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Tips for Succeeding in an Online Course

Many students are looking to cyberspace to earn their degrees—or to seek training to bolster their resumes. Online classes offer many advantages to students who work full-time or for other reasons are unable to travel to a campus or follow a rigid class schedule. While the virtual classroom can be an effective and flexible learning environment, it is not without pitfalls for the unprepared student. Whether you’re 18 and just getting started or 80 and continuing to grow your knowledge and skills, you can adhere to some basic guidelines to ensure that you’re giving yourself the best shot at success in your online class.

Before you even sign up for an online class, it’s best that you dump any assumptions that have the potential to sabotage your path to success.

Don’t assume, for example, that a course is self paced. Many accredited courses offered by universities are simply online versions of their regular classes. That likely means they will follow the same calendar with specific mid-term and end-term dates. This will require students to submit work according to a set schedule in order to meet the calendar deadlines.

You also should not assume that an online course is easier than a classroom course. Many students opt for online classes based on the mistaken notion that it’s an easy way to get a grade—and a degree. Again, accredited online courses must still fulfill the school’s mission goals and must meet the standards specified to maintain accreditation. That means the work is going to be just as challenging as that on campus.

Avoid making assumptions about how course interactions are handled. In general, most online courses are asynchronous, meaning that there are few, if any, live online exchanges between teacher and students. The instructor will announce or post an assignment and then students will upload responses. The instructor grades the assignments and sends them back to the student. Questions may be posed one day via discussion board or email and then answered the next day via the same method. In some cases, however, instructors may want to hold online lectures to better explain a difficult concept. The instructor may request that students log on at a particular time for online demos. Students should be prepared for these situations and take full advantage of them as learning opportunities.

In addition to staying away from presumptions about the nature of online classes, adhere to some commonsense rules to make your online class a valuable learning experience free of issues.

Read the syllabus.

Okay, that probably sounds like a silly suggestion. Everybody reads the syllabus, right? Probably not. Most likely give it a cursory glance. It’s all the same stuff you’ve seen for other courses, nothing really important. The syllabus is a critical component because it represents the contract between you and the instructor. The syllabus outlines the course policies on late work, extra credit and plagiarism and defines the grading scale and grading system used. You might breeze through a course with a 90% average thinking you’re getting an A. When report cards are released and you have a B+, it’s bound to make you angry. But right there in the syllabus it says that the range for an A is 94-100. Missed it by that much. Another mistake you might make without reading the syllabus is to calculate your overall average minus whatever weighting system is applied. You might have a 100% average on course quizzes and think you deserve an A, but the quizzes may only account for 20% of the final grade whereas the essays, on which you’ve maintained an average of 80%, account for 75% of the final grade. It’s all in the syllabus.

Submit your work on time

This is kind of a corollary to the myth about self pacing. If the instructor specifies a deadline, then meet it. Instructors have deadlines too. They have to submit mid-term grades and final grades to the registrar on time, so they likely will not wait around for you to finish your work. Late policies will naturally vary by instructor, but it behooves you to get your work in on schedule. Some instructors will penalize for lateness; others may not really care. In many cases, missing a deadline can mean failure.

Check the course page regularly for updates

Instructors post important information on the home page, information that could affect your grade. Communication is a critical component of online courses, and if you don’t access the course page regularly, you’ll be missing out on some important interaction. The natural inclination is to only check in when assignments are due, to upload or post the responses and then log out. But what if there’s a problem with your upload and the instructor sends an email via the course page letting you know your file wasn’t received? If you only log in once a week, it could be a week before you know the problem even existed. What if the instructor has corrected a mistake on the grade calculation in the syllabus? You could easily miss the new information if you’re not regularly accessing the course page. Keeping up to date on what’s going on in the course is one of the best ways to avoid problems and ensure you complete the course successfully.

Pay attention to instructor feedback

Another important step to take is paying attention to instructor feedback. That may sound like a given, but too often students are far more interested in that grade affixed to the work than they are in the reason behind the grade. For many—and probably more so for the online student—that grade could be the ticket to a better-paying job and a lucrative career. It’s only natural to be focused on achieving high scores. The catch is that if you don’t understand what you’ve done wrong, you’ll never be able to correct it and get better. We often take instructor feedback personally, and the reaction is to deny the truth in it. One important step toward becoming a better student is to accept the feedback, learn from it and grow from it. In the long run, adopting this kind of attitude will help you succeed in your courses and, ultimately, achieve your career and life goals.

Don’t cheat!

You’d be surprised how many students fail courses because they’re caught cheating. For over 20 years I’ve warned by students that I fail at least one every semester for plagiarism. But that never seems to stop anyone from doing it. In the online arena, it’s all too easy to grab something off the internet without proper attribution, and just Google the word “essay” and see how many hits you get for online paper mills. When the grade itself is the final reward, the temptation is strong to take shortcuts. But here’s a little forewarning: Cheating detection tools are growing more and more sophisticated, and most online course delivery systems have built-in options for comparing student work to multiple databases and hundreds of web sites. If you’ve copied text from a web site, it can be revealed in seconds with the click of a button. If you’re committed to succeeding in online education, then do your own work and learn from it.

Online courses present students from all walks of life with an excellent opportunity to grow and improve. Get the most out of your online courses by actively participating in the work and interaction, following the rules laid out by the instructor and using any feedback you receive in a constructive way that makes you a true learner working to attain ambitious education and career goals.