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Are you taking an online class this semester? Or a hybrid class—a traditional classroom with online learning components? If you haven’t yet ventured into the virtual classroom, you likely will. In a recent survey by SH101, more than 5 out of 10 students who responded had taken at least one online class, and 2 in 3 said online classes were either required or optional in their current program. Here’s how to impress your professor, connect with your peers, and stand out online for all the right reasons.

Can this help me?

Some online courses are relatively inexpensive compared to the classroom model (though this may be offset by a technology fee). Online learning offers schedule flexibility, which can work well for students who are commuting, employed, or caring for families. Location-flexible learning can also be helpful to students with disabilities (no travel or classroom discomforts), those who struggle to speak up in a classroom (no one staring at them), and people who like to wear their PJs all day long (no funny looks).

That said, online classes come with certain challenges. The professor isn’t right there reminding you about the paper due Friday, yet the academic expectations remain high. Online classes can be just as rigorous—if not more so—than traditional courses. In your own space, distractions may surround you (festering laundry, imperious cat). At the outset, your peers will be disembodied names and your professor just text on a screen. You can turn that into a learning scenario in which you can shine.

Do online classes work?

“[W]e are asked by students all the time: Are online courses hard? Am I going to do well in an online or hybrid course?” wrote researchers in a 2014 analysis (Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration). The evidence is uneven, but much of it is reassuring:

  • Students’ academic outcomes appear similar in online and face-to-face classes.
  • The hybrid model can work slightly better than the traditional approach, some studies suggest.
  • Whether the classroom is online or traditional is a less meaningful predictor of success than students’ drive and engagement.

8 ways to be a virtual stand out

1. Check your calendar and reminders

Icon: Checklist and check markIn online classes, you cannot count on your professor or classmates to keep you on track. If you didn’t do this already, read your syllabus carefully and schedule everything for the semester: class sessions, assignments, readings, deadlines, and study groups.

  • Use the organizational system that works best for you (calendar, app, whiteboard, etc.).
  • Set notifications for tasks and deadlines.
  • On your calendar, colour-code the time frame for each project (e.g., a blue band spanning from the date the paper was assigned to the date it’s due). In a study, this simple technique helped people meet their deadlines.
  • Use that calendar or app for goals and planning.

“Getting organized by using the syllabus and other course information is key to the start of a smooth semester. You should take a tour of the online class to find out what is available and where. I also suggest that you keep an organized folder or binder of print material from the course.”
—Dr. Amy Baldwin, Director, University College, University of Arkansas

“The best way that students can stand out in online classes is to be as well organized as possible, including in how you present your work. Because online instructors usually have to grade a written assignment, a well-structured and well-organized student paper stands out. For students, that level of organization facilitates the learning process and leads to more outstanding work.”
—Dolan Williams, Education Attorney, California, and former Student Community Standards Specialist at an online university

“Be prepared. Outline an agenda for the semester. A large benefit of online courses is that most, if not all, materials are available from the start of the semester.”
—Kyle G., third-year undergraduate, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia

“Check your course email and assignments twice daily. A lot of people do not have the self-discipline to do this, which leads to a lack of success in the course.”
—Hayden W.*, second-year student, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina 

(*Name changed)

“Check when the assignment/test is scheduled, which chapters are needed for it, and then divide the number of pages by the number of days until the due date.”
—Corey L., third-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

“[What works is] ensuring that I am organized—whether that means a million different calendars, one big clear calendar in view, or an agenda with dates and times. If you are not organized in online classes, it is easy to fall behind and not succeed.”
—Aleigha V., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

2. Keep a steely focus on time management

Icon: HourglassYes, even more so than usual. Online learning brings an increased demand for self-discipline and time-management skills. Better get on it. 

  • Use your most productive time of day for tasks requiring memory, concentration, and alertness—i.e., assignments. For many people, this is mid to late morning.
  • Stay current with assignments, projects, and deadlines. 
  • Break your assignments into chunks to make them more manageable and rewarding. 
  • Commit to doing something every day for each assignment, even if it’s minor.
  • Consider strategically adjusting your deadlines: Instead of focusing on the due date, think about the number of days to get there. This way, the task seems more current, motivating you to get started and work on it consistently.

