Earlier this week I received the last email from my online personal finance instructor, a message announcing the final tally of our class grades: 18 A's, 6 B's, 4 C's and 5 F's.
I kind of wish she hadn't sent it. It's a little hard to pat yourself on the back for your B after realizing that 55 percent of your classmates showed you up.
Looking back at the class, I think the content portion was more or less worthwhile. I won't be talking finance with my investment banker friends any time soon, but I can now carry on an intelligent conversation about taxes, life insurance and buying a house – an impressive feat for this liberal arts major.
The online course had its drawbacks, though, especially for a first-time online learner. I'd certainly take another online class, but if I did, I'd take the following steps.
• Be more organized: I've been told in interview after interview that online learning requires discipline and time management skills, but it took participating in an online class and actually missing a deadline to fully believe it was true.
In an on-campus situation, you often interact with instructors and classmates who discuss when work is due. In a virtual classroom, you are your own last line of defense. Now I understand I should have marked my calendar with deadlines from day one, and logged in to class every other day as opposed to every other week.
[Discover these time management tips for online students.]
• Seek out a course with various approaches to learning: According to the Illinois Online Network, I'm an auditory learner – someone who prefers to hear information rather than read it or see it presented visually. In retrospect, my learning style probably wasn't a good match for my class, which presented content mostly through reading.
If I do this again, I'll look for a class format that better fits my learning style, likely one that includes podcasts, video lectures and some kind of narrated visual presentation.
• Find ways to engage: One of the hardest parts of online learning in my experience was the lack of face-to-face interaction with my instructor and classmates. There is something about engaging with classmates and instructors that keeps me motivated and helps me feel invested in a course.
I imagine I'm not the only student who feels this way. Several studies have shown that students tend to do better in blended courses – class that are both online and face-to-face – than in classes that are fully online.
I would have liked it if my class has used tools like Skype to allow us to see each other's faces, but I realize there were other ways to establish connections. My classmates and professor were very responsive when I did reach out to them via email or discussion board, so in fairness, I could also have made a better effort to relate.
My instructor included a line at the end of her email that sums up my online experience well: "There is a common theme with online learning and that is higher grades are earned by those who do not procrastinate, who keep in touch with instructors, who interact with other students by asking questions, and who never miss deadlines."
Completing this course made me realize that being a great online student takes practice. I've stored the lessons in my head, right next to my 10-year financial plan. Next time I'm getting that A.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.