5 Ways to Find Academic Help in an Online Course

If you’re stumped in your online class, consider turning to your peers for help first.


Consider turning to free video resources, like Khan Academy, if you’re struggling with content in an online class.

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It's never fun to feel stumped in class. But for online students, the experience can be particularly painful.

Unlike their on-campus counterparts, students in online programs can't ask their college roommate a question, or schedule an impromptu study session in the library or student lounge. Determining who to reach out to can be a tricky process, even when peers and instructors are an email or phone call away.

Jamie Boggs was stumped just a few weeks into a math course in her online bachelor's degree program at Arizona State University.

The 35-year-old mother and wife first tried the venue for her course: the Internet.

"I Googled everything possible in math," says Boggs, who later turned to a tutor for help. "The embarrassing thing is I would find these sites where a middle school teacher had posted step-by-step instructions to a problem I was having."

To avoid falling behind in class, experts suggest students try the following five ways to find help as soon as they encounter a problem.

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1. Read your syllabus carefully: Online instructors have different preferences when it comes to where students should seek help. Some professors prefer students contact each other first, while others recommend students contact them personally. Fortunately, many instructors spell out the classroom protocol in their syllabus.

"Usually the faculty member at the beginning of the course will set the ground rules for which sources the students should contact depending on their questions," says Joel Hartman, president of Sloan Consortium, a group dedicated to advancing the quality of online learning.

2. Contact your peers: When it's 11 p.m. and you are stuck on a problem, it's unlikely your instructor or tutor will be online. But it's a different story with your peers.

"If you have some confusion, one of your best resources are the other students in class," says Jennifer Phillips, a student who has taken several online courses while pursuing a doctorate in education studies at University at Albany—SUNY. "You can post a question on a discussion board and likely get a quick response."

3. Enlist a tutor's help: Many online education programs provide free tutoring for their students, either through their own employees or through services such as Smarthinking or Tutor.com. Unfortunately, those services aren't always offered 24/7.

For tutoring at all hours, students can pay for a tutor. InstaEDU pairs both online and traditional students with student tutors from some of the best universities around the country.

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"It was a pretty rapid response," says Renee Fuller, a senior in the online MBA program at Ohio University, who used InstaEDU's tutors when she was struggling through her accounting class.

4. Reach out to your instructor: It's perfectly acceptable to reach out to a course instructor, but it's best to only do so under certain circumstances. In other words, before you contact the instructor, make sure your question isn't answered on the syllabus or in a discussion board.

"Try not to overburden the instructor with questions for which there are simple answers," says Peter Shea, an associate professor at University at Albany—SUNY.

That advice also applies to basic homework questions.

"If you are doing homework problem seven, that would be a question suitable for a helper or a teaching assistant," says the Sloan Consortium's Hartman, who also serves as vice provost and chief information officer at the University of Central Florida. "The more philosophical the question, the more likely you would want to contact the lead faculty member."

5. Turn to outside resources: If you're struggling with class content and a classmate, tutor or professor isn't available, it's often helpful to turn to online resources.

The Khan Academy and YouTube can be great resources for students struggling with math or science, Shea says. And the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University provides open, free resources for all students who are having problems with their writing.