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9 Tips for Preparing to Learn Online for the First Time

Written by Sarah Meehan on Apr 13, 2020

Related content: Outcomes

While the novel coronavirus spreads worldwide and university campuses close in accordance with CDC guidelines, millions of students in the U.S. and abroad are quickly adapting to a different type of learning environment: virtual classrooms.

More than a third of students pursuing higher education in the U.S. were enrolled in at least one distance learning course in the fall of 2017, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The majority of those students—5.5 million—were undergraduates, with 1.1 million post-baccalaureate students in online classes.

The number of online students is ballooning now that more universities are transferring their courses online—voluntarily or due to adverse weather conditions or situations like the one presented by COVID-19.

“So many people are being forced to adapt fast,” said Kris Galligan, a student success manager at 2U. “But I’ve seen a lot of faculty, staff, and students embrace the change, and I think it’s those colleagues that are best positioned to be successful and continue to experience quality in their learning.”

This migration online is not only a change in location for class—it’s a change in culture and process for students.

A common misconception is that online coursework requires less time, participation, and engagement. But Kris said that’s not the case.

“Students that are successful out the gate are the ones who embrace the expectation of parity between the online and the on-campus curriculum, commitment level, and quality,” she said. “The students that show up and are ready to engage in class and are forming connections with their classmates and with faculty—those are the ones that really gain the most return on investment early on and continue that trajectory.”

As more universities are expanding online course offerings, students can turn to the following tips to help boost their success.

Understand your learning style. Knowing how you learn best will help you pick a program. Decide whether visual learning versus aural learning works better for you and whether you prefer asynchronous material, synchronous courses, or a mix. Are you a morning person? Consider what time of the day learning would be most effective for you, if you have that flexibility.

Find a consistent study space. Create a positive environment that promotes focus. Consider using dedicated spaces for studying, even if they are at home. Find out if your program offers access to office spaces that adhere to CDC recommendations of social distancing, are regularly disinfected, and maintain at least a six-foot perimeter of personal space.

Carrie Borkowski, a student experience specialist at 2U, advises you to “be intentional about where you work so you can put your student hat on and be able to focus and concentrate when it’s required of you to be in that setting,”

Check your technology. Ensure you have the appropriate hardware and software to support your program’s requirements. Download applications to support your coursework, such as mobile applications for limiting social media usage and eliminating distractions, note-taking apps, flashcard apps, and bibliography apps. Confirm your study space has a strong internet connection.

Familiarize yourself with the virtual campus. Get to know your program’s online classroom, website, and portals, and test the technology before the first lecture. Learn about resources the school offers, such as virtual tours, tech support, and writing or career centers that can help you along the way.

Establish relationships. Program graduates can offer insight on what to expect while earning a degree online, and classmates can provide a strong network during and after the program. Take advantage of virtual study groups and opportunities to interact with classmates.

“You have to be really intentional about building those relationships, whether it’s using a social network to stay engaged or having a Sunday morning virtual study session with some peers,” said Libby Edwards, vice president of student engagement at 2U.

Participate in classes. Students may be surprised at the level of engagement expected of them, Libby said. Speak up and ask questions during class so you get comfortable in the environment. “You’re going to be eyeball-to-eyeball with a professor. Just prepare to show up and be fully present and be engaged.”

Manage your time wisely. Establish a schedule and stick to it. Build a weekly plan that outlines when and where you will study. Block out time for classes, studying, homework and breaks, and ensure your family and friends understand when you are not available. Treat studying like a job, but keep your school and work separate.

“You’re taking on this commitment and it’s going to be a chunk of time in your life. So how are you managing that?” Carrie said. “What is something that is in your control that you can say, ‘This is the time I’m setting aside for schoolwork, and this is the time that needs to go to these other non-negotiable things.’ And then where might some wiggle room be?”

Communicate with your family and employer. There will often be a need to balance school with family and work. Your success will require employers and families to be on board with your academic commitments.

“The benefit of that, too, is that you are constantly describing to others the investment that you’re making in your education and the outcomes you expect,” Kris said. “For many students, that helps to clarify their ‘why’ behind the commitment they’ve made, and also clarifies to employers or to partners or families the future expected outcomes that everyone can benefit from—being able to contribute more at a senior leadership level, or being able to earn a higher income through promotion.”

Set goals and return to them. Understanding short- and long-term academic goals and why those goals are meaningful can help you stay the course.

“Students start programs that they intend to finish,” Libby said. “And if you keep that in your head, the path is clear.”

Carrie suggests you outline the resources you will need to achieve those goals. The best student success coaches help students remember their “whys” and show students how to achieve them.

“As they’re going through the program, they will hit barriers in their life, like a job change or a relationship change,” Libby added. “And all of those things can feel like a real roadblock for students. And having a thought partner, having a coach that you can rely on, to help you kind of reframe that and see it not as a roadblock but as a speed bump is really critical.”

Learning online for the first time is no easy feat. We hope these tips make the process feel less intimidating and more approachable for you.

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