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The Secrets to Success as an Online Student

Published on: June 22, 2023

A female student taking notes in a notebook while looking at her laptop during an online class.

The modern college landscape is wonderfully diverse, with targeted programs available and accessible to all types of students. This versatility is driven partly by the opportunity to take some or all classes online — a real advantage for working students and anyone with a strong need for scheduling flexibility.  

Online classes open a world of possibilities to students from all walks of life. Working students, in particular, benefit from this setup, as do those who live far from brick-and-mortar schools but are unable to relocate. Even students who primarily take in-person classes appreciate this option; research from Cengage reveals that, following the pandemic, nearly three-quarters of students prefer to take at least some classes entirely online. 

There's no denying the benefits of online education, but it also presents a few distinct challenges. This modality calls for an advanced skill set, complete with a ton of self-discipline. In this guide, we'll touch on some of the challenges that online students face — but we'll also explain how to succeed in online classes and make the most of this incredible opportunity.   

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Are Online Classes Easier Than In-Person Classes?  

Perceptions of online challenges vary between students: some assume that online classes are less rigorous than their in-person counterparts, while others acknowledge that it takes far more self-discipline to succeed as an online student. However, students who are unable to commute to in-person classes due to time constraints or geographical limitations often find online classes to be easier, or at the very least, more accessible, than in-person classes.  

Select students may find that they feel less flustered and more focused on their online studies — and therefore find their classes to be easier, even when the actual academic challenges are similar. Ultimately, like any subject or modality, this is subjective — what appeals to one student may not be ideal for somebody else.   

Challenges Faced by College Students in Online Learning  

College is always challenging, but online learning tends to amplify struggles that already exist for in-person courses. Most issues fall into a few main categories: scheduling, distractions and relationship-building. Typical concerns include:  

  • Establishing an environment that is conducive to studying 
  • Staying motivated to study on a daily basis while also avoiding common distractions 
  • Building genuine relationships with instructors and fellow students  

Ten Tips for Online Learning Success 

While the challenges highlighted above are worth considering, they are by no means impossible to overcome. With a bit of extra planning, you can find creative solutions for your biggest online studying struggles. Below, we've highlighted ten best practices to keep you on track:   

1. Manage Time Effectively  

All college coursework calls for excellent time management, but this is doubly true of online classes. Unfortunately, managing a complex schedule can be extra tricky when self-paced learning is involved, as this approach removes a common source of accountability: the need to show up and pay attention. 

Effective time management also means tackling materials little by little rather than shifting the burden to long and minimally productive study sessions at the end of the term. Common solutions include student planners and high-level time management apps, which we'll discuss in more detail later.   

2. Develop Self-Discipline  

Self-discipline is like a muscle; the more you commit to working on it, the faster you'll see results. Practice should begin early and, ideally, be preceded by reflection on where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Equipped with this understanding, you can begin to take small steps to combat bad habits that erode your sense of self-discipline.  

Whether aligned with academics or not, you'll benefit immensely from setting a goal and practicing diligence simply for the sake of becoming more disciplined. For example, you could sign up for a 10k race and commit to running several times per week until the big day arrives. You will be proud not only of your results but also of the daily diligence it took to achieve them. This, in turn, will carry over to your online coursework — by the time your online class begins, you will be in the habit of making modest but meaningful daily progress.   

3. Set Realistic Goals  

A goal-oriented approach is more likely to keep you on track, as this provides a powerful source of motivation and accountability. In addition to setting short-term goals for each class or study session, develop a few overarching objectives to guide your entire student career. These should feel ambitious enough to spark your passion but must also be grounded in reality. 

The most effective goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. Define your SMART goals early on so that you feel confident they can be achieved within specific parameters — by the end of the term, for example.  

4. Create a Study Plan 

If you tend to procrastinate when left to your own devices, you will need to work extra hard to combat this tendency. Begin by developing a strict study plan, then follow it as closely as possible for the duration of each course. This should include scheduled time for studying, along with regular breaks so you don't feel burned out. Shape each study session by developing small goals that reference the scope of the material you hope to master. 

Many students find it easier to stay disciplined if their personal study plans incorporate trusted learning strategies. SQ3R (survey, question, read, recite and review), for example, is a popular option for boosting reading comprehension, while the Feynman technique promotes greater insight by encouraging you to move beyond jargon and gain true understanding through the art of simplifying.   

5. Participate in Online Discussions  

The most gratifying rewards of college coursework often center around the relationships built with other students — but these can be difficult to cultivate if you never meet face-to-face. Thankfully, online classes provide another option for connecting: online discussions. This is your opportunity to share your thoughts on topics and concepts covered in your classes — and to discover how the material is perceived by other students. 

In some classes, online participation may be built into your grades, providing clear extrinsic motivation to get involved. Even if this doesn't factor into your grades, however, you'll want to interact simply because it will enrich your experience. 

As a bonus, this can be a surprisingly effective networking opportunity, allowing you to develop relationships that will remain impactful even after you graduate. You might even find the makings of a study group, which, whether held digitally or face-to-face, can replicate the social advantages of an in-person class.   

6. Set Up a Dedicated Study Space  

Your environment can determine a lot about your performance and satisfaction as an online student. You need somewhere comfortable and relatively distraction-free. A private room exclusively dedicated to studying is preferable, but a small corner in your home or apartment can also do the trick, so long as family members or roommates allow you to study in peace. Other considerations include: 

  • Ergonomics 
  • Lighting 
  • Avoiding clutter 
  • Noise 
  • Study equipment  

7. Utilize Available Technology and Tools 

Distractions abound when you study online, but these can be offset by a variety of technological solutions. The right apps can streamline scheduling or help you avoid the temptation to endlessly scroll on social media. Other apps serve as study tools, providing digital flashcards or simple quizzes you can complete on the go. Favorites include:  

  • Stay Focused 
  • OneNote 
  • Todoist 
  • Trello 
  • Mathway 
  • Brainscape 
  • Anki  

8. Establish a Routine  

Address your urge to procrastinate through the power of habit. This begins with creating a routine and strictly following it until it becomes second nature. Scheduling study sessions may be the first step, but how you proceed with the actual studying process also matters.  

For example, your study routine might begin with a quick decluttering session to promote a learning-friendly environment, followed by a brief review of previously covered material. Next up: focused studying using SQ3R or another trusted technique. End each study session with a small reward so you continue to look forward to your newly established routine.  

9. Maintain a Good Work-Life Balance  

Work-life balance is crucial to preventing burnout, which is otherwise a distinct possibility for busy students. Breaks are essential not only during study sessions but also on a larger scale: sometimes, you need to step back from work, school and family obligations and treat yourself to some well-deserved self-care.  

This could be as simple as taking a walk or chatting with a friend. You may be surprised to discover that, given the chance to treat yourself, you emerge feeling refreshed and better capable of mastering complex academic concepts.   

10. Seek Support From Instructors  

Online students often struggle to reach out to their instructors, even when regularly reminded that these helpful individuals are only an email away. No, these digital interactions don't feel quite like office hours, but you may be surprised by how much rapport you can develop.  

Find an Online Degree Program Today 

Online learning provides a unique opportunity to craft your academic journey exactly as you see fit. At Husson University Online, we offer a variety of options designed to meet the needs of today's busy students. Take a closer look at our online programs or reach out today to learn more. 

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