Top Ten Success Strategies for Online Students

There’s a reason that this is called Adjunctmom’s blog. It’s because I teach as an adjunct, and I happen to teach online. I have been doing this for a while and I’ve determined that while students who fail do it in unique and different ways, students who succeed all seem to make use of the same strategies.

1. Read the syllabus. This seems like a no brainer, but the syllabus gives you lots of useful information and lets you know, at a minimum, your instructor’s name and how you might contact your instructor in case of an emergency.

2. Read assignments carefully. I cannot tell you how many students lose points because they don’t follow assignment instructions. And by this, I mean the assignment asks for a paraphrase and you provide a quote. The assignment asks you to show your work and you just give the answer. The students who excel in online classes make sure they understand the assignments.

3. Know how to use your programs. If your assignments need to be written in Microsoft Word, look at the program you’re using and make sure that it is Microsoft Word. Most computers come now with a 30 day trial of the program on it, but that means when the 30 days are up, you don’t have Word. Plan ahead. Ask if the college has a program that allows you to buy programs at a discount. Many do.

4. Ask questions. This is not a face-to-face environment. Your instructor cannot look at your face and determine whether you’re understanding the material or not. But when you ask questions, ask questions that allow for a response. “I don’t understand. Can you help me?” Isn’t going to solicit more of a response than “Yes, what seems to be the problem.” This wastes valuable time. Far better to start with a good question: “I don’t understand how you went from step b to c in this problem, can you explain to me how you knew to do that?” “I’m not sure how to cite X source; this is the information that I have, can you help me figure out what kind of source it is?” The key to getting timely help is to ask good questions. The more times your instructor has to come back to you for more information, the less time you have to implement the information that you receive.

5. Read and apply your feedback. Instructors in online courses typically give you a lot of feedback on your work. You want to make sure that you read every last word and ask questions about anything in the feedback that you don’t understand. But more than reading it, make sure you apply it. If your instructor says you need to use specific examples in your discussion posts, then use specific examples. Even if you think that you’re doing enough, it’s clear that your instructor wants more, so give it.

6. Use a good note-taking system. I’m a fan of Evernote because it’s easy to use and it works well. You can organize your clippings in notebooks for each assignment or each course. It simplifies a lot of things for you. There are other clipping systems and I’m sure they’re fine, but Evernote really takes the cake in terms of giving you access to your stuff. You can have it on your computer, but also synced up on their website, so if your computer dies, you still have access to your research. Heck, you can store a draft in your notes and you won’t lose it even if your computer explodes, melts down, or otherwise bites the dust.

7. Plan your time. Typically, online courses are accelerated, and you should know that going in. It doesn’t mean that you’re doing less work; it means you’re doing the same amount of work in less time. Look at each course, figure out what’s due each day of the seminar and figure out how you plan to get it all done. Then figure out what you’re going to do if that first plan doesn’t work. You can’t control life events, but you can control how you plan for eventualities. If you choose not to execute your plan, don’t make excuses. Own up and take whatever penalties come.

8. Know your school schedule. Many schools do not make allowances for non-emergency situations, so don’t expect instructors to be sympathetic about vacations or family plans. You have to fit school in around those. School does not stop because you want to go on vacation. If you know you’re going on vacation during a critical time of a course (last week of the course, for example), or if you know you’re going on a long dreamed of lengthy trip, consider whether it might be better to take a term off rather than have issues or problems with your schooling vs. the trip. Also, when traveling know where you can find wifi access. Find hotels with WiFi access. This will vastly simplify your life and make it much more pleasant.

9. Instructors are human beings. Good students take this into account and do not wait until ten minutes before an assignment is due (usually at midnight; though I’ve worked for schools where the due time was 2a ET, before) to ask a crucial question and expect to get an answer. Most schools require a 24 hour turn around on emails received. This means that your instructor is not obligated to answer you until ten minutes before midnight the day after the assignment is due. This is related to planning your time. Read assignments over early, ask questions early, so you get answers in plenty of time to use the information.

10. It’s not personal. It’s a rare situation where an instructor decides they dislike a student AND acts on that dislike. I’ve been teaching for nearly 20 years, and I can’t recall ever encountering that. However, I also need every hand in my house, plus a few to count the number of times a student has argued that I “gave” him/her a grade because I didn’t like him/her. Understand this, if nothing else, we don’t know you. We don’t usually have long enough in a term to decide if we like you or if we don’t. Grades are based on criteria of some kind. If you don’t know what that criteria is, you can always ask for that information. Before you decide that your instructor is being unfair or grading you unfairly, ask yourself how well you are meeting the stated expectations and the criteria by which you are being evaluated. And then, ask the instructor to go over, again, how and why you are not meeting that criteria.

While these suggestions are for online students, they work for all students. Number ten also works really well for parents. Whenever I hear a parent storming the school because of an injustice done to their child by the teacher, I always wonder what the other side of the story is. Even in face-to-face school, it’s rarely personal.

So, that’s my top ten for the week, head on over to Amanda’s blog to check out some of the other top tens.

8 thoughts on “Top Ten Success Strategies for Online Students

  1. Great advice! I took 9 online courses in 2004 through RODP. Worked on them every day of the week except Saturday, which was my day to spend with my grandson. My advisor told me that when she has students who are having difficulty with the traditional class and want to switch to an online class, she discourages them. She said if a student can’t pass a course by attending class every day, then he or she will never pass an online class. They are tough but so worth it!

    • I think they are both tough and worth it. What online does is open up the option for education to people who would otherwise be unable to obtain one.

      Those populations include mothers with young children, people with no colleges near by, and people with active families and full time jobs.

      Classes are tough to take and tough to teach, but they are worth it.

  2. thanks for the tips, I’m going to pass them onto my husband who is starting a degree program online. read assignment carefully, if I had a quarter for every time I had to remind my high school students that I would be rich, students in a classroom setting always failed to follow directions and read!

    • It’s a problem that doesn’t stop when they hit college. But their arguments get more “interesting.”

      I think online degrees are a fantastic opportunity and I wish your husband much success in his pursuit of his.

    • Oh, you really should. Education is wonderful and online education is sometimes an easier way to get access to the classes. The classes themselves are not easier (see #7), but they’re so worth the time you’ll have to invest.

  3. What great and timely tips for me! I’m just beginning my college career, easing into it, one class last semester, and now taking three online courses…so far so good! I fall into the ‘very busy active family’ and college is 40 minutes away ;0)…I love not having to travel but just a couple times a month for testing!

    Thanks for posting!

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