5 Tips to Excel in Online Learning

Online degree programs have typically been met with skepticism and considered the “easy” way to earn a degree. But the Coronavirus has shaken up everyone’s world. After spending years trying to refine and master personal study habits, the last month has thrown most, if not all, university students into a new world of learning—virtually. Students and professors alike have all found that online learning isn’t quite as simple as it seemed.

As an online graduate student for the past 3 years, I understand how difficult it can be. How do you juggle the distractions of everyday life while completing required assignments? How do you stay focused during Zoom meetings?

I’ve already come head-to-head with all of the challenges you’re facing today. So, let me share with you some tips and tricks to virtual learning . . . and maintain some semblance of sanity too . . .

1) Eliminate Distractions

Since leaving your house to study at the library isn’t an option right now, pick a room in your house that’s away from excess noise and distractions so you can focus on your coursework.

That means leaving your cell phone in a different room too. Don’t leave yourself open to temptation to check the newest surge of quarantine memes while you’re in the middle of writing page 2.

And if you’re anything like me, clean your work area in advance so you don’t decide now is the time to dust the fans and scrub the floor before you can get started.

2) Get Organized

You have 120 pages to read before Tuesday morning and it’s Monday night . . . but, suddenly, you see your cat walking through the yard, reminding you that you haven’t finished binge watching Tiger King. Obviously, it’s time to figure out if Carol Baskin really did kill her husband.


Set a schedule and hold yourself accountable. Whether it’s in a brand-new planner or on a scrap sheet of paper, write down a weekly plan with daily goals that you must accomplish before Netflix-ing.

By structuring your environment, it’ll help you find a daily routine. Bonus: You might even remember what day it is!

3) Manage Your Time

Unless you’re a super student, don’t treat virtual coursework like a normal 9-5 job. Schedule blocks of time (I suggest 1.5- to 3-hour blocks) solely dedicated to completing assignments and studying. Feel free to pick the time of day you know works best for you—morning, afternoon, night, or somewhere in the middle.

Be sure to give yourself regular breaks in between the blocks. I like to give myself a 10-minute break at the top of the hour to get a drink, snack, or a chance to stretch. Give yourself an opportunity to refresh before you power on.

Most importantly, give yourself a clear end point for the day. Accomplish what you need to do and take the rest of the day to enjoy your favorite spot in your house. Now’s the time to Netflix and check in on those cool cats and kittens.

4) Group Assignments—Sigh

From elementary school through graduate school, group assignments will forever haunt our dreams. And just because you’re working online doesn’t mean they’re going away. In fact, it seems professors especially like group projects for online courses.

Tips for working in groups for online classes:

  • Google Docs is your friend. You can upload a single document for everyone to work on at once or independently . . . you can comment too!
  • Create a Facebook Messenger or GroupMe chat with your cohort, class, or CSD-friends group to easily share responses to questions from your professor. Chances are, if you’re emailing your professor a question, someone else is thinking it too and can also benefit from the response.
  • Webex, Zoom, and Facebook chats are great ways to collaborate and get work done “in person” . . . as well as get some much-needed human interaction.

5) Oh, Technology

You may be surprised to find a lot of your assignments will be just as time intensive as they were when you were on campus, if not more. Except now you also have to navigate the labyrinth that is your university’s online library system—logging in 100 times before it lets you open up one research article and downloading the newest version of Adobe 15 times before you can play a video or sound bite.

To ease the frustration, take advantage of your university library’s how-to tutorials about navigating the site, and online chats with your librarians. They’ll help you find just the right documents you need—without as much of the fuss. Investigate these resources early so you’re not scrambling last minute for that assignment that’s due in 24 hours.

Finally, since the entire world is turning to the Internet to power through this quarantine, be prepared for downgraded web speeds. You may have to watch that loading wheel spin for an extra few minutes before your media loads. Be patient and if something doesn’t load, try changing browsers before emailing your professor. I’ve noticed online media can be finicky, especially if it’s downloaded directly from your university’s website.

Bonus Tip

If you haven’t invested in a pair of blue light glasses, do your eyes a favor and order a pair. If you think you’ve already spent a lot of time in front of a computer screen, just wait. I’ve found these glasses really help eliminate eye-strain headaches and I regret waiting until my final year of grad school to invest in a pair.

The beauty of online coursework is it allows you to tailor your learning specifically to you . . . but flexibility can be both a blessing and a curse. Make sure you set yourself up for success by figuring out your priorities (take care of yourself and your family first), knowing what professors expect of you, and finding resources to help you succeed.

And if you still find yourself struggling, reach out to a student that’s already going through an online program. We’ve got your back!

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