Online Students’ Top 7 Study Tips for Academic Success

Online Students’ Top 7 Study Tips for Academic Success
portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
By Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

Published on December 9, 2020

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Online college students experience many challenges. Some struggle with tech issues, while others have trouble staying motivated. This is especially true for learners new to online classes, including those whose schools were forced to switch to remote learning due to the pandemic.

Regardless of how your classes are being delivered, one of the keys to success for all students is to possess solid study skills.

In a recent BestColleges survey, we asked students who graduated from fully online programs (i.e., those that took place predominantly online with no required face-to-face sessions, but might have incorporated on-site activities such as fieldwork) to share their experiences and tips.

In total, more than 500 students who graduated between 2015 and 2020 offered feedback, with many reporting that they achieved academic success due to a combination of persistence, strong time-management skills, and a focus on staying organized.

Online Students' Top 7 Tips for Acing Your Online Classes

Our survey asked the open-ended question, "What is your advice for students studying online in the future?" Students' responses included a collection of study tips that can help you succeed, too. Here are the top seven pieces of advice from online graduates.

1. Reduce Distractions

Staying focused on your goals is just as important as carving out distraction-free time for your online studies. And let's face it: Life can certainly be distracting. Adding school to your everyday schedule makes it harder to manage other life responsibilities and commitments.

Some of the essential strategies our survey participants recommended include the following:

Create weekly to-do lists Review class and assignment instructions carefully Attend all live class sessions

Several respondents also mentioned utilizing prerecorded lectures and recorded meetings. You can review these resources at times that are specifically convenient for you and when you have fewer distractions around you.

2. Take Notes

Taking notes can be another helpful way to focus your attention during what might be limited study time. Whether you're attending a live class meeting, viewing a prerecorded session, or reading from a textbook, you've got multiple note-taking methods to choose from.

Some evidence suggests that taking notes by hand is more beneficial than typing them out, but ultimately both writing and typing notes can be effective. Just find the system that works for you and stick with it.


3. Get Practical Experience

Of the more than 500 students we surveyed, a majority (69%) said they enrolled in their online programs to help them attain specific career or employment goals. It's no surprise, then, that their study advice included getting real-world experience with concepts learned in class.

Explore internship opportunities in your online program. Or if you're working while in school — which 85% of respondents were doing — look for ways to tie class assignments and discussions to your work interests and current projects. Talk to your instructor to find out more about hands-on, professional opportunities.

4. Do the Reading

Many students new to online learning assume their classes won't require a lot of reading or even come with required textbooks, but this is a common myth. In fact, you might find yourself having to do more reading in an online class than you would in a traditional in-person class.

“Always keep track of where you are in the reading and review the chapters after they are covered in class to cover all the points that either weren’t covered or that you just didn’t understand.”. Source: — BestColleges Survey Participant

It can be easy to ignore assigned readings, especially if you're not being tested on your reading comprehension or are short on time. But it's best you make an effort to finish all required readings.

The online students we surveyed advised not only doing the readings but also reading carefully. Additionally, taking detailed notes (see tip No. 2 above) can help you concentrate and get the most out of what you read.


5. Study

While this tip may seem obvious, it was a popular response to our survey question. The truth is that learning doesn't just happen on its own — it's up to you to devote time and energy to completing the assignments, readings, and participation requirements in each of your online classes.

“You have to set aside a lot of time for studying [and] be on top of your schedule!”. Source: — BestColleges Survey Participant

Although the time required for each class will vary, you should plan on studying at least eight hours per week for an undergraduate course and 12 hours per week for a graduate-level course. Outside of school, the typical online student is busy managing family commitments and working, so devoting time to study for your classes is essential to your success.

Survey respondents also recommended joining or forming study groups. Connecting with your peers in a purposeful way outside of class can help you stay organized and focused.

6. Use Available Resources

While it may feel isolating at times, you're not alone in your pursuit of an online degree. Many student services can help you stay on track toward graduation. Whether you need academic help (e.g., tutoring, research skills), career advice (e.g., mentoring, counseling), or assistance with personal issues (e.g., physical and mental health), resources are available. Don't hesitate to reach out to these offices to start a conversation about possible solutions.

Remember that your school wants you to succeed and is prepared to provide the support necessary to get you there. If you're not sure what resources are available, ask your instructors and academic advisor; they can share recommendations and connect you with the appropriate assistance.


7. Ask Questions

Last, but certainly not least, it's critical that you ask questions in your online classes. If you're having trouble moving forward for any reason — for example, maybe you don't understand an assignment's instructions, want clarification on due dates, or simply need more information about a specific concept — take the initiative to reach out to your instructor.

Even tough topics can and should be handled at a distance if they're hindering your academic progress.

Make the Most of Your Opportunity to Study Online

If you're considering an online program or are already enrolled in one, chances are you've got specific goals in mind that will benefit from education. Ultimately, online learning is an investment in your future.

Even if you're only taking online courses because of the pandemic, use this opportunity to really hone your study skills and independent learning. Commit yourself to the process and practice proven study strategies so you can get the most out of your hard work and eventually transform the future you want into reality.

As one survey participant wrote, "There were days I didn't believe I would make it. But I did. I kept at it and made time for every aspect of my life. It was well worth it in the end."


Feature Image: fabio camandona / Moment / Getty Images Plus

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