Five-step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning

Students that are enthusiastic about online learning cite numerous reasons for preferring the virtual format, yet it’s flexibility that is extolled most often – the ability to study and learn on ‘my time’. Ironically, it is this convenience factor that can cause some online students to procrastinate, or worse fail to engage in the learning process at all, which often leads to students dropping out or performing poorly.

As discussed in previous posts, a key factor to student success in the online environment is self-direction, the capability and willingness to direct one’s own eduction. Online students, more so than traditional students, need to be independent and take responsibility for their learning. Self-directed learning involves a specific skill set: organization, motivation, and a sense of confidence.

The question—can online students ‘learn’ to be self-directed, or is self-direction innate? Most educators would agree there is an element of both at play. Intrinsic motivation is needed for learners of any age in any situation, though for the most part self-direction competencies can be learned, that is specific behaviours can be practiced and implemented. In this post I write for two sets of readers, first for online students. I’ve included a five-step strategy that includes a set of behaviours ‘real’ students have identified as crucial to their success in completing online college courses for credit. For educators, I’ve included a set of suggestions, actions that support students in becoming self-directed learners, one of which involves giving the responsibility to the learner, a critical component in the instructor-learner relationship.

Five-step Success Strategy for Students
I’ve customized the following strategy based on three credible sources of ‘real’ online students: 1) a student body of online learners at a four-year college (my workplace), 2) a group of successful online students from a study How Students Develop Online Learning Skills and, 3) from my experience as an online student.

Step One: Read the syllabus. The syllabus is a critical resource for any course. It is the road map or ‘game plan’ for the entire course—get to know it well. Print a copy on the first day of class, read through it twice. At the same time highlight, then record the due dates for assignments and threaded discussions in your personal calendar. If you need reminders, add those too.  Once the course gets going, review assignment instructions, discussion topics, etc. at the beginning of each week and consult grading guidelines and check dues dates [again]. You’ll be amazed how much easier assignments become once you are [very] familiar with the instructions.

Online Student: “I had work and family responsibilities when I took online courses – life would get crazy! After the first course when I missed the due dates for assignments one too many times, I was determined not to get behind again. The most effective method for me was to enter the due dates in my calendar. I was then able to get a handle on what was due when.”

A note about due dates: if you know it will be impossible to submit an assignment by the due date because of an urgent life situation (illness, work disaster, etc.), contact your instructor as soon as possible, before the assignment is due. You will get far more consideration from the instructor by contacting him or her before rather than after-the-fact.

Step Two: Plan weekly study times. Studying, participating in forums and completing assignments in an online class can be challenging, even more so when juggling multiple responsibilities. Time management is vital for online students. Planning a regular study time, blocking off set times each week is what successful online students do most often. According to the study referenced in this post, 79% of students identified this method of managing their time as critical to their success (Roper, 2007). Plan a schedule and stick to it.

Online Student: “Setting and staying to specific study days was one factor that worked for me. For example, in the evenings throughout the week, I read the lessons. Weekends were generally reserved for working on assignments. Saturdays were also devoted to online postings and building on what I had submitted.

Step Three: Log onto the course home a minimum three times per week. Logging onto the course home page consistently each week is associated with higher grades for students according to several studies on online student behavior. Get into the habit of checking in consistently, even daily, to read discussion posts, check for instructor announcements and/or review course materials.  While you are logged on, get involved and be an active participant in discussions. Though threaded discussions may appear daunting when you first get started, everyone has something of value to contribute. By logging on consistently each week, reading and responding to classmate postings, you will begin to feel part of a community, and enhance your learning experience at the same time.

Online Student: “The experience was greatly enriched by the relationships and interaction with my fellow students. It amazes me how well we got to know each other even though we were often thousands of miles apart and were only virtual classmates. I learned as much from other students as I did from the instructors.”

Step Four: Ask questions. Instructors want to help, they want students to be successful and expect students to ask questions. When I work with course instructors this is one complaint that is expressed most often about online students, ‘why don’t they ask?’ The virtual space in online learning can be a barrier, if you let it get in the way. If you have a question about course content, need clarification on a difficult concept – ask.  And when you do ask a question, make it count. Before you post a question, know what you are asking and why. Be clear and concise in your communication. You’ll be glad you asked!

‘Google Hangouts’ image credit

Step Five: Make connections with fellow students. Connecting with online classmates and building a learning community is easier than you might think given all of the social tools and applications available today. Reach out to one student, send an email to ask a question, or create a Facebook group for your class, even create a small study group. If assigned to a group project, try Google Docs, which is a terrific collaborative tool, and while in Google, try Google+ Hangouts, an application that allows you to video chat and discuss in real time, even share documents and Web pages.

To all online students: I encourage you to apply and try-out at least one of the five suggestions outlined here. Though there is no perfect strategy that guarantees online success, trying at least one strategy is better than no strategy.  The critical factor in online learning success is your role as the learner – the learning experience is what you make of it. Be an active participant, ask questions and enjoy the opportunities that learning provides.

