Your Guide to Online Course Expectations and Success

Your Guide to Online Course Expectations and Success
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A Note from BestColleges on Coronavirus and the Transition to Online Education

In the wake of COVID-19, colleges and universities across the U.S. and the world are making a rapid transition to online learning. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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If you are new to online courses, or are currently transitioning to remote learning full-time, our Online Education Resource Center can help you plan and set expectations for your education.

We are also working to provide information and resources to students about the impact of coronavirus on college life. Read our latest Coronavirus Resources for Students.

We encourage students to communicate their needs with their professors and school support officers. Many services have moved online as schools work to support students through this challenging time.

Your Guide to Online Course Expectations and Success

The number of students enrolled in online academic programs is increasing every year. The reason is clear: learners of all backgrounds want to obtain relevant skills in preparation for career entry and advancement. The National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) reports that more than 30% of college students pursue some form of remote learning. Approximately 20% of students at public and private higher education institutions enroll in fully online programs.

This guide supports students as they strive to meet the expectations of an online course. You will gain insight into the structure and delivery of remote classes and learn strategies for self-motivation and time management. You'll also find tips for managing school, work, and family obligations.

What to Expect in an Online Course

Colleges and universities deliver online classes through learning management software like Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas. Because distance education emphasizes flexibility, most schools offer asynchronous courses that enable students to access materials at their convenience. Professors typically provide a one-week window for completing any assigned readings, assignments, and tests. They may require learners to engage with their classmates through discussion boards to fulfill a participation requirement.

Alternatively, academic programs may involve synchronous coursework, which requires students and instructors to be online simultaneously 1-3 times per week. Teachers can simulate the feel of a traditional classroom through teaching via live video stream. For classes with fewer students, they may opt for a video- or web-conferencing format to create an intimate and collaborative learning space. In either setting, learners contribute to discussions and work through tasks in real time.

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

Asynchronous learning is more conducive to balancing school, work, and family life. Synchronous classes emphasize peer-to-peer collaboration and help students develop strong relationships with their professors.

The amount of time you should dedicate to your studies each week depends on course formats and your degree level. A typical undergraduate class comprises three credits with three hours of weekly lectures. Readings and other assignments can take four hours to complete, for a total of seven hours (or one hour per day per course). Graduate programs emphasize reading, writing, and independent research. Here, you should expect to spend at least nine hours on weekly assignments and related activities. Ultimately, time requirements differ by program, so distance learners should discuss degree commitments with academic and departmental advisors.

How Will Taking an Online Course Impact Your Relationships?

As students complete coursework and pursue professional development activities, they may have trouble finding time to stay in touch with friends and family. This lack of personal engagement can take a toll on relationships and engender feelings of loneliness and isolation. To counter these negative effects, be sure to connect with loved ones through phone conversations and get-togethers. As a bonus, these relationships can provide a support system to help you through the challenges of academic training; maintaining a personal life actually increases your odds for academic success.

You should also connect with peers who can provide academic support and personal guidance. This is key to making online learning feel more like an engaging digital community and less like a dive into a repository of documents. The best online instructors use video messaging and assignments with real-world implications to foster collaboration and teamwork. Students can also take the learning process into their own hands by creating study groups and communicating through messaging apps.

How Will Taking an Online Course Impact Your Work?

Online students should expect to spend at least seven hours each week on a single course, so it is crucial that they learn how to balance school and work. Learners should use the first 2-3 weeks of a semester to ease into academic life and discern exactly how much time they'll need for lectures, readings, and assignments. They can then coordinate their work schedule around their classes.

Learners whose work obligations are inflexible should seek guidance from student services or their academic department. Counselors can almost always create a schedule that allows for both work and classes. In some cases, this could mean changing students' enrollment status to part-time. The positive in this scenario is the improved ability to pay for living expenses while in school. A potential negative is the longer time frame for graduation: 5-6 years for a bachelor's degree and approximately three years for a master's. Ultimately, students need to establish their priorities, create a plan, and strengthen their time management skills. The following sections contain tips on how to balance school with other responsibilities.

How to Succeed in an Online Class

Before you pursue distance education, ask yourself, "What are my expectations and fears about taking an online course?" By identifying these items, you can plan ways to balance school with other elements in your life. As the semester progresses, periodically evaluate whether your current regimen is helping you meet your goals.

Stick to a Weekly Schedule

After you pick online classes, establish blocks of study time that accommodate your job and family schedules. Base these sessions on what times of day work best for your mind and energy levels. Coursework will vary each week (and you can judge the level of weekly work by analyzing the syllabus), but your study sessions should rarely deviate from your set plan.

Maintain realistic expectations and goals. You can create a weekly schedule that allows you to get all schoolwork done by Thursday, with Friday as a buffer in case you need to navigate a particularly hectic work week. This leaves two days for you to decompress, spend time with loved ones, and prepare for the following week.

Prepare for Exams

Weekly quizzes are usually provided through the same learning management software you use to take classes. For midterm and final exams, schools generally hire an online proctoring service that uses webcam technology to virtually monitor test-takers' behavior, ensuring the process meets ethical standards. In some cases, online colleges ask students to take exams at designated proctor centers in their area.

