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"Degrees & Programs"

How do online college classes work? 8 ways to be successful

By Brian Fairbanks
July 21, 2021 • 8 minute read

At a glance

  • Online college classes are not always a “grown-up” version of the distance learning kids experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. You might assume that an online class is just a virtual experience of the familiar lecture hall, but online college classes have a different structure than traditional, in-person classes.
  • Going to school online is all about how education can most easily fit into a student’s life, including money-saving features like digital textbooks and greater scheduling flexibility.
  • Online college is often optimized to make the most of technology, time and tools that are best suited for the virtual environment and people with busy lives.
  • University of Phoenix understands life sometimes gets in the way of school and has a variety of tools and resources to ensure students remain on track toward graduation.

How online college classes work

Online learning can come in the form of an asynchronous learning experience, not a synchronous one. Asynchronous means that students are not typically required to attend a lecture or training at a specific time and date. Instead, you’ll likely receive a notification that new classes and course materials are ready for your perusal. Assignments may not be “due” or need to be viewed for perhaps several days.

Just as they are for in-person classes, instructors and classmates are available to help or to build up a network of people in your field. The only difference is, the interaction is through chat boxes or other platforms. You have the power to choose whether you communicate with them at the same time or on a cadence that fits your schedule.

Another feature of many online universities is a lifestyle-friendly pace. Several online universities, for example, offer one-at-a-time course options for students working toward a certificate or bachelor’s degree. This can make it that much easier to balance school, work and family.

Online learning vs. traditional learning

Woman taking online college classes at home

An education through an online university is often more flexible, more accessible (with 24/7 availability from almost anywhere with an internet connection) and more cost-effective, as Educations.com suggests. “Online education is a sensible choice whether you’re a teenager or an adult. As a student, this can be a useful learning method for sharpening your skills in a difficult subject or learning a new skill.”

Booker added, “The primary advantage online courses have over face-to-face classes is the convenience factor. This is tied to the ability for students to attend a course on a more flexible basis around their own schedule and from almost any location.”

Online college classes allow time-starved working adult students to pursue a degree when they would otherwise be limited by distance.

You may want to consider an online university if you’re worried you can’t juggle the demands of traditional education. Traditional classes may necessitate attending multiple in-person classes per week starting and ending at different times. However, online schools may offer one at a time or flexible course options.

What to expect from online college classes

Students can access most online college classes with a strong Wi-Fi connection on a computer or tablet. (If you only have a smartphone, you will probably want something larger and with a keyboard to complete tasks related to your school coursework.) A webcam — or connected device with a camera — may also be essential for the class.

Online classes at the University of Phoenix, for instance, are led by experienced faculty and offer opportunities to collaborate with your classmates. Students also have access to a large variety of resources. These include career advisors, for as long as they remain students. If they graduate from University of Phoenix, career services are available for life.

At University of Phoenix (UOPX), students also benefit from a host of tools.

“Students have access to the University’s Learning Management System (LMS),” said University of Phoenix Vice Provost Marc Booker. “This allows students and faculty to share messages on that platform either privately or publicly. They may also access course materials and share learning experiences on a schedule that is convenient. They can also engage on a real-time basis using the LMS through a service called Blackboard Collaborate™. This tool allows students and faculty to chat and collaborate in real-time using videoconferencing.

“Faculty and students need to coordinate timing for real-time interactions because of the asynchronous nature of classes, assignments and due dates. However, they both have the ability to do this with tools natively built into our learning platform. This gives students the best of both worlds,” Booker said.

Worried you might not pass a class? You have more options than you think

Man worried he may not pass an online college class

While no one sets out to fail an exam, a course or a program, it’s a reality that befalls enough students that universities routinely implement preventive and remedial measures. At University of Phoenix (UOPX), these measures reflect the school’s understanding of the many ways life can sometimes get in the way.

Dan Barker, MBA, is the director of Student Services at UOPX and has seen students not only survive but thrive after struggling. When it comes to the reason behind the struggle, he has learned that rarely is it connected to aptitude. More often it’s an issue of time management (balancing work and family) or a personal crisis (like losing a job).

“The student’s academic ability is usually not the reason they struggle,” Barker says. “It’s what life throws at them.”

Prevention is the best medicine

Melissa Reyes, MSP, agrees. As a UOPX academic counselor, Reyes routinely works with students from all backgrounds who have a variety of goals and challenges. Fourteen years of this work has taught her the value of approaching every student and situation from a place of empathy.

“A student might feel ashamed or guilty, so creating that safe space is huge because then you can build that trust so that they share what’s really going on. Sometimes the most challenging piece is getting to that point,” Reyes explains.

To create that relationship, every student at UOPX is assigned an academic counselor as soon as he or she begins a program. Academic counselors reach out via automated and personalized messages at the outset, while an algorithm that evaluates academic activity and performance for every student lets both faculty and academic counselors know where to focus their efforts.

