January 20, 2018

5 Tips for being a strong online student

(Hello, CTB readers! A version of this post recently ran on my own blog, but I asked CTB to reprint it because the information within is timely and important. Although I have taught face-to-face for years, I largely teach hybrid (part online, part F2) or online now due to having two small kids and enjoying the schedule flexibility. I’ve been nationally recognized for my online work three times, so I’m pretty passionate about it.

Being a Strong Online Student - photo copyright 2011 Rick Sherrell

As a student, you are going to come across a fair number of opinions regarding online courses. You might even hear some data about how many students don’t succeed in online courses, how many students don’t transfer, etc. Unfortunately, this data, whether reliable or not, makes great press and triggers spirited discussions about how solid online courses are or aren’t. After working with thousands of students, many of whom could literally not experience college without the flexibility that hybrid/online classes offer, I prefer to focus on what you can do to be successful before going into your online course. So, read on!)

Believe it or not, if you are contemplating an online, hybrid, weekend college, or any other type of non-traditional course in the fall, you can take action to increase your chances for success right now. It would take me 20 posts to discuss all of my tips for being a strong online student. So, let’s just focus on five items you can work on today. And, as is typical with my advice, you’ll see a communication twist. Ready? Here goes:

1. Talk about your readiness for distance learning and realistically assess whether or not it is for you.

Talk to a prof who is well-known for online learning (doesn’t even have to be one whose class you will be in), a student who loved online learning and one who didn’t love it, an educational adviser, or even by taking a distance learning readiness quiz.

Sound like a lot of investment and time? Well, if you are planning to be a full or part-time career online student, finding out what online learning really looks like is worth that time.

Even more important: find out before you register for an online course, not after, and not in the first week of the course (if you can help it). If the technology or the characteristics of online learning sound like they are not for you, and the issues are not things you can readily overcome (like that you will never like reading large amounts of material online), then online learning may not be for you at this time. Have those conversations to find out the truth about this unique delivery mode. Doing so will increase your chances of success and give you time to get into a face-to-face class, weekend class, evening class, etc. that still works for your schedule.

2. Discuss the obligations of online learning with anyone who has the potential to support you (or hold you back).

Many, many of my students do their online work in the early morning, late evening, and some float in and out of the course site while they are at their jobs (not that I’m saying this is the ideal). In a traditional class, you have set times for your learning and you are conveniently away from work or home. Online learning will be very different. You will be in the thick of the exact distractions you are usually away from.

So, whoever it is that you are taking time away from–your parents, spouse, kids, boss, lizard, etc.–to “do school” needs to be on board and agreeable to your time needs. If they are not, then you may need to secure a different place to do your work (Starbucks? Library? Mountain top with wireless?) or actually be out of the house for the set times of a face-to-face class.

3. Talk to an adviser or a prof about classes that would be better suited for you to take online–and those from which you’d benefit from face-to-face attention.

In my college years, and even today, I could easily take an English class online, but algebra or science? No way. I need complete face-to-face contact to help me through my most challenging subjects. I know myself: My first fluster over equations or cells and I would just shut off my computer and get some ice cream (in another city so that way I would have a commute excuse for not going back to the computer!).

Be truthful with yourself about those subjects that would make sense for you to take online and which ones absolutely won’t work. The only exception to this is if a) you are willing to get additional help with that topic, either from the prof, a tutor, or another resource entirely; and b) if you have the time to dedicate to bringing yourself up to speed–even with that help.

4. Once you’ve decided that you might want to take an online class, get in touch with the prof, get a syllabus, and ask questions before the class starts.

I can’t tell you how many students start my online public speaking class or my intro class and then are flummoxed to find that they need equipment to record speeches, a five-person audience, a well-lit location for recording, a way to upload presentations, etc. Fortunately, I send my online students a welcome letter detailing these requirements a few weeks before the term starts. Some students drop immediately because they don’t want the hassle of recording themselves. I totally respect this decision and applaud it! These students are giving themselves a greater chance at success.

Not every prof sends a welcome letter or gives students a heads-up about requirements, however, so you may have to search out details about the class structure yourself. Get in touch with the prof, say to that person:

-“I am going to be a student in your online class this fall. Do you have a syllabus from last term and a sample schedule that I could take a look at?”


-“I’m thinking about taking your online class and want to see if this is the right format for me. Do you have a… (repeat the above).”