Before you sit down for an exam, find a suitable location and ensure you understand the guidelines, format, and content of the material. For essay exams, type your answer into word processing software before transferring the contents onto the test page, if possible. This method allows you to periodically save your work and easily check for spelling and grammatical errors.

Strive for Achievement, Not Perfection

Students who view perfection as the only means to success often hamper their own progress and damage their mental health. Perfectionism is based on perceived and unsustainable standards of excellence connected to the need for other people's approval. Consequences can include low self-esteem, lack of motivation, and relationship problems.

Instead, strive for high achievement and growth centered on the learning process and not just the outcome. Practice self-care by accepting your limitations and setting challenging but achievable goals. React positively to mistakes and feedback, viewing these instances as opportunities for growth. Finally, monitor your positive and negative thoughts and discuss any challenges with confidants, like professors, loved ones, and school counselors.

Take Advantage of Online Resources

Ample academic tools and services exist to help you effectively complete classes and prepare for career success. Take advantage of personalized guidance from your school's tutoring and writing center. Many schools also deliver online therapy and other services.

You can also seek out free external resources, like StudyBlue and Cram. These websites let students create flashcards, find relevant learning materials, and connect with other learners who are taking similar classes. Project Gutenberg, the Khan Academy, and OpenStax offer free textbooks and lectures, searchable by topic. Finally, you can strengthen academic skills and better prepare for exams by using Study Guides and Strategies.

Be Aware of Stress Levels

The American Psychological Association defines acute stress, which is the most common form of stress, as the anticipation, pressures, and demands of the recent past and near future. For many people, acute stress can be a motivator to stay focused. However, when stress becomes episodic or chronic, it can lead to anxiety, depression, persistent tension headaches, and even heart disease.

Identify your internal and external stressors so you can effectively respond to them. Managing stress is easier when you maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes a nutrient-rich diet and regular exercise. Be flexible and keep a realistic yet optimistic outlook -- stressful situations are temporary.

How to Balance School, Work, Family, and Friends

This section provides guidance on how to realistically balance school, work, and family. As you integrate these tips into daily life, recognize strategies may need to change as situations evolve. It is important to share your struggles with professors, peers, and loved ones, so they can support you in times of need.

Learn to Say No

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Whether synchronous or asynchronous, online classes require you to dedicate substantial amounts of time and energy to learning. Now is not a good time to take on a volunteer position, assume more roles at work, or agree to additional family responsibilities. Learn to say no in a firm and direct way. You are not asking for permission, so maintain strong body language and do not over-apologize. Remember that by saying no, you are turning down a request, not rejecting a person.

You may find it very difficult to refuse to take on more responsibilities, especially when the request comes from a family member or an employer. Interrupt the "yes cycle" by asking for more time to make a decision. Compromise only if necessary, agreeing to a limited obligation that suits you and the other party.

Build a Support System

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The flexibility of online education allows for a greater degree of individual freedom but can also foster feelings of isolation. Reach out to your classmates. While online students typically cannot meet in their school library or a coffee shop, they can easily connect through video conferencing to work on assignments and prepare for exams. In lieu of generic discussion board messages, take the time to thoughtfully respond to your classmates. Connecting their posts to your own ideas and experiences helps them get to know you.

Schedule conference calls with your professors so they can help you better understand course materials. Building relationships with teachers can also prove beneficial when you need a letter of recommendation to send to prospective employers. Lastly, participate in networking events through student organizations and professional associations. Options include general academic groups like the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and industry-specific organizations like the National Student Nurses' Association.

Stay Present

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A busy schedule can overwhelm you, leading to missed events and unfulfilled obligations. Stay present, focus on the task at hand, and always keep your academic and professional goals in mind. It is usually helpful to create a dedicated study space where you can find quiet and limit the use of distracting technologies.

Let friends and family know your study schedule, so they can avoid contacting you during busy times unless absolutely necessary. However, do not let school and work interfere with spending quality time with loved ones.

Maintain Physical and Mental Health

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Establish and maintain an informed wellness plan that supports your physical and emotional health. To foster a regular sleep schedule, stop using electronics an hour before bedtime. Short-wavelength, artificial blue light emitted by many devices suppresses the release of melatonin and alters your circadian rhythm.

Proper nutrition is key to academic success. Stick to a healthy eating plan that incorporates nutritious meals and snacks. Prepare your weekly menu over the weekend with guidance from websites like Eating Well. Exercise regularly, using these sessions as personal time or opportunities to meet up with friends for group workouts. The Mayo Clinic suggests at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day.

Reward Yourself

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Self-reward is an effective motivation technique. Break up long study sessions or assignments into manageable chunks and individual goals. Treat yourself to a snack or a few minutes of internet browsing and social media time after studying for a while. You can also take a short break to relax and listen to music. Stanford University research concludes that music engages the brain, helping individuals pay attention, remember important information, and make accurate predictions.

After major accomplishments, give yourself an afternoon or a full day for relaxation. Schedule outings with friends and family or spend time napping and catching up on a favorite television show. You should also take this downtime to catalog achievements and reflect on your progress.

2019 Online Education Trends Report is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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