Okay, so you’ve decided to take courses online. How do you ensure you succeed in your studies?
By Wendy Gordon-Hewick
This is the second in a two-part series. In the previous issue of the PDC Post, Wendy provided tips for determining whether online learning is right for you.
If you’ve considered the pros and cons of online learning and have decided to enroll in an online course, here are some tips for success. These suggestions are designed for credit-based online courses in higher education, but many are transferrable to non-credit learning environments.
As mentioned in the previous issue of the PDC Post, I teach online courses. I start off every course with this announcement for participants to consider:
Want to help ensure success in this course? Here are some suggestions, in no particular order
- Meet with an academic advisor — online, by phone, or in person
- Re-read the orientation
- Print all course materials and organize them in a binder
- Use the writing lab/tutoring services
- Use the online resources available in the Course Info tab
- Print the course schedule & use an agenda/calendar/wipe-board/your phone to plan accordingly
- Ensure sufficient time to commit to the course (at least 6-10 hours a week; 9-12 hours a week if you are new to college and/or online learning)
- Ensure reliable Internet access
- Email Blackboard and cc me with technical issues
- Call/text/email me with course material/assignments, etc. you aren’t sure about
- Complete all extra-credit opportunities
Despite this announcement, every semester there are a few students who withdraw or fail. Why? Usually because they overestimate their abilities (e.g., subconsciously think they are “Superman/woman”). I had one recent student contact me less than a week before the course was over with concerns he might be failing. During the conversation, I learned he not only had a full-time job and a part-time job, but was taking my online class, another online class, and a classroom-based course at the same time. And this was during a six-week summer session, where courses move at more than twice the pace they do during a regular semester!
Below are some success tips in more detail:
- Use a time-management system. Perhaps most importantly, ensure you have sufficient time to dedicate to the course. Consider how you plan to manage the time you have for reading and required course tasks. If you don’t have a working time-management system, experiment with a few before the course begins to see what format works best for you. Some people do great with a paper calendar or wipe board. Others prefer electronic options such as Google Calendar or various calendar apps. For many, some combination of a long-term calendar (e.g., a system that allows you to see all due dates) and daily to-do list (there is great satisfaction in checking things off!) is very effective.
- Learning is better spread out over many chunks of time than crammed all at once, so pace yourself. Self-care and good sleep habits help learning and recall. Consider a posting a Do Not Disturb sign if you need to work at home with family members or roommates nearby.
- Be organized. Attention to detail is very important in an online course. Amazingly, the student I described earlier would have passed (by a few points) if he had followed directions in the short essay assignments, especially the last one. (Alas, he did not pass the course, and then complained to the dean! Not to worry, she backed me up.)
- Ask questions if you are not sure of expectations; even see if the instructor might be willing to look at a draft and provide feedback before you submit a final paper, discussion board, etc. If the instructor makes course announcements, read them regularly. (Doing this every day ensures you don’t miss anything.) Check your email every day in case the instructor is sending information that is not included in an announcement. Print important documents such as the syllabus, course schedule, and instructor contact information and store in a folder. (This is especially important in case of computer, Internet, or power issues.) Check your grades and feedback as soon as posted, and touch base with your instructor right away if something doesn’t look right in grading (instructors are human and occasionally we make mistakes). Also, you should get in touch quickly if you need clarification about feedback, or you are concerned about your progress.
- Create community. If you know you will miss in-person interactions, connect with your peers beyond what is required for the course. Email them to initiate a conversation (perhaps a shared interest in a discussion board) and then suggest you meet up on campus, at a library, or at a coffee shop to discuss course material or brainstorm a paper topic. If an in-person meet-up is not possible, try a video-conference tool like Google Hangouts or Skype. Be mindful that your interactions with peers do not violate any academic integrity issues (e.g., cheating, plagiarism).
- Embrace what you are learning. Go beyond rote memorization for meaningful, long-lasting learning. Practice explaining vocabulary, concepts, and theory in your own words to someone not in your course and then verify your understanding with an expert (e.g., a tutor or instructor). Some online courses have non-graded activities you can use to check your mastery of concepts. Apply what you’ve learned using new examples.
- Use resources proactively. Your online instructor is not a mind reader, so if you are confused, you need to initiate contact. Reach out to your instructor, even just to confirm you are on the right track. If you are unsure of directions, expectations for success, or if you are having trouble understanding new concepts, usually an email is sufficient. Be sure you send it with enough time for the instructor to respond before a course-task deadline. If you have significant concerns about your progress, schedule a call to your instructor to get his/her input and ideas for improvement sooner rather than later. Meet with an academic advisor for support to balance other priorities in your life, as well as ways to match your learning style with study strategies. Attend online and/or on-campus tutoring sessions leading up to quizzes or exams. Use the writing lab or other writing resources proactively.
Best wishes to you for online learning success!
Wendy Gordon-Hewick, M.A., is an adjunct faculty member at North Shore Community College. She has been teaching online since 2007. Last year she also started executive function coaching (part-time) to help high school, college, and adult learners navigate the challenges of coursework and other real-life applications. For ten years, she worked in specialized advising programs assisting at-risk undergraduates to persist in their studies through graduation. She currently is seeking a full-time opportunity to continue work in these areas. Wendy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.