Completing online classes, you work on and submit your assignments in your own time and in your own way. For most students, that flexibility represents the principal advantage of online study. It can, however, degenerate into the class’s greatest threat, because it allows for lots of avoidance and procrastination. You know that big assignments buried in small print can sneak-up and ambush you. In order to avoid digital disaster, you must restructure all the old school rules to fit with your virtual circumstances.
- Different school. Same rules. Although they keep score according to your log-ins and time on the website, your instructors do “take attendance” in your online classes, and some will exact penalties for excessive absence. Instructors also strictly enforce minimum word counts for class “discussions,” and many administer quizzes to make sure you keep up with your reading. Although you need not appear in a classroom and mind your manners, you do have to satisfy the virtual equivalents of the traditional school rules. Therefore, simultaneously capitalizing on your class’s flexibility and complying with the rules, set a regular schedule for your study and homework. Your instructor probably requires three log-ins each week. Make three appointments with yourself, and use the time to stay not just current but a little ahead of the class schedule. Five weeks pass very quickly.
- Structure and discipline support excellent performance. Nearly 80 percent of online students juggle full-time work and families with their college classes. Among those highly motivated, frequently over-caffeinated, always-stressed students, about half do their coursework as time permits. The other half strictly manage their time, scheduling study time according to their biological rhythms, and working-out the details with their families so they get the peace and quiet they need. Not surprisingly, the “random” group earns C’s; the self-disciplined group earns A’s. The moral to the story: Although you have lots of latitude, you still must have structure and discipline to earn good grades in your online classes.
- Focus. Then, more focus. If you do your homework when you’re exhausted, and especially if you do your homework in the hour before it’s due, everything about your performance will look “a little fuzzy.” Fatigue will detract from your reading comprehension, so that quiz and test scores will suffer. Stress will detract from the quality of your writing, so that you will lose points on discussions and papers. Do your best to schedule your study during your personal “prime times,” the times of day when you naturally feel most awake and alert. If you must study during off-peak times, do not try to substitute energy drinks and coffee for natural focus and concentration; the buzz will turn to a blur. Instead, lower the temperature in your study area, and transform your assignments from passive to active, taking lots of notes or regularly quizzing yourself to stay on-task.
- Engage with the material. Back in the good old days when course materials came in book form, you probably learned a study technique called “SQ3R”—survey, question, read, recite, review. The technique helped you stay engaged with the textbooks by transforming every study session into dress rehearsal for a test. Your all-new and generally improved online course materials follow the same design standards your textbooks did, so that SQ3R works even better with the stuff on your monitor than it worked with the stuff on the raggedy old textbook pages. Reprise those old skills in electronic form, so that you are constantly reading and answering questions about your reading. Promoting your engagement with the texts, you naturally will increase your comprehension; and that increased comprehension translates immediately to higher test scores and better discussion grades.
- Interact with your classmates and instructor. Just as they would shy away from controversy in “real life” classroom discussions, so most online students become victims of their own classroom courtesy, forfeiting great opportunities to learn and grow from spirited discussion and debate. Next time you enter your virtual classroom and develop a discussion post, take time to read all of your classmates’ posts. Count how many times you see “good post” and “I agree.” Then, ask yourself, “Who learns anything from that stuff?” Face the inescapable fact that your classmates make mistakes, sometimes fail to get the point, and occasionally make controversial statements of their own. Help them correct their mistakes, get the point, and benefit from their controversies by asking lots and lots and lots of questions. Get even more aggressive with questions about your instructor’s responses. The more you inquire, the more you will learn.
Take advantage of the flexibility built into your online classes, but beware the risk that comes with the flexibility. Most of all, make sure you maintain the foundation of your academic success: Make sure your colleagues and supervisors at work understand the importance of your college study, and make even more certain your family knows what your degree means to you and will mean for their quality of life.
Ryan Carter is a writer and finance consultant earning his masters degree in accounting online in his spare time.