In a perfect world, Reyes says, students would reach out to academic counselors as soon as anything changes. That might be a grade, a change at home or just a shift in one’s attitude or motivation. The earlier she and other counselors can intervene, the more successful everyone is.

8 tips for turning around bad grades

So, what resources are available? The short answer is “a lot.” The longer answer is “it depends on your situation.”

Here’s a breakdown of 8 ways students can course-correct their GPA:

  • You came, you tried, you’re out:

There’s an elegance to knowing when to bow out early. If you’re already partway through a class, but you know you won’t be able to earn the grade you want, you can elect to withdraw. Just know that there is a time limit: If you take a 5-week course, you lose this option after four weeks of attendance. If you elect to withdraw, you will forfeit the time and money you’ve invested, but a withdraw, or “W,” won’t impact your GPA. However, if you are a student receiving federal financial aid funds, a “W” can affect your Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), which can limit or impact your eligibility for federal student aid.

  • If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again:

If your grade isn’t quite up to snuff, you can retake the class and have the new grade replace the first. It is important to know that if you are a federal financial aid student, new grades cannot replace the first grade for SAP purposes. Your cumulative GPA will be used to determine your continued eligibility for federal student aid. Additionally, if you pass your course but want to retake it for a higher grade, you cannot use federal financial aid to cover the cost.

  • Can’t stop, won’t stop:

If one class doesn’t go the way you’d hoped, you don’t have to let it slow you down. The academic reprieve policy at UOPX allows undergraduate students to choose up to two courses to be removed from their GPA calculations, as long as those courses are not required program courses. (Master’s students can choose one. Doctoral and certificate students cannot take this option.) However, the academic reprieve policy at UOPX is not considered when determining a student’s cumulative GPA for financial aid SAP

  • You’ve found the straight and narrow:

If your GPA falls below the minimum requirement for your program, you can be placed on academic probation. During this time, you can take four classes to bring your GPA back up. If that doesn’t work, you have to sit out for six months before returning to school, where you’ll remain on probation. For students who use that break to turn things around, they can appeal to return after three months.

  • You need a little more time:

An “incomplete” is awarded at the instructor’s discretion, but it can be a good way for students to get a little more time to wrap up a class. The drawback? Students have to take a 20% deduction for every assignment completed during the incomplete period.

  • You need a lot more time:

You can take a leave of absence (LOA), which is a temporary break. If you are receiving federal financial aid, this option allows you to defer those funds but not lose them. (You may even be approved for multiple LOAs so as not to exceed the maximum allowable days per 12-month period.)

  • You need to attend to your health:

This is not the same thing as a sick day. It is for serious health emergencies. From surgery to illness requiring hospitalization, a student’s own (not family) health concerns can warrant an extension of class under Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations. This may also be retroactively applied in limited situations, so if you didn’t think to notify your academic counselor or teacher ahead of hospitalization, you can work with a disability services advisor and make a plan from there.

  • You waited. You failed. Now what?

If a program has a minimum grade course and you don’t pass, you might receive a scholastic disqualification. “It’s not as scary as it sounds,” Reyes assures. As long as students are cooperative and committed, they can work with a supplemental standards administrator to develop a plan to move forward.

What do online college classes look like at the University of Phoenix?

Students at University of Phoenix receive course materials. This consists of videos, assignments, readings, discussion prompts and interactive learning activities per 5- or 6-week course. Each course comes with access to the online library, digital textbooks, and social/student communities and study groups. They can also receive any optional tech support and troubleshooting help along the way.

Potential students often ask if UOPX and other online schools have specific start dates and class times. Although each school might have different models, there is a simple answer. Courses may have a specific start and end date, but are more flexible. Students can access multiple start dates throughout the year, not just at the start of a traditional semester. Moreover, students have flexibility in these courses when they engage and interact with learning content.

In the virtual classroom, students can check out past or current course materials at any time, day or night, year-round. They can also submit files for instructor review at any time during the course session. They may get feedback from their instructors more quickly and efficiently than with traditional educational formats.

Are you thinking about going back to school but need a little more flexibility than traditional classrooms offer? Consider going back for your degree through the University of Phoenix . Check out the available programs today!

Committed to student success

At the end of the day, the goals of students and schools aren’t that different. “Our main goal is to help students be successful in their programs, earn their degrees and be career-ready,” Barker says.

To that end, resources are available for when things don’t go as planned. But there are also resources to help avoid problems in the first place. “It’s common for students to be surprised by how many we have,” says Barker. He points to examples like math resources, writing resources and UOPX’s Life Resource Center, which offers counseling and life coaching, among other things.

After all, life’s challenges shouldn’t stop you from pursuing life’s rewards. The more stakeholders you have in your corner, the better your chances of success.