Top 7 Tips for Taking Online Classes Successfully

Sarah Reese
May 4, 2021

Taking online classes can be intimidating. It’s depersonalized by its very nature, even with live-streamed lectures and online group chats. The simple fact that there’s no physical class to attend can make it difficult for some students to actively and consistently participate. Distractions are everywhere at home, and it takes motivation and discipline to complete a course online. Some might even wonder, 'are taking online classes good?'   There are steps you can take that will help you be successful taking online classes. These include setting goals, finding and using resources, and engaging in the material. Let’s take a look.  

Define what success looks like taking online classes

The first step is to define what success means to you in this specific situation. In traditional education, whether on campus or online, success is usually determined by a particular grade. Take some time to consider your own situation and needs before setting a goal.   If the course is a prerequisite and a specific grade is necessary to take the next one, you’ve got a pretty straightforward target. However, if you’re in a Pass/Fail class or auditing a course for your own interest or as a refresher, your definition of success changes.   Similarly, elective courses may give you a little leeway as to what you need to accomplish: You may want to ace it to bring up your overall GPA, or you may be taking it as a less demanding class outside of your major as a degree requirement.  

Keep that goal front of mind

Once you’ve determined what successful completion of your online courses looks like, consider formalizing that goal with a concrete reminder.   For example, a posted note above your workspace encapsulates the goal and reminds you of what you're working towards. Seeing the words "I want to speak Spanish" or "I want to participate in scientific ocean research," can be motivating when you're neck-deep in t-tests or irregular verb conjugations.  

Make time for online learning

If you're wondering what taking online classes is like, first ask, where are you in your education? Are you a first-time college student, or are you going back to school after years of experience as a professional? Figure out a plan for when and where you will do your schoolwork at home. This is particularly important if you have additional responsibilities, but it's essential for all learners.   Who can you enlist to help you cover other tasks? Where else can you etch out time? This is often one of the biggest challenges of online learning, because there is no way around the fact that courses require an investment of time.   If you have a plan for where this time will come from, you dramatically increase your chances of being successful. Once you have a tentative schedule, you want to be sure that you are using that time efficiently.  

Set yourself up for success

Before classes start, make sure you have everything you need. Review the syllabus ahead of time to check that you’ve got the correct editions of required textbooks and any specialized equipment like a scientific calculator or printer. Also confirm that your computer meets any hardware specifications and that you have all the necessary software programs.   Many online classes require group participation. These can be scheduled text chats or video conferences, and the instructor might use screen and document sharing regularly. The more familiar you are with taking part in cloud-based collaborations, the easier it will be to focus on the work at hand.  

Find the right resources and come up with a plan on how to study for online classes

Online programs like Mendeley or Zotero allow you to collect research, cite sources, and collaborate with others. You can use your Google calendar to schedule real-time lectures and exams and keep track of assignment due dates. If you prefer, you can download a scheduling app specific to students, like MyStudyLife.   There are useful tools online too. For instance, if you know you’ll need a scientific graphing calculator integrated with algebra, you can grab one from Mathlab for your phone or tablet. While you might prefer to use the calculator at your desk, it’s a nice back-up to have on your phone. And for a studying aid, consider downloading Quizlet, the flashcard app.   By knowing your study habits and what works for you, you can be a much more efficient student. This means you'll have more time to do things that you enjoy doing. Learning your study habits when taking online classes is the difference between a successful student and one that might be wasting their time.  

Stay on track

Online courses run the gamut from those with real-time components, where you have to log in at a specific time once or twice a week for a seminar, to those that are completely self-paced. It’s actually the self-paced ones that pose the greatest pitfalls in this regard: It's very easy to procrastinate yourself into a corner as you near the end of the course. So when you're wondering if taking online classes is easier, keep it in the back of your mind that self-paced doesn't always mean easier.   That means it’s important to stay current in terms of readings, assignment due dates and exam dates, which also means paying attention to class announcements. Having a concrete plan on how you manage taking online courses will make or break your success.   For some, it can be tempting to work ahead, crushing an entire 12-week course in three weeks, but there are potential problems here as well. Rushing through the content usually results in a less meaningful learning process, in which you may not be internalizing the content as well as you should. It might even result in challenges later when you are required to use the content, whether in an exam, at work or in the next course.  

Engage in the learning material

If you can engage with the content in ways that are personal and meaningful, you will absorb, understand, and retain it better. This mindset is especially important in the online learning environment. It's easy to think that you can check in once a week and upload your assignments on time to earn an “A,” but there's more to learning than just showing up.   Try to come up with questions beyond those listed in assignments or raised in class. Engage with the professor and with your classmates; challenge them and yourself with genuine inquiry into the subject. Establish the skills you know you need to succeed without showing up to physical classes.   Even when it feels like you are just jumping through hoops by commenting on "at least three discussion board posts in a meaningful way" (a regular assignment in many online classes), these are opportunities to interact on a deeper level with other learners and ultimately make the material more personally significant, one of the pros of taking online classes.