You want to be successful in online learning, who doesn’t? However, the online learning environment can be intimidating.
There’s the pervasive fear of technological glitches that might undo all progress you’ve made, or make you look irresponsible or, worse, stupid.
There’s the unknown professor, a floating circle of a face that you never really get to know and—come on, who really knows—maybe doesn’t even exist.
And then there are all the fears that accompany any new learning experience. Am I going to understand? Will I be able to learn this? What if I fail?
With a positive attitude and the right approach, you can do this! Find success with online learning, and learn to love, it by following the few steps below.
1. Define success
Regardless of your particular insecurities, there are a few things you can do to increase the chances you will be successful in your class. In education, success is usually determined by a particular grade, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. Take some time to consider your own situation, needs, and learning style before setting a specific goal.
Beyond the grade, consider what you want to do with your learning, and make sure that you’re keeping that ultimate goal in mind with every step.
2. Keep your goals in mind
There are numerous reasons to take an online class. It might be out of curiosity, as a required component of a larger degree or certificate program, or for promotion in your career. As you prepare for the class, as well as while you take the class, keep your goal in mind.
Consider formalizing this goal with a concrete reminder – a posted note above your workspace that encapsulates the goal and reminds you of what you’re working toward. Seeing the words, “I want to speak Spanish fluently” or “I want to participate in ocean research” can be a strong motivation when you’re neck-deep in t-tests or irregular verb conjugations.
3. Make time for learning
Where are you in your education? Are you a young, first-time college student, or are you going back to school after years of experience as a professional? If you have fewer responsibilities beyond your coursework, then it will obviously be much easier to devote the time and attention you need to your courses. Paying rent or raising children makes it a little more difficult to devote time to education.
In either case, create a plan for when and where you will do your schoolwork. Who can you enlist to help you cover other tasks? How else can you etch out time?
There is no way around the fact that courses require an investment of time. This is often one of the biggest challenges of finding success in online learning. If you have a plan for how you’ll make time, you dramatically increase your chances of success. Once you have that time etched out, be sure that you are using it efficiently.
4. Set yourself up for success
Before the class starts, gather all the materials you will need. Review the syllabus ahead of time if you can, and make sure that you have the correct editions of required books, any specialized equipment such as a scientific calculator or a printer, the correct hardware requirements on your computer, and any particular software programs that you will need.
Don’t forget the “old school” basics either: notebooks, good writing utensils, highlighters, etc. You might not be in a school building, but the first day of school is still the first day of school. And there’s no better way to celebrate than with an assortment of colored highlighters and pens.
5. Find the right resources
For those who are more digitally-minded, some online programs allow you to highlight and annotate right on your computer! Online programs like Mendeley or Zotero allow users to store articles on their cloud, complete with personal notes and highlighting.
If you are comfortable in the digital environment, a program like this also reduces the amount of paper needed. It also allows you to access articles and resources from just about anywhere there is Internet access, so you can get your work done even while you’re traveling.
6. Stay on track
The ability to do homework while you’re away from home is nice, but it brings us to our next point: Don’t fall behind. Online course requirements run the gamut from synchronous courses, where you have to log in at a specific time each week to meet virtually, to more self-paced. The self-paced classes present the greatest pitfalls in timing, as it’s easy to pace yourself right into a corner as you near the end of the course.
Some people have the opposite problem. It can be tempting to work ahead, thinking that you can crush the entire 12-week course in three weeks, but there are a few pitfalls there as well. For one, rushing through the content cheapens the experience and usually results in a shallower and less meaningful learning process.
You might not internalize the content as well as you otherwise could. This leads to challenges later when you have to implement the content. Learning is a process, and rushing through the steps may help you complete the course but have little real knowledge to show for it.
Whichever type of class you take, you’ll have some responsibility for staying engaged and on top of deadlines, assignment expectations, and course announcements.
7. Love what you learn
Perhaps the most important criteria for success in the online learning environment is love. In the online learning environment, it’s easy to think that you can check in once a week and turn in your assignments on time to earn an A, but there’s more to learning than showing up.
When you pursue a topic you love, it becomes easier to immerse yourself in the learning, even if only for those few hours a week. So, find the part of you that loves that particular topic, and indulge that part of you. This is quite possibly one of the most important things in any class.
Find the beauty in the intricacies and nuances of the topic. Engage with the content in ways that are personal and meaningful for you. Engage with the professor and with your classmates, as well. Challenge them and yourself with a genuine inquiry into the subject. Your professor is an expert in the course content, and they are teaching the class because they like sharing their knowledge and enjoy helping people who are truly interested and engaged in the topic.
Even when it feels like you are just jumping through hoops by commenting on “at least three discussion board posts in a meaningful way,” (as many online classes dictate), these really are opportunities to genuinely engage with other learners.
When you dig into the topic thoughtfully, what new questions arise for you? What new ideas or insights have the comments of your peers instigated for you?
8. Enjoy the process
Love may sound like a strong word for a class you may be dreading, or even for a class you are interested in. But it’s also a powerful word with the potential to engage the heart, soul, and mind.
Learning is a process, and it’s often more about the journey than the destination. If you embark on that journey with an honest thirst for knowledge and a quest to understand, you are much more likely to arrive at the destination you intended – or maybe a destination you never even imagined. Successful online learning can be as simple as just being wholeheartedly interested.