If the prof is not there because it’s summer, then contact that person’s department secretary, who often works year-round and hopefully isn’t in Bermuda at the time you’re calling. You can also go to a coordinator, department chair, or division chair. If all else fails, you can contact your educational planning office. Someone should be able to get you access to a syllabus.

When you get the syllabus and schedule, read these documents closely!

Most students want to know, “How much time will I be expected to spend online?”

There may be an explicit statement about this in the syllabus, but you may be able to gauge it in other ways: Look at the amount of discussion board points or a list of discussion board requirements. Lots of discussion board equals lots of online interaction. You’re going to need to read posts, post your own posts, and respond to each other’s posts–maybe a whole bunch. You can also look for group work or online reading assignments. This equals more time online. (And I’m not even mentioning e-mailing with your prof or other classmates, doing online activities, etc. This should be laid out in the syllabus).

Another point to examine: The number of days/weeks that you have in between assignments for help/feedback, and even the prof’s e-mail response time. You will be able to get a feel for how the course operates.

If you are still unsure about anything, e-mail the prof and ask some specific questions, not just a general “How does this class work?”. You can also–gasp!–pick up the phone and call the prof or go make an in-person appointment.

Two important notes to this: Your prof is required to be on campus a week to several days before you are required to be there. That person will likely have pre-campus meetings and his/her “out of office” may still be on e-mail, but at the least, when he/she is checking and responding to e-mail again, yours will be waiting.

Second note: You typically will have access to your course management system earlier than your first actual class start date. Log in and check out the site. This will also give you important information about the course structure.

If you start to feel seriously nervous, ill, sweaty, nauseous, etc., your mind and body may be telling you something. If you truly do not believe you can handle the workload, the schedule, the requirements, or that you have the dedication for this type of learning system, then listen to that gut feeling and read tip #5 below.

5. If you find yourself under water before or during the first week or your circumstances have changed, tell your prof and find another class option.

My message here is do not just fade away from your online course without letting someone know that you have a) changed your mind about this mode of delivery; or b) a life circumstance will prevent you from being in school at all.

When students have negative perceptions about education because they feel insecure about an online course, it is easy for them to become lost from the system. Do not let this happen to yourself!

If the class is not right for you, go to the prof immediately and say, “I have realized that the online version of this course is not right for me. Can you help me find a face-to-face course that would work for my schedule?” You may also be able to find a hybrid course that meets partly online and partly face-to-face, an evening class, or a weekend class.

Yes, the rest of the classes may be closed. However, there might be some wiggle room since you are an existing student.

If the prof can’t help you, get an adviser to assist from your Ed Planning office (or equivalent) to figure out what you can still do in that term.

The bottom line is, do something–don’t just fall out of college entirely just because an online class didn’t work out. Take even one class so you maintain your momentum.

Bottom line? Know what you’re getting yourself into. Do as much pre-work to find out as you can. And by all means, ask tons of questions.

You can even ask me questions about online learning. Write a comment or send an e-mail to chattyprof@gmail.com.

If I don’t know, I have a bunch of colleagues out there who might. And our goal is to keep you out of the negative online student statistics and rather a gigantic, monumental college success.

(Okay, that was totally cheesy, but I’m sticking to it! Seriously, send on some comments or questions. Colleagues, if you have other pre-term tips for students in online classes, I’ll update this post!).

About the Author: Ellen Bremen (17 Posts)

Ellen Bremen is tenured faculty at Highline Community College and the author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success (NorLights Press, April 2012). Ellen stops at nothing to help students strengthen their communication skills: Peanut butter and jelly to illustrate problematic messages, pipe cleaners to teach communication models, and Post-it notes to reduce speaking anxiety. Ellen holds degrees in Post-Secondary Education and Communication. As an interpersonal communication expert, Ellen has watched students struggle to navigate their classes, especially their communication with professors. Ellen's goal? To help students correctly--not cluelessly--speak/deal with those who teach them. The outcome? Better student-prof relationships, improved grades, and confident and competent communication skills for college and beyond. Ellen's philosophy: College is THE safe training ground for students to practice and hone assertive and professional communication skills. Then, students can transition this sought-after skill to their professional and personal lives. Ellen looks forward to answering students' simple and complex questions about communication in college, and particularly professor-related challenges.


  1. Great info. Lucky me I ran across your site by accident (stumbleupon).

    I’ve bookmarked it for later!

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