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How to Succeed in Your Online Course 

 By Marisa Dye, M.S. 

The average age of an online undergraduate student as of 2019, according to U.S. News & World Report, is 32. The average online graduate student is older than that. “Non-traditional students”, who are typically working adults not living on campus, are more likely to take online courses. One benefit of online courses is that they provide access to education that previously wasn’t an option for many people.

However, those accustomed to classroom learning may find that online learning can be an adjustment. Alumni who have returned to school or who have children in online courses, this is for you. Here are some recommendations to help you adjust and succeed. 

Confirm technical requirements and required resources for your online classes (see announcements or emails from your instructor for specifics) within the first two or three days of class. 

Go into online courses knowing that they are not “easier” than those in a classroom. Universities expect their online and classroom courses to be equally rigorous. Online courses actually require more self-organization and self-discipline than most face-to-face courses.

Create a schedule and manage your time wisely. Within the first few days of the course, locate the syllabus and schedule. Input every assignment due date on your own calendar. Add reminder/notifications as needed to help you stay on track. 

Create a routine and block off time for completing course work. For example, if work is due on the same day each week, determine how to fit the time to complete the work into your schedule. In a course with a discussion board post due Friday and a reply to the discussion due Sunday, you would block off two separate times (such as Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning) to complete that assignment around work, activities, family events and other coursework. Either schedule your homework time for your course(s) each week or set up a repeating calendar event so that you complete the work during the same time each week.  

Stay organized. Decide where to store files related to the course. If you need to access them from multiple computers/devices/locations, consider using a cloud-based storage application. Northwestern students can use OneDrive for free with their email logins.  Make a folder for each of your courses in OneDrive and save the syllabus, schedule and assignments for each course. 

Have a consistent workspace. Find a quiet place with reliable internet access, gather physical items needed to complete your work, make yourself comfortable and remove/avoid distractions. Ideally, you'll go to the same place each week to complete your work so that there is no further energy spent on that decision. However, if you have multiple study locations, it can help to keep a list of all items needed for your work and/or keep them all together in a bag you can take with you. 

If you email/message the instructor, be sure to include the course name and number when beginning communication with your instructor so they know which course you are enrolled in.  

Use online classroom etiquette, sometimes called Netiquette. Whether posting on a discussion board or emailing the instructor, aim for a respectful, professional tone. Use complete sentences. Re-read what you’ve written before submitting to make sure it won’t be taken the wrong way.  Avoid using all caps because online it means you are shouting. Also avoid using sarcasm as it’s more difficult to detect in writing.

Use good video conference/call practices. If your instructor is using video calls (such as Skype, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams or Zoom), prepare for it as you would a classroom meeting. Dress appropriately (no pajamas!) if your camera will be on, find a quiet space away from other people or pets (even if that’s sitting in your car with the doors shut and radio off), mute your microphone until it is your turn to speak and keep a pen and paper handy for jotting down notes.

Stay healthy! Getting adequate sleep, nutrition and exercise will set you up for success. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your instructor, classmate or advisor if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Customize notifications. Turn on your notifications for your student email and the learning management system, such as Northwestern’s Blackboard. You don’t want to miss any changes. 

Download relevant apps. Blackboard has a mobile app. This will help you keep up with your courses wherever you are. 

Marisa Dye is a 1999 alum. Dye currently works at Oklahoma State University as a Senior Instructional Designer. She is an expert in online learning, with many years of experience in the classroom. She completed her master’s degree program online, save one course.  

Dye is a native of Alva, Okla., but currently resides in north-central Oklahoma with her family.



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