“In home-study mode, students determine their own schedules. One way students can avoid procrastination is by taking ‘paced’ courses with regular deadlines for small amounts of material. Another way is by making a schedule and sticking to it.”
—Dr. Martin Connors, Professor of Space Science, Athabasca University, Alberta

“I look at who turned in the assignment a day or more before the due date. It shows me that this online student is proficient in planning her or his time and is taking the assignment seriously, not throwing something together last minute.”
— Jennifer Millspaugh, MA, Professor of Speech Communication, Richland College, Texas

“Time management is important because nothing forces you to ‘go to class’ so to speak. Students who have self-discipline and good time-management skills are at a definite advantage over the others.”
—Marie-Claude Fortin, Sessional Lecturer at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver

“Make early deadlines for yourself and follow them! If something is due in two weeks, pretend that it’s due in a week.”
—Laurel W., fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick

“Keep up. Do the reading. Never assume it will be easier [than a traditional class] or that you’ll get away with being lazy. Set calendar alarms for assignments, because your teacher is not there to remind you. Log on every day, no matter what, just to check in or review the calendar or discussion board, something, anything every day.”
—Danika D., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin–Bothell

“Have a set time in [your] schedule for the online course just like if it was a class on campus.”
—Jessika L., second-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

“The same lack of structure that makes online courses difficult is the same attribute that makes it great. Being able to pick up at any time of the day can be much more fluid with a person’s schedule than having to attend a lecture or lab at a certain time and day each week.”
—Dai W.*, second-year undergraduate, University of Alaska–Anchorage 

(*Name changed)

3. Control your environment before it controls you

Icon: lightblubSome students can tune into class from their sofa and do just fine. Many of us, however, need a more structured environment in which to focus and learn. And we all need to limit our exposure to technological distractions. 

The biggest challenge of online study might be sustaining your attention. Online students confessed to mind-wandering roughly 40 percent of the time, in a 2013 study (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). (That problem was effectively addressed by routinely testing students on the material just covered.)

  • Find a place to take class and study that’s free of distractions, e.g., the library.
  • Avoid working in your bedroom, and absolutely never work in bed; this trains your mind to be active in your sleep environment.
  • Log out of social media and Netflix, turn off phone notifications, and use headphones to minimize noise distractions.
  • Try an app that limits your online access; e.g., StayFocusd (for use with Google Chrome) allows you to set a time limit on aimless browsing. For a demo of the Pomodoro technique, see the videos (on the page).

“It is so easy to get distracted when you are not actually in a classroom at a set time. Find a place and time that work best for you. For some students, that may be late at night in a corner of their kitchen or early morning at a coffee shop. Whatever it is, the space should be as distraction-free as possible.”
—Dr. Amy Baldwin, Director, University College, University of Arkansas

“Work early on to manage distractions and how you will respond to them. First, it’s important to have a dedicated area where you will complete your studies and coursework online. As faculty, I cannot concentrate while on my laptop in my living room; I have a dedicated office space where I am not able to view the TV.”
—Christina Jaquez, JD, Student Conduct Specialist, Ashford University (online)

“I go to the university library at a set time each week to work on the course.”
—R. W., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan 

“I put reminders and stickie notes around my apartment to remember when things are due.”
—Heather R., fourth-year undergraduate, MacEwan University, Alberta 

“No social media or music during [the time I set aside for] class.”
—Lori I., first-year student, University of Alaska–Fairbanks 

“The easiest part about online courses was being able to pay attention, because there is no one else to distract you from the teacher’s presentation.”
—Michael K., first-year graduate student, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois

4. Ask all the questions

Icon: Question marksYou can’t raise your hand in an online course, but you can still speak up—and you must. To clarify assignment expectations and make sure you understand the point, ask right away. Your classmates will benefit too.

  • Get clarification about the syllabus as soon as possible. 
  • Ask your professor questions well before you need the answer.
  • When corresponding, consider time zone differences. 
  • Connect with your professor during office hours.

