What does it take to be a successful online student? Do online learners need to approach education differently than those in a classroom? These are questions you may ask if you’re either considering taking an online class, or currently enrolled online and seeking strategies for success.
I’ve been teaching residentially for 25 years and ventured into the online learning environment 4 years ago. From a faculty member’s perspective, I’ve found that the most successful students are engaged, curious, resourceful, critical thinkers, and are willing to ask for help. While these qualities can be demonstrated in the classroom and online, those studying online may need to be more intentional about their strategies for engagement. The online learning environment might initially feel more isolated, but it can offer just as rich of interactions as a classroom if the student remains cognizant of staying involved, and makes an effort to do so.
Resourcefulness is even more critical for online students. Asking for help from a distance and trying to “read between the lines” in online communication without the benefit of seeing the non-verbal behaviors that accompany in-person communication can be more challenging, and may require more willingness to be vulnerable by asking follow-up questions for clarification.
Much has been written about successful learning strategies in journals and popular media. J.B. Biggs (1987) articulated a model focused on levels of thinking and knowledge construction. According to this model, there are three approaches to learning: achievement, surface, and deep. Students with an achievement focus prioritize behaviors to earn high grades. Superficial learning is characterized by identifying minimum requirements and putting forth the minimal effort required to reach these minimum standards. For students employing a deep learning mindset, “material is embraced and digested in the search for meaning” (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005, p. 137). In my opinion, successful students seek deep learning, both online and residentially. Specific strategies for deep learning include accessing additional readings beyond the assigned materials, engaging in conversations about the course material outside of class with peers and colleagues, and applying the newfound knowledge in everyday life to cement the learning.
I asked some of my CSU faculty colleagues and online students to share their perspectives on strategies for success in online learning. Beyond deep learning, the strategies they shared centered on five themes:
Access to and Familiarity with Technology
Of course technology is important for on-campus students; however, technology may be your best friend in the online learning world. The content delivery for online learning relies on students being comfortable with various forms of technology, including navigating the learning management system (which is Canvas at Colorado State University), recording, uploading, and playing videos, using different forms of presentation software, accessing and engaging with social media platforms, and building and modifying websites. Watching help videos, searching for websites with information about navigating various forms of technology, and attending workshops and seminars about technology are examples of ways to become familiar and comfortable with this critical element of online learning.
- The most important thing for a successful online student to do is to learn how to use the learning management system and don’t be afraid to play around with the features.
- Use the mobile version of your learning management system to listen to lectures from your phone. It is a great time saver at the gym or away from the computer.
Accessing and Using Resources
One can sometimes feel isolated in an online learning environment when confused about the course material or struggling to navigate new technology. It’s much easier in residential classrooms to look around and see when others are experiencing similar difficulties. Thus, it’s critical for online students to reach out, ask for help, and utilize all the resources available to them. One of my favorite parts of teaching online is when an online student schedules a phone call or Skype session to touch base, ask questions, or provide feedback about the online learning experience.
- Ask questions. There’s no shame in admitting you don’t know something. Most likely, you’re not alone.
- Utilize all the resources available, including classmates, professors, online library resources, emails, phone calls, and Skype. Find a buddy or create informal learning communities with your classmates to gain and give academic and social support.
- The best way to make online learning impactful is to reach out to peers and engage with your faculty. Interaction is critical.
- Ask for help before things become emergencies, be proactive in self-advocacy.
Behaviors in Class
It may seem strange to think about “behaviors in class,” and yet, every time students log into the online learning environment, they are in class. This is significantly different from a residential student who attends class one hour a day, three days a week. Online students are responsible for engaging in the class multiple times throughout the week, fulfilling various requirements for participating in discussions and posting content. Being thoughtful about these behaviors when sitting at home, in coffee shops, and at the library extends the learning environment outside of the classroom.
- Log in often and look for new information posted throughout the week.
- Pose quality questions and engage in dialogues to satisfy your curiosity, not just to earn points. Remember, quantity does not equate to quality.
- Don’t just do the work; engage deeply with your classmates and the material. Go beyond the information presented by doing additional research.
- Be open and a little vulnerable with your classmates. Challenge yourself to be authentic in every interaction.
Behaviors outside of Class
What is “out of class” for an online learner? These worlds collide in the online environment unlike the distinct in or out of the classroom environments for residential students. The following tips were shared by successful online students, many of whom learned through trial and error.
- Get your books early. Review the syllabus early, create a weekly schedule with assignment due dates, plan in advance and set aside more time than anticipated to complete projects and papers. Working full time, balancing family and personal commitments as well as online learning requires revisiting priorities regularly.
- Read, read, and read some more. Stay on top of the week’s reading. Read during lunch, before and after work, in the gym, on the bus. Read!
- Apply concepts and material in your work and personal lives. Transfer these concepts to make your learning come to life.
- Don’t compare yourself to your classmates. You’re each at different places with different stressors and commitments. It is not a race to graduation.
- Time management and prioritization are #1 for online learning. Many online students have multiple commitments including work, family, home, community engagements, and other demands that pull on their time available to devote to learning. Being able to focus and meet deadlines is critical for both residential and online students; however, this becomes even more challenging when juggling multiple roles and responsibilities.
As mentioned earlier, online learning can feel isolating. Thus, possessing internal motivation to continue despite the challenges is critical.
- Keep your eyes on the goal — remember why you’re in school, and yet, set realistic expectations for yourself.
- Self-direction and internal motivation are requirements. Be accountable for your actions (such as participation, group work, assignments).
- Celebrate the small wins and accomplishments along the way.
These five themes were similar to those found in a number of scholarly articles focused on characteristics of successful online learners (Boyd, 2004; Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005; Schrum & Hong, 2002). The bottom line, however, is that self-discipline and internal motivation are viewed as the most significant characteristics that propel online students toward success.
In closing, reflect on your motivations for being in school. Think about your life factors personally, professionally and scholastically. And adopt an attitude of curiosity!
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Boyd, D. (2004). The characteristics of successful online students. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 18(2), 31-39.
Biggs, J. B. (1987). Student approaches to learning and studying. Hawthorn, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research.
Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. The American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 133-148.
Schrum, L. & Hong, S. (2002). Dimensions and strategies for online success; Voices from experienced educators. JALN, 6(1). 57-67.