes naturally with a workspace dedicated to classwork.  Avoid this step by being consistent in your study habits, removing yourself from all distractions.

 

9. Keep at It

Online education is set up in a way that simply will not work without a lot of effort on your part.  You get out of it what you put in, so why would you do anything but your absolute best?  This is your opportunity to create a lasting career and incredible future for yourself, so make it count.  Only you can determine the results.

Stay Motivated

Remember that you’re in this for the long haul.  It takes time to earn a degree, and sometimes it might not seem like that degree is worth it, but just remember what you’re doing it for and the feeling you had when you decided to apply for online schooling.  Remember that there will always be good days and bad days.  You can make it through, just don’t give up.

Don’t Give Up

You have to believe in yourself and believe that you can achieve success in order to achieve it.  A mind set on failure is destined for one thing, and it’s not success.  If you ever begin to doubt yourself again, remember that moment when you felt like you could succeed.  That was when you were right.  That was when you saw what you are truly capable of.  If you follow that path, you can succeed.  Fight to the end, don’t give up, and you will forever thank yourself for the results.

10. Don’t Overwork Yourself

Be Mindful of Your Course Load

This is another step that can be taken care of by following Tip #1.  Plan out your semester in advance to determine if you can handle the workload.  Remember the other life events that may not be scheduled in this planner, as the combined workload may be too much for you to handle healthily.

Maintain a Proper Balance Between Family and School

At the same time, pay attention to the amount of time this will take you away from your family.  Consider this when picking out classes and when you’re scheduling and planning out work times.  An improper balance between school and family can lead to a sure downfall in both areas, so taking care to manage both correctly is vital to success in your classes as well as your family life.

Quit the Right Way

There may come a time when you need to drop a class or take a break for a year.  Do yourself a favor and quit the right way.  Follow the steps to legitimately do this because the scars left on your record from failing are permanent.  Don’t just give up or stop signing in to class.  The extra effort will be worth it in the end.

 

11. Take Care of Your Finances

Paying for school may not seem like it would make much of a difference to your success as a student, but think about all that is required to add a new bill to the mix.  Perhaps you would have to work more hours or cut back in certain areas of spending.  Both can easily result in higher levels of stress, as well as less time to focus on schoolwork.  It is important to make sure that your financial situation is under control BEFORE getting involved in online education.  There are a few ways you can get help with this process.

Take Advantage of Financial Aid

The federal government offers many grants, loans, and tax breaks to help people like you pay for college.  Fill out the FAFSA, do a scholarship search, and fill out any applications you need to, so you can lessen the burden of tuition, particularly while in college.  Most federal loans are not required to be paid back at all while enrolled in school.  This way, you can put your entire focus on your schooling, without worrying about how you’ll pay the next school bill.

Don’t be careless with loans, though, as they can quickly add up.  Assess how much you can handle by comparing expected loan payments with a low estimate of post-graduation income.  After this, take what loans you can, up to what you can handle, and fill out the rest with scholarships and out-of-pocket payments.

Ask Your Employer for Help

Oftentimes, employers are more than happy to assist financially with schooling when the result is a better, more educated employee.  If you are a valuable asset to the company, they can understand the benefits it would bring to increase your knowledge, critical thinking abilities, and connections.

 

12. Don’t Plagiarise or Commit Other Violations

Never do these things.  Ever.

 

What are your thoughts on this?  Let us know in the comments below.  It was quite a bit to take in, but perhaps you’re feeling inspired, like you can take on the world.  If that’s the case, try out a free online course.  Or maybe you just really want to learn what online courses are all about.  Regardless, please take these suggestions seriously, as it could mean the difference between an expensive waste of your time and complete success in your online courses.  You can do it.  You have the resources; now you just have to put in the effort.

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