“Students have the responsibility for reaching out to their online instructors to ask questions. The absence of a face-to-face encounter makes this a fundamental prerequisite for online learning. If that does not happen, students are adversely affected in the learning process as well as the grades that they earn for online courses.”
—Dr. Constantine Passaris, Professor of Economics, University of New Brunswick

“The absence of body language means faculty can’t see, literally, when students have confusion on their faces. Asking questions for clarification can help everyone: you, your classmates, and even your instructor.”
—David Bartone, Lecturer and Advisor, University Without Walls, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“Email the professor regularly to make sure you are meeting their expectations, and for feedback.”
—Sarah N.*, first-year certificate student, Lambton College, Ontario

(*Name changed)

“Work on assignments as soon as they are available so that you can identify any questions you might have. Because it can be harder to get in touch with the professors, it’s good to know what you need help with as soon as possible.
—Raymond C., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin–Stout

“Go to every session, complete all assignments, and ask questions as early as possible, so you can get a response before it’s too late. Do not treat it as a ‘blow off’ just because it’s online; it’s still a college course, and you have to try to get a good grade.”
—Michael K., first-year graduate student, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois

5. Always be part of class discussions

Icon: speech bubblesTo stand out from the virtual masses, take an active role in your online learning experience. Not participating in class discussions may affect your grade. Good news: In a recent survey by SH101, many students said they are more comfortable speaking up online than in a traditional classroom.

  • Expect more interaction than in a traditional classroom setting. 
  • Initiate discussions.
  • Check your email daily, and respond when appropriate.
  • When possible, get to know your peers personally outside the virtual classroom.

“Some web-based discussion forums are mandatory and require evidence as part of posts. So a typical response includes opinion, learning, and references. In a traditional classroom, it is possible to debate and argue but never have to produce your proof.”
—Dr. Paul Jerry, Professor of Psychology, Athabasca University, Alberta

“I always encourage students to do the ‘AEQ method.’ This means Acknowledge what the other student said; provide your own Experience; follow up with a Question.”
—Dolan Williams, Education Attorney, California, and former Student Community Standards Specialist at an online university

“Similar to classroom dialogue, learning happens when you interact with your peers. My most valuable tip would be to try to engage with different classmates each week. Be diverse in who you interact with to further enrich your learning experience.”
—Christina Jaquez, JD, Student Conduct Specialist, Ashford University (online)

“There’s a greater freedom in speaking your mind when your participation grades are pulled from forum discussions. It also forces students to respond to others.”
—Joyce L., fourth-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

“There is a great foundation for looking at the perspectives and comments of several students all at the same time.”
—Alex M., third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“Participate in the group discussions and ask lots of questions, much like in lectures.”
—Corey L., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

“Most of the time people are too shy to speak up in class, but in online classes no one sees you, and you can speak your mind all the time.”
—Denise V., third-year undergraduate, St. Mary’s University, Texas

6. Use your words constructively

Icon: book with feather penSometimes written text may read more harshly than intended, especially if you don’t have an established rapport with the other person or people. It’s important to be assertive on discussion boards and email, and also to make sure you’re coming across as respectful—otherwise your assertiveness could work against you.

  • Craft your written comments before making them public. 
  • Ensure your remarks are always respectful of others’ opinions. 
  • Try not to get offended or take it personally if you read comments that seem direct or abrupt.
  • Use proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

“Carefully consider the ideas of others. Do your own readings before you respond too quickly. Provide positive feedback and supportive comments in your responses to others. Post thought-provoking questions.”
—Dr. Joy Fraser, Director of Health Administration, Athabasca University, Alberta

“As an online learner, you have the chance to really think about your ideas and positions before you post your response. No longer must the extroverts determine the discussion. Everyone has a fair shot to contribute frequently and meaningfully; everyone should take it!”
—David Bartone, Lecturer and Advisor, University Without Walls, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“It is very easy to take written communication the wrong way in an online format. Assume that anyone who communicates electronically is doing so in a calm, caring tone. Believe me! Doing this first and then asking for clarification from others are two keys to long-term management of potential conflicts.”
—Dr. Amy Baldwin, Director, University College, University of Arkansas

“Being able to read and reread what others are saying is better than hearing it in class, because it gives me time to digest their opinion and formulate a thoughtful reply.”
—Olivia H., third-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

“It’s easier for shy students to make beneficial contributions to class discussions so everyone gets a chance to be heard.”
—Amy H., fifth-year undergraduate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

“I do enjoy having online discussions. I’m allowed to review my response and then submit it, versus fearing saying something stupid.”
—Mason M., first-year graduate student, University of Wyoming

“Online classes have the benefit of connecting with others purely based on educational purposes, so conversations are very intellectual and focused.”
—Ryuichi H., second-year student, College of the Desert, California

7. Get creative with work groups

Icon: puzzle piecesTake advantage of online tools that can help you successfully work with peers from a distance. 

