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Coping strategies for online students

Going back to school as an adult brings its own set of challenges, which can affect mental health. Fortunately, as Kim Keating, MA, LMFT, notes, there are ways to bolster your emotional well-being while pursuing your educational goals as an online student. Connecting, staying focused, keeping a schedule and taking advantage of learning resources can help online students cope.

As a lead faculty area chair with the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix, Keating often works with students who are going back to school while holding down a job and raising a family.

In some ways, she can relate: She returned to school for her master’s degree several years after completing her bachelor’s and knows the challenges firsthand.

Here, she delves into four potential pitfalls for online students and how to avoid them.

Feeling isolated

It’s ironic that online students can have so many obligations — work, family, school — yet can feel isolated. As Keating notes, online school may be great for accessibility to education, but less great in terms of personal interactions.

Kim Keating headshot

Kim Keating, MA, LMFT
Lead Faculty Area Chair, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

“A lack of face-to-face interaction with peers and instructors can lead to those feelings of isolation and loneliness for online students, and this can negatively impact well-being and mental health,” Keating says. 

The solution: Connect

Make it a priority to connect, even if only virtually.

Schedules are busy. It’s hard to make time for another call, to commit to switching on the camera. But, Keating says, it’s worth it.

Like eating vegetables when the menu has cake, taking the time to meet your peers and instructors outside of required interaction can seem like one more thing to do, but it can also yield feel-good benefits for online students.

Putting herself in an online student’s shoes, Keating says: “Even though my schedule is really busy, I can hop on for maybe 15 minutes or half an hour just to meet with my peers and my instructor and make that face-to-face connection. Then when I see them in the online discussion, I have a vision of who they are, and it’s easier for me to connect.”

So, if your instructor offers a meet-up time, or if your classmates arrange a virtual meeting to get to know one another, prioritize making an appearance.

Suffering imposter syndrome

One branch of the isolation tree for online students is imposter syndrome, that feeling of not belonging or being unequal to the task at hand.

Keating knows the syndrome well. “I had taken eight years off in between getting my undergraduate degree and going for my graduate work,” she says. “It was just so awkward to be back in the school environment again.”

When online students doubt their abilities or qualifications, it can stymie both participation and progress.

“Those negative beliefs can undermine an online student’s self-confidence and sense of well-being,” she adds. 

The solution: Stay focused

Be aware these feelings can crop up, build connections with peers to validate your concerns and legitimacy, and stay focused on your goals in going back to school.

“Self-doubt is a normal feeling, especially when adult learners are returning to school as online students after a hiatus,” Keating says.

To push through it, revisit your reasons for going back to school. Keeping that motivation front and center will help you quash self-doubt or at least ignore it long enough to gain some traction in your educational journey. After all, nothing builds confidence like success.

Beating burnout

“There’s this pressure to succeed academically while juggling multiple roles and responsibilities,” Keating says of working adult online students. “That can lead to stress and anxiety and burnout.” 

The solution: Build a structured schedule

Just as the antidote to chaos is structure, the antidote to overwhelm for online students is a schedule.

“For instance, after work and family, from 8 to 9 p.m., [you can] spend an hour doing your reading,” Keating says. “Or while you’re eating your lunch, [you can] to do some schoolwork.”

Building schoolwork into your daily schedule means that you can ensure you’ve set aside enough time for everything, and you don’t leave schoolwork to the last minute.

For example, skipping a reading one night to attend your child’s band concert is fine if you have time built in to make it up the rest of the week. If that concert evening was the only time you had allotted to schoolwork all week, however, the situation becomes more dire.

Another pro tip for online students? Preview the week’s projects and assignments as soon as you get them. If you need extra time for something, it’s easier to build it in at the start of the week rather than the day before it’s due.

Taking the whole week to review, learn and process information ensures timely completion and it can also potentially improve retention.

“If I let material kind of marinate over a few days, if I think about it and I can post questions about specific things that I don’t understand, that not only benefits other students who may have the same questions, but it’s also another opportunity to feel engaged and less isolated,” Keating says.

Addressing a lack of resources for online students

Online school necessarily means getting online, which calls for a certain amount of cyber savvy or a really good tech support team.

Optimally, you’d have both.

You’d also have confidence in your math and writing skills and your ability to research a given topic. In Keating’s experience, these things aren’t always a given among many adult students.

The solution: Search out resources 

Online students at University of Phoenix have a couple of advantages in this arena, but they have to know about them first.

“I think the University does a wonderful job with tech support,” Keating says, observing how she will help students whenever possible with their tech-related questions, but she can only guide them so far. “Our tech support people are awesome.”

Keating cites an example when she needed to learn how to create a video using one of the University-provided tools. Tech support was there.

The University also offers a sea of resources in its library, as well as librarians who can help online students track down information. A browser extension called Lean Library can alert you to resources related to your internet searches.

Of course, nothing replaces good, old-fashioned digging. “I know online students are busy, but this goes back into the structured time,” Keating says. “Maybe, instead of going on TikTok, [students could] search around in the library. … Just pretend the library is another social platform and browse around to see what you can find. You can find some gems.”

Additional resources for UOPX students include the Center for Writing Excellence, which offers compositional tools and resources, and the Center for Mathematics Excellence, which offers live math tutoring and ways to refresh your skills. 

Find a program that supports online students

At the end of the day, online students at UOPX have one other resource in their back pocket: instructors and advisors who care. The University’s early alert system helps pinpoint students who might be struggling so that academic advisors can reach out to offer tailored support.

“I think academic advisors can help with encouraging online students to use the resources, and they can emphasize the importance of perseverance, problem-solving and learning from setbacks, because setbacks can happen,” Keating says.

“The sense of perseverance is so important in achieving that degree that’s been a dream,” she adds.

Portrait of Elizabeth Exline


Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors.

Headshot of Christina Neider


Christina Neider is the dean of the University of Phoenix College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Neider’s career spans more than 30 years in academia, healthcare and the U.S. Air Force. She has held several academic leadership roles at University of Phoenix, and she is the Vice President of membership for the Arizona Chapter of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society.


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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