1. Start Off Smart
Log on the first day the class is available. Take the time to discover how the class is set up. Remember, even if you have taken other online classes, there is a multitude of ways in which professors can set up their classes.
Find out where the assignments are explained and need to be submitted, for example, so that you have a good understanding of where to go to get what you need once the semester gets busy.
2. Learn The Tech Rules
Finding out what browser to use and what downloads are needed to run the class smoothly is priceless. Many students ignore this information until the first assignment is due.
Then, of course, the inevitable happens-they miss a deadline because they didn’t know how to maneuver through the class and/or didn’t have the technology they needed in place already.
3. Keep An Eye On the Class Calendar
Often the professor will have the entire class set up by the first day of classes, but not always. And they might not always be as diligent as they should be about communicating with students about new due dates or assignments.
Whether it is fair or not, it is up to the student to be on top of the due dates for each assignment.
Don’t check the class calendar once in the beginning of the semester and then never take another peek at it. Doing that can lead to missing out on a lot of points due to an oversight on a changed due date or an added assignment.
4. Log In Often
I have students in my classes every semester who only go into the class on Sunday afternoons because most of their assignments are due on Sunday nights at midnight. Bad idea, for multiple reasons! For example, this means that they haven’t read any of the material they need to understand to complete the assignment correctly for that week.
The assignment is open all week long, but since they wait until the last minute, they do a poor job of completing the assignment. And since, as in many classes, the material we cover builds on itself, students are totally lost by the time they need to write the final research paper that demonstrates their knowledge of everything we covered in the semester.
Worst of all, they don’t learn a thing!
5. Print The Syllabus
I know, I know. Why should you print anything out if you are taking an online class? Well, for one reason, studies prove that we digest information more completely when we read it off the written page rather than the computer screen (a good reason to print off assignments to do your proofreading too).
Secondly, you may need that syllabus handy one day when you don’t have access to the class or to a computer. Who wants to go searching for their syllabus to find out the procedure for being sick and needing an extension on an assignment?
Or, what should you do if the college’s website is down, and you have an assignment due? Many online professors, including myself, have a policy for this situation so that students earn full credit for the assignment-but they have to know the Plan B I have set up. And if they haven’t printed the syllabus, they might not know.
It’s important to keep in mind that all syllabi are different! Professors have a great deal of leeway about things such as absences, due dates, plagiarism and other policies in their classes. Just because your last online professor did something one way, don’t expect the next one to do it the same way.
6. Be Prepared
Like it or not, online college classes require more time “in” the virtual classroom. The reason is that in a traditional class, you have specific times set aside where you have to attend in a particular building. Discussions occur simultaneously during those classes.
Assignments are explained and lectures are given. Questions are asked and answered. All of this occurs within a finite time window-in the classroom. But since most “lectures” in online classrooms must be read, it takes more time. Think about it. When you explain something to a friend who is standing beside you, they can ask questions immediately.
The exchange of information happens quickly. But if that friend is being giving the explanation via text. How many texts will you have to send back and forth to get the same information across? Understand ahead of time that you may need to allow more time to complete the work in an online class.
7. Get Ready To Write
Along with needing more time, you should be ready to write more than in a traditional class…a lot more. Where you verbally discuss concepts about a topic in a traditional classroom, in an online college class, you have to write out your thoughts on the subject. Again, this takes time to do right, which points back to our last tip.
And, you will need to truly engage with the material in the class so that you can participate intelligently in these online discussion boards. I learned this quick when I was an online student getting my Master’s Degree.
For a traditional class, if I didn’t finish the reading for the next class, I could speak up early in the discussion to talk about the parts that I did read and then stay quiet and learn from the discussion for the parts of the reading that I missed. It doesn’t work that way in an online class. You have to demonstrate your understanding of all of the material, all the time.
8. Work Ahead
Earlier I mentioned the scenario I see too often when students neglect their work until the last minute. Even though we all love technology, you must admit that things sometimes go wrong, and therefore, leaving your work until the last minute is eventually going to cause a big problem.
Since there is often more work involved in an online class, you need to work ahead-throughout the week-so that you don’t fall behind.
9. Save Your Work
Time outs happen, so make sure to always type your work in a word processor program and then copy and paste it into the text box of the assignment.
That might seem like an extra, unnecessary step-until the online class platform has a hiccup, and you lose all of your work. You should also save each assignment to a jump drive or cloud program…just in case. Each semester I have students tell me they submitted their assignment, but it didn’t go through correctly, and since they didn’t save their original work, they have to start from scratch.
10. Schedule Time To “Go To Class”
One of the most common complaints I hear about taking online classes is the discipline it takes to stay ahead of the work. It’s easy to believe that online classes are a breeze, when in truth, they take more time.
By scheduling specific days and times you will “go to class,” you will ensure that you are putting in all of the time needed to do well and learn. Plus, you will eliminate a lot of stress since you won’t fall behind schedule.
11. Understand Your Learning Style
Each of us learn in different ways, and being aware of your individual learning style can make a big difference in the virtual classroom.
If you, for example, know that you are an auditory learner, take advantage of the podcasts that a professor puts into the class. When possible, take courses from professors who use those types of tools that you learn best from.
12. Use Academic Writing Skills
Since we have already determined that there will be a great deal of writing in online classes, it’s important for you to use your best King’s English in your writing.
This means that you should use formal writing for all communication with peers and professors alike. In the virtual world, the impression you make comes from how you use the written word to express yourself.
13. Ask Questions
Needing to email your professor a question somehow seems different to many students than asking them in class. I often have students who wait until it’s almost too late to ask me questions that I know they have had for a while.
But if you are looking ahead at upcoming assignments, you will be able to email your professor for clarification early enough that they have time to get back to you before you need the information. Ask questions, and ask them often! It’s the professor’s job to guide you!
14. Attend Additional Learning Opportunities
Many professors include material in different formats so that all students learn. For example, a professor might use podcasts, Slideshare and handouts all of the same information. Take advantage of these opportunities to ingrain the material into your brain.
You will learn more, easier, and it will stay with you longer, making less work of studying. Also, when a professor offers additional learning opportunities, such as online office hours, live presentations, online student conferences or live chats, make every effort to participate. You will learn while getting your questions answered, and you will also show your professor that you truly want to learn, which goes a long way!
Jacqueline Myers M.A. is a long-time online college English professor who offers college students writing tips on her blog, Nitty-Gritty English. Connect with her on Twitter.