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How to succeed in online learning

Male student taking online classes on laptop with coffee mug and headphones next to him
By Jonathan Dale

At a glance

  • Some of the benefits of online learning include smaller class sizes, immediate access to course materials and increased flexibility.
  • Online classes are not a virtual version of a typical classroom experience. It can take some time to get used to the structure and learning environment.
  • Creating a dedicated study space can help keep you focused and improve retention.
  • University of Phoenix offers a collection of resources to help students make the most of online learning!


Study and learn on your time

When it comes to getting a degree, online learning offers the opportunity to study and learn on your own schedule. Although not everyone learns the same way, remote learning provides the flexibility to tailor your learning experience so you can succeed. Whether you’d rather take notes at a coffee shop or listen to lectures on your drive home, remote learning offers some distinct advantages.

Of course, the opposite is also true: Online learning presents its own set of challenges. Understanding the strategies that work for you is important to making the remote learning experience a rewarding one.


How does online learning work?

Online learning is a simple and increasingly popular way to achieve your educational goals. As opposed to an in-person class, online classes take place in the virtual classroom, where you can connect with the teacher and other students, access assignments and other course materials such as videos, and keep up to date on your grades and progress.


Benefits of online learning

While it can be challenging to juggle a full-time job and family responsibilities, online learning institutions have made taking classes and potentially earning a degree more accessible. In addition, classes can be smaller, which can encourage more meaningful interactions with classmates and instructors.

One of the biggest benefits of online versus traditional classes is that classes are always on. This simply means that with online learning, classes are available year-round and 24 hours per day, so you can choose a time that works for you as opposed to having to move your schedule around to attend a class in person, which includes the time needed to get to campus, park, sit down in class, leave and get home—all of which can add many hours to the commitment to pursue higher education. This can be a nonstarter for many people juggling work and families.

In addition, online learning requires only an internet connection, so almost every part of a college education can always be at your fingertips. Textbooks, reading and other learning materials are also conveniently online. Similarly, online tutoring is available if you just can’t crack that mathematical theory or need help polishing an essay.

Online learning also suits a wide range of learning styles. Maybe you get overwhelmed in a packed in-person class and prefer studying solo, or you would rather listen to audio of a class instead of watching the teacher slowly pace the room. Online learning is malleable, and your instructor may be helpful in accommodating your personal way of learning.


Drawbacks of online learning

Still, it’s wise to consider some possible drawbacks to online learning. One of the biggest is technological issues. Because all learning happens on a computer, tablet or other electronic device, technical problems may arise from time to time that prevent you from attending classes. Be sure to access your course’s virtual classroom well ahead of any deadlines and learn how to navigate it so you can contact the university if you have trouble retrieving class documents or can’t view lecture videos.

Another potential stumbling block for remote learners is getting used to the active nature of online classes. Students used to the trappings of a traditional education will have to adapt to a different learning environment. For example, because students are not in the same classroom taking notes and sharing them with those who missed something or weren’t in class at all, paying attention to online lectures and staying focused is even more important.

Remote learning also requires an intentional effort to manage your time and projects effectively. Studying from home may mean doing so amid the usual distractions of home life, depending on your personal situation. You may have family members who need your attention, or even loud neighbors. Most anything can be managed, but it is important to consider ways that you can find quiet time with limited interruptions when you want to focus on your learning.


How to succeed in online classes

Independently minded, curious and disciplined students are perhaps best prepared to succeed in online learning. Because online classes don’t have the same rigid reinforcement and reminders that in-person classes provide, it is important to be invested in your courses and to put class schedules and studying time in your digital calendar or day planner so you don’t forget. The good news is that all these skills can be learned and honed over time.


Stay self-motivated

Self-motivation is at the center of a successful and fulfilling online learning experience, and self-discipline can keep coursework manageable. Using a digital calendar, project management tool or even an old-school day planner can help you stay on track. Whether it’s on paper, your computer or in the cloud, writing down and tracking important dates such as due dates for assignments and tests can keep you prepared even if life throws a curveball.