Recommendations for Educators
Educators have a role in students’ self-directed learning too, and that is to give the learner the responsibility of learning, expect success and be there. Below are a few suggestions:

  • Outline expectations for students thoroughly, By articulating expectations and the role of the student in the course, we ‘give’ the student the responsibility.
  • Expect questions in the first two weeks of the course. This is the ‘syllabus blues’ phase. Students require more support during this phase than any other. See my post here that describes this phase in detail.
  • Respond promptly to student questions. The twenty-four hour rule is a good benchmark.
  • Don’t expect students to know how to be self-directed, they may need to develop this skill set. Direct students to resources that support students in developing their self-direction skills. Many higher education institutions provide excellent resources for online students. Find out if your school offers these resources, and inform your students about them. If not, consider including a list of resources in your syllabus for students. Below are a few excellent examples:

Tips for Success in Online Learning, Boise State University
Online Study Skills Workshop, Cook Counseling Center, Virginia Tech
Quick Start Guide for Online Students, Sidneyeve Matrix, Queen’s Univerity
Student Tips for Online Learning Success, North Hennepin, Community College

Online learning has its rewards for both students and instructors, as well as its challenges as we’ve explored in this article. But with a sound strategy for learning, a strategy for education that is specific to the online environment, students have the opportunity to be successful online students and life-long learners. I very much like this quote that applies to both students and instructors, ‘learning is not a spectator sport’.

Update: Most recent post on student success strategies from Online Learning Insights—Are you Ready to Learn Online? Five Must-Have-Skills for Online Students

Photo Credits: Jumping for Joy by Peter Voerman, Oude School  and Fun with Google+ Hangouts, by Josephine Dorado, Flickr

Resources for Faculty
Helping Students with Basic Skills,

84 thoughts on “Five-step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning

  1. I am taking an Online course for the first time. I found this article is very useful. Particularly, step two seems to be more important to me. I need to fix very specific times of a week when i can only concentrate that course, rather than other things. That is how i can complete all necessary readings, discussions and assignments.


  2. I really like this article and the points it brings up. I will try and set standard study times to get online and do my homework throughout the week.


  3. Hello:) Thank you for the great post. I have some difficulties with online course when it comes to decide wich course to take. Everything seems so interesting. It feels i can finally learn about everything else i dont see in school (I am a medical student). I have enrolled to more than one course at the time, but it didn’t went well. What does other students say about that? Does anyone else start more than one course at the time?


    1. Hi, Raquel! I’m also a medical student and this happens to me… but I’ve realized the courses start over after sometime, so I’ve been trying to be more “patient”, trying one at a time.


  4. I often drop out of MOOCs, I enrol in lots of them, whenever I come across a subject matter which interests me. But I completed only a couple of them. The problem is, nothing depends on my finishing these courses, they would not help me find a job, and so I consider them a kind of entertainment for me. And so not something that has to be done no matter what. For instance, I love literature and history courses, and they are not exactly the most essential skills in the workplace. I cannot help being interested in what I am, though, but all the same, I treat the courses as entertainment such as tv series or games. Only more educational. But the world would not end if I fail the course or only watch the videos instead of completing all assignments. Real life and my family is more important for me than a course.


  5. Hello, my reason for taking online courses is that I have a life elsewhere and can’t move to actually attend the class that I want. Keeping this goal in mind, it’s so easy to fall behind because your life continues on whether you miss an assignment, conversation, etc. Therefore, actually scheduling the time is pertinent to succeeding in any online course. Thank you.


  6. I have to admit that the planning study time is probably the hardest for me. I have a full time job and a landscaping business to handle. Throw in kids and a wife into the equation and that equals time being spread very thin. I’m going to have to re-train myself with time management.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m just starting so I’m getting to know everything right now all the basic n how the program work it’s gd so far they teach u a lot of things u didn’t even know it’s going to be exciting I’m a lol but nervous bc I don’t want to fall behind I want to stay on track but wit everything they tell u is a lot of help.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for the good writeup. It in truth used to
    be a amusement account it. Glance advanced to far delivered agreeable from you!
    By the way, how could we communicate?


    1. I understand how you feel. I feel like I am not doing my best work because the weeks go by so quickly and I have to keep up or I will fall behind as well. Last week I did not complete my work because I didn’t have $4.00 for a video to watch for class so I could not do the assignment. Finally I get paid tomorrow.


