Your Guide to Online Course Structure

Online learning offers exceptional flexibility and convenience, especially for students who need to balance their studies with a full-time job or family responsibilities. However, it is important to carefully consider whether distance education suits your unique learning style before enrolling in an online program.

To help you make this decision, the following guide provides a comprehensive overview of the typical online course structure. It explains the differences between synchronous, asynchronous, and self-paced learning. It also details some of the most common considerations involved in seeking high-quality online courses, including the credentials of your instructor, the level of engagement with your fellow classmates, and the accessibility of student support services.

Finally, this guide will help you think about how you learn most effectively and whether a particular online course offers the kind of instruction you need to succeed. For instance, visual and auditory learners may benefit most from lectures and assigned readings, while kinesthetic learners may instead need to the opportunity to acquire knowledge through projects and practice problems.

Structure and Schedule of an Online Course

While the exact structure of online courses varies depending on factors like subject matter and the teaching style of your instructor, this section will give you a general idea of what to expect when learning at a distance.

Structure

In many ways, the structure of online courses closely resembles the structure of in-person courses. Each week, students generally must complete a set of required readings, watch one or more lectures, participate in a discussion with their classmates, and finish an assignment.

The difference lies in how you complete these activities. For example, you may watch a previously recorded lecture in short bursts, pausing as you see fit to refer back to your online course materials. You may engage with your classmates through web-based discussion boards and chat apps rather than through face-to-face interaction. You may also complete assignments and even take exams on your own schedule and from the comfort of your own home.


Format

Your online course may be delivered in one of several formats. Hybrid online courses incorporate both online elements and classroom learning and generally benefit students who can commute to campus from time to time.

Synchronous online courses require you to participate in lectures or discussions at specific times each week. Asynchronous courses, also known as flexible online courses, allow you to complete all of your coursework on your own schedule, making them ideal for working professionals.

Finally, some schools offer self-paced online classes. In these courses, you can advance through material as soon as you demonstrate an understanding of core concepts and skills.


Attendance

Regardless of whether you study online or in person, you should make an effort to attend every class and mandatory course activity, including discussion sections. Instructors may lower the grades of students who do not regularly attend and participate in class.

If you enroll in an asynchronous course, you can watch lectures, contribute to class discussions, and complete assignments at whatever time is most convenient for you, though you typically must do so by a set weekly deadline. However, synchronous courses require live participation. Professors who need to actively engage with their students, such as those who teach using the case-discussion method, may offer only synchronous online classes.


Platform

Online students typically access all of their readings, lectures, discussion boards, and assignments through a single web-based portal, commonly known as a learning platform.

Some of the most common learning management systems include Blackboard, Canvas, and Docebo. Your college or university may also use its own proprietary software to deliver online courses.

Many schools allow prospective online students to sample their learning platform before deciding to enroll. These demo or "sandbox" experiences can help you get comfortable with a particular system and determine if your computer and internet connection meet the required technical specifications.


Exams

At some institutions, you can take all of your exams through your regular learning management platform. You typically must complete your test within a given period of time.

Other schools require students to take their exams in person at proctored test centers. For example, your college may partner with a testing company like Pearson VUE, which maintains test centers across the country. These centers may limit the kind of outside materials you can bring into the testing area, such as books or graphing calculators.

You can contact your instructor or your college's registrar to learn more about testing requirements.

Signs of a Quality Online Course

Not all online courses and programs are created equal. Make sure to carefully review the section below to learn more about how you can easily identify high-quality distance education options.

Information on the Instructor

Start by researching your online course's instructor. Ideally, they'll have an advanced degree and/or substantial professional experience in their field. Community colleges and trade schools may hire professors with just a master's, though most reputable four-year institutions prefer instructors with a terminal or doctoral degree. Look for an online bio or CV to learn more about your instructor's background.

Sites like RateMyProfessors also host reviews of instructors written by current and former students. These reviews typically include information on the amount of homework assigned, class attendance policies, and the overall quality of the course.

In addition to their qualifications and ratings, try to determine how available your professor will be outside of class, particularly to distance learners. For example, do they host office hours specifically for online students? Do they provide an email address for questions or regularly contribute to online discussion boards? You can often find this information on a course syllabus.

Clear and Measurable Learning Outcomes and Expectations

Learning outcomes refer to the knowledge and skills you should develop in the course. For example, if you are taking an introductory English composition class, learning outcomes may include a clear understanding of the rules of grammar and syntax and the ability to both outline and write a five-paragraph essay.

Learning expectations refer to how an instructor will assess your progress in their course. Some professors incorporate attendance and class participation into grades. Others rely exclusively on weekly homework assignments and quizzes. In some courses, your overall grade may consist entirely of your results on midterms and final exams.

