5 Tips to Succeed in an Online Course

Online students should plan ahead and connect with instructors early.

Students in online courses need to establish a workspace free of distractions.
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When Lionel Finley started an online master's degree program in counseling at Wake Forest University in August, the 20-year Army veteran admits that he was unprepared.

"In other online programs, I could maybe check in once or twice a week and still get a decent grade," says Finley, who took seven online courses previously while earning a bachelor's and master's degree. "For this, I actually had to set up dedicated times for when I had to log in just to check that there weren't things posted overnight. I had to change my whole thought process of how to attack these courses."

[Discover time management tips for online classes.]

Finley says that students should not have a carefree attitude when taking an online course, because some may prove to be more difficult than traditional classes. "In my opinion, I think online courses are actually a little harder," he adds. For students who are considering online courses over in-class instruction, here are five tips for success.

1. Confirm technical requirements: Online classes can benefit students with busy schedules, but only if they can access the materials.

"You're going to need to understand what the technical requirements are," advises Andrew Wolf, coordinator of online learning at the University of Rochester School of Nursing. "Make sure before the course starts that your computer will work with [all the online tools], and that you know how to navigate them so that you don't have to spend time during the course trying to figure out the technology."

[Explore four technology must haves for online students.]

2. Connect with instructors early: After taking online courses in the past, Finley says he assumed his previous experiences would dictate future successes at Wake Forest.

"I know initially for me, I didn't contact my instructor because I felt like [the course] was going to be really easy for me," he acknowledges. But after multiple writing assignments were returned to him to revise, he says that he quickly changed his approach to the course and reached out for help.

"Once I started coordinating with [my instructor], I realized I needed to change my writing style," Finley says. "You have to really stay in contact; it's extremely important."

While instructors are available to help throughout the courses, Finley advises students to also find answers to class questions independently, if possible. "Help is available but it's not going to be available at the snap of a finger," he says. "You can't just think you're going to be able to reach right out with a problem. You have to be willing to go out and find things on your own."

[Consider six questions to ask an online instructor.]

3. Create a schedule: Quality online instructors will create courses that are easy to navigate and have clear expectations, notes Wolf. "Really good professors will help you put the framework in place," he says. "If you don't have that type of framework in place, you'll have to do it yourself."

When Finley began his online course, he says he needed to dedicate two-to-three hour time blocks to log in and complete assignments. "I had to change around my entire schedule to complement my course," he adds. "I'm using Microsoft Outlook more than ever to set up when projects are due and to stay on track with the assignments. You have to dedicate time to this."

4. Stay organized: Students enrolled in traditional courses usually have a consistent schedule to follow each week, with in-class instruction followed by out-of-class assignments. For online courses, students may have to find their own ways to stay on top of their work, notes Karen Stevens, chief undergraduate adviser of the University of Massachusetts—Amherst's University Without Walls program.

"Students really, really need to be organized from the beginning to be successful in an online course," Stevens wrote in an E-mail. "All assignment due dates should be in their calendar, online or paper folders should be created for each week, [and] the work area should be not only quiet but clean—keeping all coursework materials together."