  9. I truly appreciate all of the comments that have been made. It makes life easier when you know that you a team committed to your successes . I’m inspired by you all, Thank You, Andre


    1. Hi and thank you so much for this lesson. It has been a very long time since I’ve attended school and I have never done an online course so this lesson gives great tips on being successful. Managing my time is my biggest challenge working and being a mother so setting alarms on my phone and dedicating study time will be very helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Great suggestions. After my first online class, I realized how valuable it was to read the syllabus, and yes agreed, twice! It is not always helpful when teachers don’t follow their own syllabus, but students should at least assume they will. I think while not all students are as self directed as some, it can help to have guidelines for online learning. While my studying time is quite consistent, I find posting in the forum to classmates is better left played by ear so to speak. I find response time in forums that lag behind can be disruptive to good conversation. Most importantly I think teachers should remember that students are going into great debt to get an education, so they should be actively involved in the online classroom as much as the student.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could not agree with Donna more on her comment about the teachers following the syllabus as well as the students. Plus, the importance of posting early in the discussion. Well, as early as it is possible for the particular student because circumstances do happen. I was so sick when I started school I wound up in the hospital where I lost my phone and I have not had any money to replace it to date. I have so many questions I cannot ask because I do not have a phone. I posted as soon as I could lift my head off the pillow and had a due in two days. I wanted to be early for my first day of class but God had something else in store. Still I agree post as early as possible.

      On Fri, Jan 22, 2016 at 1:07 PM, Online Learning Insights wrote:

      > Donna commented: “Great suggestions. After my first online class, I > realized how valuable it was to read the syllabus, and yes agreed, twice! > It is not always helpful when teachers don’t follow their own syllabus, but > students should at least assume they will. I think whil” >

      Liked by 1 person

  11. The artical and strategies are so helpful. I took notes so I can remember these items. I am having a problem wit reading my syllabus and I do not have a printer yet. am hoping to have this all fixed by the end of February. It is so hard without a printer. Thanks so much for the information.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I have taken several classes online. I did well in each class. However, I must admit that if I had taken this course first my other classes would not have been a struggle. I have been introduced to new strategies that I never applied in my other classes. Had I known then what I know now, the classes would have been much easier and I would have actually had time for myself!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I agree with you, this class has a lot of great information and tools to help navigate through these courses. With learning and being apart of this course, It will make the other courses much easier.


  13. Hello, I really enjoyed reading the articles. I will definitely use the suggestions in my studies. It’s been a while since my last school experience and I have lots to adjust to, but with so my help and support I know I can be successful.
    Thank you very much for all the good tips


  14. I will be using these steps everyday. Life can get very busy and hectic. but being organized and writing things down helps me keep focused on my goals. I realize that online learning may be a challenge and be hard at times, but I’m ready. I’m 37 years old an wiser and know what I need to do to succeed in my field. Thank you for this blog it does keep things in perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I will put these strategies in action right away! Being a transfer student, and not having been in school for over a decade, getting started is overwhelming, these strategies are a great way to get setup for success!


  16. This was very informative, and I truely enjoyed reading this material. I feel that I have learned new strategies and techniques. I was sure to take notes so I will be able to look back and reflect on what I have learned. I look forward to getting involved and making new ‘online’ friends. I hope to be able to find a group and join it soon !! This material was great. I feel confident and excited to learning and participating online! 🙂


  17. This article has been very informative. I have struggled with staying connected to classmates when taking online courses. I will be mindful of this and help my students be more comfortable with connecting to classmates.


  18. Hi Debbie, I was very interested in accessing the online learning resources you posted from Boise State and Nevada universities but the links appear broken. Do you perhaps have updated URLs for these? I am very keen to view additional resources that help students learn online. Regards, meg


  19. Hi Debbie,

    Thanks again for another excellent blog that I was able to share with the new online profs I’m working with at our college! Your suggestions for the students will be a great help to many of these instructors who are just starting to teach in the online format. Thanks too for providing the “expert” position to back up what we try to teach them :).

    I strongly encourage our profs to follow your blog…and I hope many more will do so.

    Andrew Beaty
    Moody Bible Institute


    1. Hi Andrew,
      Nice to hear from you again! So glad you found the post helpful. My goal is to support instructors, and provide a virtual meeting place for instructors and educators where we can learn, share and discuss. Thanks for sharing and commenting. 🙂


  20. The only issue I find with online learning is when the student starts falling behind due to lack of comprehension, there is little help available to him to get that insight into the course. That is the time one feels the need for a live tutor who can understand the weaknesses and gaps in knowledge of the student and guide him on.


    1. Hi Venky. Yes falling behind due to lack of comprehension is not uncommon for online students – and the student needs help and support :). One-on-one help is an excellent way for the student to catch-up, though I do think this can be accomplished with a ‘live’ tutor as you say, but could also be accomplished through online help as well, whether in the form of a study group through which is an excellent platform to find help or through a study group created through Thanks for your comment! :). What you mention is also important for course instructors to note – implement plans to help students who might be falling behind.


    2. Hi Venky,
      I also agree with the issue you have about falling behind. I also get behind sometime due to lack of comprehension, and wish I had a tutor to help me understand things. Do you sometimes need help as well? Has anyone replied to you regarding your concerns?


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