Create a weekly schedule with blocks of time set aside for studying. For students with families, it can be a good idea to designate the post-bedtime evening hours as study time. (It’s easier to review notes and the week’s assignments or prepare for exams when it’s quieter.)

One tip to avoid procrastinating is to write a to-do list that is broken down into achievable pieces you can tackle one at a time. Some research suggests that starting with the hardest tasks first and then using that momentum to handle the easier stuff is a great way to get work done.


Use available resources

Be sure to seek out resources and assistance that your university offers, such as tutoring, academic counseling and life coaching. Instructors will often offer (virtual) office hours to help students work through questions they might have. Message boards are also commonly used by faculty to give students a space to interact, ask questions and get help from each other. Being self-motivated means being empowered to ask for help when you need it.


Create a distraction-free study space

Staying focused amid everyday life can be challenging, especially if multiple people are in the same living space. Making sure there’s a space dedicated solely to your education is an important step toward succeeding at online learning.

One way to make sure you have the time and space to study is to create it. Just like healthy sleep, organization is crucial to keeping you alert and operating at full brainpower. Try creating a space free of distractions so you are better able to complete coursework and retain what you’re learning. Additional tips include:

  1. Keep your study area clean and free of clutter to improve focus.
  2. Keep a water bottle and snack handy so you don’t need to interrupt your studies.
  3. Make your study space pleasant to be in so you can focus on learning. You can bring in items like candles, framed photographs, warm, soft lighting and a comfortable chair.
  4. Take breaks. Your mind and body need occasional rest to function at their highest level. Get up every so often to stretch, meditate or accomplish other tasks on your to-do list. Cramming, on the other hand, is not a good strategy to retain information. Making time to take walks or practice periodic breathing exercises can help your brain digest your learning. It can be taxing on your eyes to look at screens all day, so take routine breaks from the computer too.


3 time management tips for college students

Perhaps even more so than with a traditional education, remote learning requires good time-management skills. It can be daunting to add online courses to your schedule, but managing your time is an essential skill for being productive and making the most of your online education. Time management isn’t too difficult, as long as you stick to a few core strategies.

1. Tackle tasks one by one

Multitasking is not an efficient way to learn. It has been said there’s no such thing as "multitasking" at all, only doing one thing at a time and doing it fast and poorly. This is because the brain cannot truly focus quality attention on multiple things at the same time. Your productivity will deteriorate. Identify the steps you need to accomplish each task and address them one at a time.

2. Manage stress

Online learning can be hard to appreciate when you’re dealing with other life stressors. Be sure to minimize the effect of stress, whether from school or life, by getting a good night’s sleep, eating well and exercising regularly.

3. Reward yourself

What you’re doing isn’t easy! If you feel tempted to avoid a long night of studying or wrapping up a project over the weekend, give yourself a "treat" for sticking to your goals. Setting up rewards for yourself, such as watching one short episode of a favorite Netflix show or indulging in a favorite food, can help motivate you to stay the course and get your work done.

How to study for online classes

Make a study plan

What are the most important takeaways from classes? What concepts have the teacher emphasized? Creating a study plan that focuses on the main themes of the course can be a great way to study efficiently. And planning in advance can prevent late-night cramming. Many resources are online for finding a study plan that works for you.

Take notes

Taking notes is important for improving comprehension and retention. Notes can also help with understanding what you need to focus on during independent studying. And you can refer to them if you need to talk to your teacher during office hours. The good news about online learning, too, is that most classes are available 24/7, so you can rewatch classes as needed.

Seek out online guides

There’s a wealth of resources provided by your university and available online. Supplementing your education with online interviews, discussions and lectures can give you a more comprehensive understanding of a subject. Look for resource collections that can assist with everything from how to write well to how to be more productive.

Talk to your classmates

Because online classes are more accessible, they usually attract people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, ages and locations. That’s why classmates can be a phenomenal resource for talking through confusing ideas, reinforcing concepts and feeling confident about your progress. You may share similar questions about the class or a concept and can brainstorm or research answers together. Even better, those classmates may become lifelong friends along the way.

Just as at a traditional school, your success with online learning is up to you. But when armed with the right preparation, you may find online classes offer more advantages and fewer challenges than you’d expect.

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