  • Check out these tools and formats:
    • Free document sharing/editing services
    • Free web conferencing services with online screen sharing
    • Dedicated groups via online social networks for informal discussion
  • Suggest alternative formats to your instructor, when appropriate. 

“Group work can be challenging in an online class if the expectation is to ‘meet up’ or complete work synchronously. Finding a space online—a chat room or even Google Docs—that allows for students to interact at a designated time, or asynchronously (in their own time), can be a tremendous help.”
—Dr. Amy Baldwin, Director, University College, University of Arkansas

“I like using short challenges. For instance, groups of four students work in a breakout (virtual) room for 10 minutes and then report to the class on their best ideas. It’s a great break from lecture and discussion.”
—Dr. Lisa Gualtieri, Assistant Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts

“A Facebook group of my peers helps me [manage] my courses. I try to do the same for them.” (Note: Be careful not to reuse others’ work, even inadvertently.)
—Michelle K., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“Talk to other people in your life or other peers about the content to give it more meaning.”
—Joyce L., fourth-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

“Take the course with a friend. That way, you have someone to discuss it with in person and a face-to-face study partner.”
—Abigail R., third-year undergraduate, Wayne State College, Nebraska

“I love the virtual experience of the science labs.”
—Metrico C., second-year undergraduate, University of Memphis, Tennessee

8. Test your technology

Icon: open laptopYou don’t have to be a tech guru to take an online class, but you do need to quickly address any glitches. 

  • Make sure you meet the course’s technical requirements.
  • Contact your school’s distance learning support centre with questions.
  • Ask teachers and classmates which apps and other tools they recommend for organization, document sharing, video conferencing, and so on.

“The most important thing is access to a working computer with internet and email along with a backup plan to account for computer issues, internet issues, etc. While the classroom and some content can be accessed via mobile or through apps, it is rather difficult to complete coursework this way.”
—Christina Jaquez, JD, Student Conduct Specialist, Ashford University (online) 

“Step one: Seek out the e-learning and online help support specialists at your school.”
—David Bartone, Lecturer and Advisor, University Without Walls, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“The only way to get comfortable using online tools is to experiment with them. If you run into trouble, contact the help desk or technical support people in your university.”
—Dr. Joy Fraser, Director of Health Administration at Athabasca University, Alberta

“Access all avenues of information (e.g., slides, textbooks, lecture videos, e-readers) to garner as much info as possible.”
—Marianne C., first-year graduate student, University of Toronto, Ontario

“Make sure your equipment and software are functional. I used Microsoft Office 365; it’s a dream! One last thing—save often!”
—Joshua J., second-year undergraduate, Golden Gate University, California

“Test settings and connectivity for the various platforms like they suggest; make sure you have an Ethernet cable as at times it seemed to make for a more reliable connection than wireless.”
—Diane B., doctoral student, University of Victoria, British Columbia

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Article sources

Amy Baldwin, EdD, director, University College, University of Arkansas

David Bartone, MFA, lecturer and advisor, University Without Walls, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Maria Chilicki-Godfey, MEd, instructor, University of Phoenix, Tempe, Arizona.

Martin Connors, PhD, professor of space science, Athabasca University, Alberta.

Marie-Claude Fortin, PhD, department of applied biology, University of British Columbia.

Joy Fraser, PhD, professor and director of health administration, Athabasca University, Alberta.

Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, assistant professor of public health and community medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts.

Sean Gouglas, PhD, associate professor and director, Office of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Alberta.

Christina Jaquez, JD, student conduct specialist, deputy Title IX compliance specialist, Ashford University (online).

Paul Jerry, PhD, professor of pyschology, Athabasca University, Alberta.

Jennifer Millspaugh, MA, professor of speech communication, Richland College, Texas.

Constantine Passaris, PhD, professor of economics, University of New Brunswick.

Dolan Williams, JD, education attorney; former student community standards specialist, Ashford University.

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