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Expert Advice for Succeeding in Online Classes

Check out NerdScholar‘s tips for making the most of any online class! 

Whether you are a college student looking to take on extra units in your spare time or a high school student brushing up on your SAT prep, online classes are a competitive option for all—at a fraction of the cost of traditional schooling. The number of online learners is expected to continue growing, especially with the rising popularity of massive open online classes, or MOOCs.

With college and university classrooms at maximum capacity and tuition costs rising, it is no wonder so many students are turning to online courses to complete their degrees. But the adoption of online courses now sees many students struggling to keep pace and attributing poor performance to the lack of communication and structure. To help mitigate these issues for new students, NerdScholar asked professors of online classes for their best advice on tackling the virtual learning landscape. Here’s what they had to say:
infographic called Number of Students Enrolled in At Least One Online Course

1. Choose the right class for your needs.

Before worrying about how to succeed in an online class, there are a number of factors to consider when choosing which one you should take. First, assess your goals and what you hope to get out of the class. Mathew Curtis, a professor at the University of Southern California, says students considering online courses should “have the class be relevant and connect to who they are or what they want to be.” The more interested you are in the subject matter, whether for personal or professional reasons, the more likely you are to succeed from the start.

It is important, too, that your online course meets your standards, says Velle Kolde, a professor at Washington State University’s College of Business. Much like reputation says something about traditional colleges and universities, accreditation “provides assurance to both the student and prospective employers that the program is rigorous and meets the highest standards.” Tracey Weiss, a professor at Temple University, adds that accreditation will also be a factor for those students looking to earn specific credentials or certificates of completion.

2. Set a schedule beforehand.

The most important driver of success in online classes is scheduling your time wisely. Most online courses come with little direction, and students are expected to work at their own pace. Stephanie Freeman, an online course professor at North Carolina Central University, says “students must expect to spend additional time planning out their schedules” if they are to succeed. Doing so at the start of the class will enable students to stick to a firm schedule they would not otherwise have.

Jessica Viecelli-Stimpson, a professor at American International College, prefers online courses with a set structure. “To help students plan their time so that they aren’t waiting until the last minute, I usually provide a coursework overview with suggested completion dates for each assignment.” She says this process allows her students to see the long-term benefits of scheduling ahead, and advises others to do the same.

3. Be committed and disciplined.

Success in an online course requires hard work and motivation. As with traditional classes, make sure you have the time to devote to the course, Curtis says. “It may sound impressive to tell friends and family you have signed up to take [an online] class,” he says, “but if you don’t make it past week one due to the stress and time commitments, it can be disheartening to quit.”

Weiss says the key to success in an online course is discipline, more so than in traditional classes. In the latter, she says, professors tend to remind students of important deadlines and homework assignments, while students in online courses must prioritize on their own. Curtis adds, “There is more temptation to delay work [in an online class] as you don’t need to be working or present at a specific time.” Being diligent in your work will benefit you in the end.

4. Communicate frequently with your instructor.

Mastering the subject matter in an online course relies heavily on teacher-student communication. It is important that students feel they can openly communicate with their instructor, Viecelli-Stimpson says. “Just because it is an online class and there may be no face-to-face element, it does not mean that there isn’t an instructor facilitating the course who is willing and ready to help.” She adds that it is especially crucial students communicate with their instructors as to avoid falling behind or struggling with the course load.

Likewise, students should make sure they are enrolling in an online course taught by a professor who is attentive to his or her students’ needs, Viecelli-Stimpson says. “Effective online instructors make themselves available to the student if the student has questions about the course.”

5. Research online classes as you would traditional ones.

Deciding which online classes to enroll in requires many of the same steps—and is just as important—as enrolling in traditional college courses. “Read the course catalog first—the same as if taking the class in a face-to-face setting,” Freeman advises. She adds that “the college or university should provide the professor’s name and background information” as well. The next step is to “evaluate the instructor’s teaching experience and ties to the college or university because these two areas can determine the instructor’s dedication to and care for the course.” Lastly, “if the online course requires more reading material or course materials than the traditional course,” Freeman says, “the student should consider that as an indication of more reading requirements and independent study.”

6. Build a support network.

Adding an online class to a full course load is tough, but it can be even tougher for an adult with a full-time job and many other responsibilities. For the working adult, Kolde says, “there may be some tough trade-offs to be made. You should discuss what will be expected of you during the program with the people that are important to you.” This could mean informing your employer of your extra work load, or asking your spouse to take on more responsibilities at home. The support of family and friends as well as of your employer can keep you from feeling overwhelmed and help you complete your online work successfully.


Mathew Curtis, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication where he teaches in both the online and traditional graduate program. His specialties are advertising and market research and he regularly consults for local and national businesses.

Stephanie Freeman is a Program Director for the Arts and Humanities Program at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina.  She has been teaching on a collegiate level for 22 years and has been teaching online courses for 10 years.

Jessica Viecelli-Stimpson is a business instructor at American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts.  She has been teaching since 2007 and enjoys teaching both traditional courses and online courses.

Velle Kolde is a professor and Director of the Executive MBA program at Washington State University and has served on the Board of Advisors to the College of Business. He also received his Bachelor’s and Masters of Accounting degrees from Washington State University.

Tracey Weiss, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Strategic and Organizational Communication at Temple University and co-Director of the new Online Graduate Certificate Program in Strategic Communication and Cross-Cultural Leadership. 

Infographic courtesy of The Sloan Consortium.
Photo of GiannaAbout the Author: Gianna Sen-Gupta is a writer and communications specialist for NerdScholar, a financial literacy website for students. NerdScholar empowers students to make smart financial choices by providing them and their families with the free resources and advice needed to best navigate the college process. Follow NerdScholar on Twitter: @NW_NerdScholar.


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