More students are taking online degrees today than ever before. According to a Sloan Consortium report released in January 2014, online enrollment comprised 33.5 percent -- a full one-third -- of total college enrollment. Yet, retention of online students is consistently 10 to 20 percent lower than retention in face-to-face courses.
As a college writing instructor who has had experience with both delivery methods, I've seen students enrolled in distance learning courses continue to make the same mistakes over and over. Here are the 10 worst offenses, along with tips for how to avoid them:
#1. Not taking it seriously
Online students often will say, "It's just an online course," as if online learning should be easier. Here's a news flash: Online classes are very often harder than face-to-face ones, requiring significantly more reading and writing, and there's no one standing over you to make you accountable or show you how to do it. Yet most students disregard online classes or prioritize their face-to-face courses over the online ones, saving the online work for the last minute.
Which leads me to #2…
Poor time management, in my opinion, is the most common mistake ALL students make, but this is especially true of online students. Because students work at their own pace with online classes, the pace they set is usually a frantic, last-minute one, fraught with frustration because they don't understand the material or assignment. The result? Work that's hurriedly thrown together because "it's just an online class."
#3. Not exercising discipline
The lure of working at their own pace often seduces students into enrolling in online courses. But because you are responsible for mastering the material on your own, you must be disciplined enough to create a schedule, seek out help in enough time for it to matter, and take care to understand the material and what's required to succeed.
#4. Playing the "reading game"
Many students only read the material that will be tested or might come up in discussions or assignments. Doing this means you are missing valuable knowledge, for a course that requires you to take responsibility for your own learning. Carefully read everything, from the syllabus you get on day one to the questions on the final exam, and every word in between. Everything's right there for you, but you have to read it and pay attention! Avoid skimming or racing through material. Being a critical reader is essential in the online environment.
#5. Being a poor researcher
Something about the online learning environment seems to invite students to do more than their fair share of copying and pasting. As easy as technology has made it to find material and recycle it, it's also made it easier for instructors to identify plagiarism and lazy referencing habits. Pay careful attention to proper research documentation and the appropriate way to weave research into your work. If you aren't clear on how to do this, ask.
#6. Not asking enough questions
The best way to be successful in an online course is to take advantage of all the resources at your disposal. This means keeping the lines of communication open between you and your instructor. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Talk to your teacher. Be a frequent asker of questions and responder to discussion posts. The teacher will notice -- trust me.
#7. Sequestering themselves
Don't try to learn in a bubble. Get to know your fellow students. Research repeatedly shows that students perform best through ongoing interaction with peers. This means joining study groups, scheduling meetings with teachers and peers, and seeking out social groups affiliated with your program. It will not only motivate you to keep going, but it will help clear up confusion and keep you from feeling lonely.
#8. Not being technologically equipped
Online programs generally have certain technological requirements that must be met in order to do the work successfully. Many lessons use video conferencing, streaming, online quizzes or other elements that require a reliable computer and high-speed Internet connection. You simply can't get your work done by disregarding these requirements.
You also need to know how to use this technology. Take a workshop or complete a tutorial if you don't. "I didn't know how to do that" is never going to be an acceptable excuse for not completing your work.
#9. Falling prey to sales pitches
Online schools can be notoriously tenacious about recruiting students -- even those who may not be ready or equipped to enroll. A lot of this pressure may come for schools that are, well, questionable. They might be inappropriately accredited, or try to convince you that you can afford something you can't. Do your homework, make decisions on your timetable, and go in with your eyes wide open.
#10. Not acknowledging when online learning isn't the right path
Online learning can be beneficial for many reasons, not the least of which is convenience. But the workload can be hard to manage, requiring a greater level of discipline and motivation than a traditional course. And maybe that just isn't the right thing for you.
A lot of students go into online learning thinking that it's the best way to overcome scheduling difficulties, or that completing coursework in their spare time will be a breeze. But attempting an academic program that doesn't fit with your learning style will only be disheartening later when you don't succeed as you'd hoped to. There's no shame in realizing that online learning isn't right for you.
Whatever you decide to do, be sure you're doing all the research you can, learning all there is to know about the school, program, instructors, and workload in order to make the decision that's truly right for you. Good luck!
"Calling for Success: Online Retention Rates Get Boost from Personal Outreach," Education Sector at American Institutes for Research, January 16, 2013, http://www.educationsector.org/publications/calling-success-online-retention-rates-get-boost-personal-outreach
"Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States," Sloan Consortium, Allen, I. Elaine and Seaman, Jeff, January 2014, http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/grade-change-2013
"The Impact of Peers on College Preparation: A Review of the Literature," Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CFIQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.uscrossier.org%2Fpullias%2Fthe-impact-of-peers-on-college-preparation-a-review-of-the-literature%2F&ei=G-mIU -- gMIjdoASK-4CICA&usg=AFQjCNFGxs0O_nowvL68ECv9Tn0E-5hpUQ&sig2=5j-RIbqx09IXvdpQcL2JPA&bvm=bv.67720277,d.cGU