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How to Succeed in an Online Course

How to Succeed in an Online Course

How to Succeed in an Online CourseYou’re in your last semester of your undergraduate degree. Only five classes to finish before you cross that glorious finish line and leave the books behind. You have a couple of electives left to take, so you decide to take two online courses. This will be great! Without having to go to class, you’ll have so much extra time to do the reading and complete your assignments. Plus, you know, Netflix. (What? Who said that?)

Cut to three months from now. You just realized your final papers for both online courses are due on the same day, and you haven’t started either of them. You also haven’t done any of the reading for the past five weeks. Oops. That particular variety of stress, the one tied inexplicably to writing papers, wraps its cold hands around your neck. Who knew that an online course could be so much work?

Let’s do something you won’t be able to do in real life: roll the clock back to your enrollment in those online courses. No, I’m not going to suggest you don’t take them. Instead, I’m going to teach you how to succeed in an online course—information that’s particularly helpful before you begin one of these classes. Spoiler alert: it actually involves you doing your work. And, sadly, it has very little to do with Netflix. (Don’t worry: Full House isn’t going anywhere.)

1. Scheduling is your friend.

All students struggle to stay on top of their workloads. (Any students who say they don’t are clearly robots, and this blog is for humans. You’re not welcome here, Stepford Student.) Finding the time to attend classes, do the assigned reading, complete assignments, and study for exams is difficult enough for a regular course. Online courses make it even harder to stay on top of things, because no one is holding you accountable for staying on schedule. There’s no professor to guilt you during class for not having done the assigned reading, no classmate to ask you questions you most certainly don’t know the answers to. And there certainly isn’t anyone to remind you that your midterm paper is due next week. It’s all on you to stay on track. So how can you do that?

When it comes to succeeding in an online course, you need to schedule three things:Time Spent in an Online Course

  1. “Lecture” Time
  2. Reading Time
  3. Assignment/Exam Preparation Time

Most online classes don’t have required “lecture” times per se. Still, you need to have a set time dedicated to learning the lecture material. Let’s say you have a break in your regular classes between 2 and 4 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays. Well, now you have a break between 2 and 3 p.m., because 3 to 4 p.m. is dedicated to your online course. Schedule your reading time in a similar manner, and for goodness’ sake, stick to your schedule.

If scheduling is your friend, your syllabus should be your bestie. Relying on your syllabus will help you succeed in your online course. After all, how can you possibly prepare for exams or complete assignments if you don’t keep track of your deadlines? For some people, this may mean writing deadlines in a planner. Others may rely more on technology; for example, adding your deadlines to your phone and creating pesky little reminders may be helpful if you’re prone to forgetfulness. Do what you need to do, as long as you’re making a plan and sticking to it.

2. Active learning helps you . . . well, you know, learn.

Learning the material from an online course can be tricky. For lots of students, simply reading the material is not a great method for absorbing the content. Not having a professor to engage you in the content can also make that content difficult to take in. So what can you do to actively work with—and thereby actually learn—the material from your online course?

The methods that work best for you will depend on how you learn best. But, generally speaking, repurposing the material is often a helpful way to learn it. This may involve making notes, creating (and subsequently answering) mock test questions, creating a PowerPoint presentation, or making a video. You could also get together with classmates to discuss or debate important points, to role-play major events or theories, or to eat ice cream. (Hey, it can’t be all work all the time, you know!)

I know what you’re thinking. Who has time to do any of those things? To answer that question, I’d like to redirect you to the previous piece of advice. Who has time? You do. Why? Because you scheduled time for this online course. I would also like to add that there is always time for ice cream. Always.

3. Practice online etiquette.

Even online courses occasionally require some kind of correspondence between teacher and student or between students. Whether you’re working in a discussion group or just have a question about an assignment, you will occasionally have to communicate with someone via the Internet. There is a right and a wrong way to do this. Let’s take, for example, this email to a professor of an online course:

What not to say to your professor in an email.

This email contains spelling errors, incorrect punctuation, inappropriate short forms, and an unprofessional signature line. Colin would surely never hand in an assignment in this condition, nor would he use such a casual tone if he were speaking to the professor in person. If you need to email your professor or otherwise communicate online for your online course, be sure to use proper spelling and grammar, as well as a professional tone. Think of school as your job, and write accordingly. Let’s try Colin’s email again, shall we?

An appropriate and professional email to a professor.

Another aspect of etiquette to keep in mind for your online course (and all your courses, for that matter) is to check your syllabus before emailing your instructor with a question. Instructors don’t much care to answer questions you already have the answers to—do not email in haste!


There you have it: you now know how to succeed in an online course. Now that you have the know-how, it’s time for the follow-through. Go forth, student, and prosper in your online courses. Even if you’re not currently in school, many online courses are available to help you improve your knowledge or skills. And now that you know the best way to tackle an online course, why not take a course in editing?

Image source: BlueLela/