Online learning has become an increasingly popular component of higher education, and it’s easy to see why. With the ease of “getting to class,” the lower overall costs, and the flexibility offered to those who work and care for families, distance education has a lot going for it.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of "fall 2020, some 75 percent (11.8 million) of all undergraduate students were enrolled in at least one distance education course, and 44 percent (7 million) of all undergraduate students exclusively took distance education courses." Especially in this post-pandemic world, it seems virtual education is here to stay.

With the increasing prevalence of distance learning and its likely ubiquity going into the future, it’s only natural that students will have lots of questions. Let’s look at some of the most common, as well as provide 15 tips for succeeding in online school.

How Do Online College Classes Work?

First, an overview of online classes and what to expect. After all, knowing what you’re getting into is integral to understanding how to be successful in online classes.

So, how do online college classes work? It’s relatively straightforward: you complete all the same coursework, assignments, and exams through an internet connection rather than in person. Students simply log into an online portal rather than walking or driving to campus to sit in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

Once students log in, they can watch live lectures or prerecorded video segments from their instructors, download and read assigned materials, participate in group discussions, and even send direct messages and questions to classmates and the professor. Students can submit assignments and papers, take quizzes, post short videos, and so forth, all through their online class portal.

Are Online Classes Harder?

The simple answer is: no. Since all the same things happen online as they do in an in-person classroom, most students don’t even have to make much of an adjustment to their previous conceptions of school.

There are just a couple of caveats to the ease with which some students can adjust to an online learning environment. If you lack technological fluency, it might be challenging to utilize the computer and software necessary to access course materials. Make sure you have a good device and internet connection, practice logging into the portal before classes start at the beginning of term and know whom to call on campus if you get stuck.

If you generally struggle with time management, that can also be a problem when taking online classes. In an in-person environment, regularly seeing peers and your professor face-to-face can help keep you on track with turning in assignments. Your instructor might helpfully remind everyone of the upcoming pop quiz, or your classmates might discuss the assignment that’s coming up due. Fewer reminders and, to a certain extent, the enforced structure of an online classroom means it’s entirely up to you to stay on top of your coursework and turn in assignments on time.

For those who find things like technology and time management more difficult than others, you should consider online classes as an opportunity to hone those skills. Improving your technical aptitude and time management will serve you well no matter where your career might take you, so embrace the challenge. And if you need technology assistance or tutoring, those resources are always available to you.

What Are the Advantages of Online Classes?

There are quite a few advantages to online learning, including:

  • Less time commuting, which you can spend on studying or taking extra classes
  • Quicker feedback from professors and assistants
  • The ability to “meet” with your classmates from anywhere
  • Plenty of online resources in your online portal
  • Reduced overall cost of online classes
  • The ability to work on much of your assignments from anywhere, at any time
  • No need to live near your campus

How to Be Successful in Online Classes

Understanding how to be successful in online classes is key to getting your degree in a reasonable time frame and moving on to a rewarding career. That’s where our tips for online classes come in.

1. Find/Create a Productive Learning Environment

On the upside, you get to work from wherever you want… but lots of “wherevers” are pretty distracting. If you want to succeed at online learning, you need to manage your environment. Choose somewhere you can work for uninterrupted stretches, distraction-free, with access to internet, food, a bathroom, and materials.

2. Find Ways to Stay Motivated

Even though some aspects are easier, online college classes can prove just as draining as their in-person counterparts. Remember your “why” when you’re in a slump. What are you getting out of this program, and why is it worthwhile? Write it down and stick it on your mirror as a daily reminder to help keep you motivated.

3. Keep a Positive Mindset

Positivity is key, but sometimes it’s hard to maintain. Consider creating a mantra to get you through the tough times, such as “I have enough, I do enough, I am enough” or “I got this.”

4. Don’t Skip/Miss Classes

A temptation of online learning is to assume that no one is watching, but that’s often not the case. Even when it is, just a few missed classes can prove hard to come back from, so try to avoid it wherever possible. Even when you just really, really don’t want to—go anyway.

5. Stay Connected and Speak With Your Instructor

Your instructors want to help, so make sure to stay in touch with them. If they know you’re dedicated, they’re more likely to help you when you can’t avoid missing class or need an extension.

6. Set Goals for Yourself

Goal setting is a big part of getting organized. Set daily, weekly, monthly, and term goals to guide you toward the finish line.

7. Limit Your Time on Social Media

Social media is another temptation when taking online classes since it’s right there in your web browser. However, social posts can make you feel bad in addition to distracting you. If you need to, use an app that manages your internet options and locks you out of social media apps until certain times of the day.

8. Develop Strong Time Management Skills

This is a learned skill, so you’ll get better at it over time. If time management isn’t a strong suit, then be very intentional. Sit down and look at your calendar, then block out every part of your day (including non-school activities) and assign half-hour increments to each.

9. Connect With Other Peers in the Class

Other students are a huge resource, so get in touch with them. They can help you understand the material, and it’s always good to have friends.

10. Stay Active

Physical activity is one of the best stress management techniques around. Whether you play a sport, hit the gym, or focus on getting your steps in, don’t let that lapse because you’re in school.

11. Be Sure to Have the Necessary Technology

Don’t have everything you need? Do what you need to do to obtain a computer, mouse, internet router, or whatever it may be before school begins. If you’re unsure of everything your online course will require, your school should have a list of basic technology requirements available.

12. Do Your Best to Avoid Multitasking

Multitasking simply doesn't work. You’re just rapidly switching your attention from one task to another, which uses extra energy, disrupts your focus, and increases the likelihood of error. This is not only a poor use of your time and mental resources, but you’re also likely to be caught not paying attention.

13. Be Productive When Working in Teams

We get it: not everyone loves working in teams, especially those of us with social anxiety or who are generally more introverted. But it’s extremely likely your career will require you to work well with others, and it’s a trait many employers actively seek out. When such an assignment comes up, be sure to communicate well, pull your weight, and don’t procrastinate.

14. Learn How to Problem-Solve on Your Own

When you learn remotely, you have more agency. However, you also have to do more for yourself. That includes gathering materials, understanding technical requirements, and reaching out to others. Decide upfront to be proactive and problem-solve on your own.

15. Set a Schedule for Completing and Reviewing Assignments

It’s easy to fall behind if you don’t schedule your tasks ahead of time. See the sections on goal setting and time management for ideas on how to create a schedule. If you can, leave yourself an extra day to read through assignments before you submit them.

Learn More, Today

Ready to learn more about online school and opportunities for your future? Reach out to U of M Online to ask questions or get information about specific programs today!