10 strategies for successful online learning

Online Education

Thinking of enrolling in an online learning program? Before you get carried away with the notion that taking courses online will translate to a lighter workload, I should let you in on a little-known secret: Distance learning can actually be harder than taking courses in a traditional classroom.

Why? Because YOU are responsible for your learning. It's up to you when to get your work done, when to view your materials, when (and whether) to ask questions, how to engage in class discussions, and how to best facilitate your learning of the material. Online degree programs requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and it may not be right for everyone.

As an online instructor, I've seen students make plenty of mistakes with distance learning, so here are some strategies I recommend to ensure the greatest level of success:

#1. Take it seriously

The biggest mistake online students make, in my opinion, is not taking online learning seriously enough. Enrolling in online courses should be something you do deliberately -- researching the program, school and teacher carefully, and then accepting all the responsibility that comes with being an online student. It means committing to devising a study schedule, developing a good relationship with your teacher and fellow students, and doing all the work it takes. In other words, the right attitude is the first strategy for success.

#2. Determine how you learn

One of the benefits of online learning is that it naturally lends itself to presenting material in a variety of ways, giving it the ability to reach all kinds of learners. There are at least four types of learners: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. Determine how you learn best and then do what you can to tailor your studies to that style. By taking advantage of the technology, you're giving yourself a head start on comprehending and retaining as much information as possible.

#3. Become a time-management pro

In 2007, EDUCAUSE surveyed 59 online students to determine what they felt were the biggest keys to their success. Not surprisingly, the number one strategy was time-management. A full 78.9 percent believed the most helpful time-management strategy to be setting a schedule for study time, and 31.6 percent insisted that setting aside time for the course each day was essential. Because there's no appointed time in which you'll sit in a room and attend class, you'll have to discipline yourself and carve out time to watch lectures, participate in discussions, and complete assignments on your own.

#4. Take all the tech tutorials

I'm surprised by how often online students aren't properly equipped -- technologically or skills-wise -- to complete all the required assignments. Some can't use Microsoft Office, some don't have Flash or Java, and still others have trouble contributing to discussion groups. If you want to be successful in an online course, you MUST be able to operate the technology. Most online schools offer tutorials and have free tech support. Take advantage of them. Don't wait until your grade depends on it.

#5. Use what you learn -- or lose it

The EDUCAUSE survey also uncovered an important truth: Finding opportunities to use what you learn right away helps you retain it. Studies show you retain 50 percent of what you see and hear. Discuss it with others, and your retention goes up to 70 percent. Use the information actively and you're at 90 percent -- even higher if you have an opportunity to teach it to others.

#6. Read everything

It may be easy to skip some of the readings in an online class, but don't. You must actively read -- engaging with and annotating -- all texts. Remember, you must facilitate your own learning. Start on day one by reading your syllabus and determining what's required of you. Then, carefully read all texts throughout the course to be sure you're learning everything you're supposed to. Once you've properly digested the material, discuss it with your class to ensure your retention of it.

#7. Contribute and participate

Frequent, substantive participation in discussions generally is a requirement of online courses. This demonstrates to the instructor that you comprehend and are using what you learn in class. But it also adds to the experience for all students, ensuring a diverse array of opinions and ideas. Even more, it helps you form a relationship with your instructor, which is very often a key for success, as well as with fellow students, which creates a sense of community. This benefits everyone's learning.

#8. Make connections

The University of Southern California's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis indicates that "Students who are members of a tight network of peers have access to more resources than those who are only loosely affiliated with other students," and those students who are "tightly connected will feel a sense of obligation to succeed and to help other members of the group succeed as well." CHEPA's research indicates that students who engaged repeatedly with peers, over a long period of time, perform better than those who don't. So find ways to engage with other students, through online class discussions, chat rooms, social media, study groups or clubs.

#9. Find a way to stay motivated

One of the biggest problems with online learning is that it's easy to fall through the cracks. When things get rough, it's easy to push away from the computer and say, "Forget it." That's why the retention rate for online courses is consistently 10 to 20 percent lower than for traditional classes. Because it can be more difficult to complete your studies online, the temptation to quit may be greater. So find ways to stay motivated when the going gets rough. EDUCAUSE survey respondents suggested goal visualization techniques, forming a network of peers who act as a "cheering section," or celebrating small wins (for instance, a special purchase upon receiving an A).

#10. Get help before it's too late

Before you get left behind by a course that's moving too quickly for you, be the squeaky wheel. Ask questions whenever they occur to you. Find opportunities to talk through your problems with others until you're comfortable with the material. And if the technology's giving you trouble, call tech support. Take responsibility for your learning, and your squeaky wheel will eventually get the grease it needs to move forward.

Before going into any online program, be sure that your eyes are wide open to the experience and that you've put support systems in place at home and at work. There's no magic to online learning success, it's just hard work and discipline. Good luck!

Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California. "The Impact of Peers on College Preparation: A Review of the Literature." 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
"How Students Develop Online Learning Skills," Jan. 1, 2007, EDUCAUSE Quarterly, http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/how-students-develop-online-learning-skills