A quality online course should make both its learning outcomes and expectations clear from the outset. Look for this information in course descriptions and course syllabi. Some schools also offer online "course shopping" as an opportunity to sample a course prior to enrolling. During this shopping period, you can also ask your instructor about expected outcomes and assessment methods.

Intuitive and Consistent Navigation

The learning management system that your school or instructor uses plays a key role in shaping online class structure. More advanced platforms generally feature extremely intuitive navigation, making them easy to use even for first-time online students.

For example, after logging in with your student credentials and selecting your course, you may be taken to a landing page that includes notifications from your instructor, an overview of your current lesson, and links to the readings, videos, and assignments associated with that lesson. You may need to answer questions about a reading or video before advancing to the next part of your lesson. This helps to ensure that you understand core concepts before moving on.

Whenever possible, take advantage of online course demonstrations offered by your college or university. These give you a better idea of whether a school's learning management system is user-friendly and incorporates good pedagogical practices.

Content and Activities That Engage the Learner

A high-quality online course should consist of more than just previously recorded lectures. Interactivity and student engagement are also important components of the learning process.

A more interactive learning experience may include mini-quizzes or problem sets after each reading or video. If you do not answer enough questions correctly on these assessments, the system may require you to review the material again or direct you to a companion piece that provides a more detailed explanation of the concept.

Online courses may also incorporate scenario-based interactivity. These experiences ask students to apply their learning to a real-world or hypothetical case study. For example, in a biology course, you may be expected to take on the role of a scientist trying to determine why fewer fish live in a particular pond. The system may allow you to interview local residents, navigate to different areas, and take scientific readings to understand the cause.

Collaborative Work

Along with interactivity and engagement, the best online courses encourage collaboration among students. After completing a reading or watching a lecture, your instructor may require you to post a question or comment on an online discussion board. They may then ask you to respond to another student's question or comment, imitating the back-and-forth of a classroom discussion even when learners complete their coursework on different schedules.

Your instructor may also assign group projects. For example, a computer science class may involve working collaboratively in an online "sandbox" environment to develop a new program. Students in writing classes may edit and offer feedback on one another's work.

Synchronous courses generally feature more collaboration than asynchronous courses, as they allow for live interaction between learners and instructors. However, self-paced classes may struggle to provide any opportunities for collaborative work, given that each student moves through their lessons at a different rate.

Clear Information on How Students Can Find Help or Get Technical Support

Finally, when deciding whether to enroll in an online course, make sure to research the availability of technical support and academic assistance. Many schools contract with outside companies to provide technical support 24/7. This allows students to resolve issues at whatever time they may encounter them.

Online programs should also create mechanisms for their learners to access tutoring and other academic support services. While some schools rely exclusively on instructors and teaching assistants to answer questions and provide individualized attention to students, an increasing number now employ dedicated advisors and coaches that work with learners across multiple courses. These advisors may also provide guidance on choosing courses, selecting a major, and meeting graduation requirements.

In addition, your college may also have an online writing center that gives personalized feedback on papers and reports. Writing labs can be a particularly valuable resource for English language learners and international students.

Understanding Your Learning Style

In 1983, Howard Gardner introduced the theory of multiple intelligences, or the idea that different students learn best in different ways. For example, visual learners may benefit most from diagrams, while verbal learners may better retain information through reading and writing. While our understanding of intelligence has evolved since Dr. Gardner first proposed his theory, it remains critically important to understand your unique learning style when choosing an online program.

To begin, think about the kind of classes you have excelled at in the past. If you did the best in music, you may be primarily a rhythmic and harmonic learner. Students who like working in groups may be interpersonal learners, while those who prefer to work alone may have stronger intrapersonal intelligence. No one learns exclusively through just one style, but thinking about what you enjoy and excel at can help you determine whether online education is right for you.

Ultimately, time requirements differ by program, so distance learners should discuss degree commitments with academic and departmental advisors.

Generally speaking, distance education best serves students who learn visually, verbally, and auditorily, as most of the information in your online class will be presented through readings, writing assignments, lectures, and discussions. Kinesthetic learners, or those who learn by doing, should seek out online courses that incorporate a high degree of interactivity, including scenarios, problem sets, and game-oriented learning elements.

There are many online resources that can help you understand your preferred learning style. For example, this quiz hosted by North Carolina State University asks roughly 40 questions on topics like what you enjoy doing in your free time, how others might describe you, and how you recall memories. It then provides an overview of how you would ideally learn and links to additional resources that explain the kind of instruction that best aligns with your unique style.

Dr. Gardner himself has cautioned against thinking of yourself as only one type of learner. Most students absorb and process information in multiple ways, whether through conversation, physical activity, or self-guided exploration. Instead of relying too heavily on your learning style as the deciding factor in whether to continue your education online, remember to consider it alongside all of the other elements of high-quality online courses detailed above.