Online learning has come a long way since the correspondence courses of the mid-19th century. These days, it’s possible to take courses on just about anything you can imagine from the comfort of your home.
Whether you’re looking to save money on general education courses, complete a degree while working full-time, or expand your professional prospects with a course on Skillshare, online classes have made education more accessible than ever before.
For all their benefits, however, online classes also offer some unique challenges compared to traditional, in-person classes. Without a plan for managing these challenges, your performance could suffer.
Below, I’ll explore some of the common challenges that online learners face, along with how to overcome them.
Note: This article focuses on online college classes, but there are lessons you can apply to any kind of distance learning.
If you’d prefer to watch, rather than read, we cover many of the following tips in this video:
Treat It Like an In-Person Class
While video conferencing apps have made it easier to host live virtual classes, most online classes are still taught asynchronously. Your professor may post a lecture video or slides each week, and you may have to turn in assignments every so often. But besides this, it can be easy to forget you’re even taking a class.
Without the regular meetings of in-person classes, it’s easy to fall into bad habits and get behind on your work. To avoid this, treat online classes like in-person classes.
Even if the class doesn’t meet at a particular time each week, set a time on your calendar when you’ll “go to class.” Have a routine just like you would if you were going to class in-person.
Get up at the same time each day, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then “go to class.” It may seem silly, but it will make a big difference in your motivation and productivity.
Form a Virtual Study Group
If you’re used to studying in groups, then online classes can be an adjustment. Sure, you still have classmates, but there isn’t the same connection you’d get sitting next to someone in class. And you can’t just ask a few classmates if they want to go to the library after class to study.
However, you can still get the benefits of studying with other people even in an online class. You just have to be a bit more creative.
If your class has some kind of online discussion forum, post and ask if any classmates want to study together over video conferencing. And once you’ve found some study partners, try to meet with them at the same time(s) each week. This way, you’ll get the learning benefits of studying in a group and have someone to hold you accountable.
If you can’t find study partners from your actual class, you can use an app like Focusmate. Focusmate lets you find an accountability partner with whom you can virtually study/work over a video call. Even though your accountability partner (likely) won’t be studying the same material, knowing that there’s another person working “in the room” will keep you from slacking off.
Use the Resources Your Teacher Provides
Just like with in-person classes, academic success is about more than attending class and reading the textbook. To master the material, you need to take advantage of all the resources available to you.
For instance, if your professor offers virtual office hours, be sure to attend them. Bring any questions you have about homework, lectures, or upcoming exams.
Likewise, if your professor provides additional resources to practice and understand the material, use them. Especially since you can do all of this without leaving your house, you have no excuse.
Have a Dedicated Study Space
If your class were meeting in real life, you’d be in a classroom or lecture hall. While you don’t need to recreate that environment at home, having a dedicated study space will help you stay focused when it’s time to study and disconnect when it isn’t.
Your study space can be anywhere that helps you focus. Whether it’s a nook in your bedroom, a spot at your kitchen table, or even a chair on your balcony, get creative with the space you have.
My only word of warning is to avoid somewhere that’s too comfortable or distracting. Don’t study sitting in bed or next to your game system. Find a place that signals “it’s time to work.”
Without a professor looking over your shoulder or classmates sitting next to you, it’s easy to get distracted with social media, your roommates, video games, or other things you’d rather be doing than studying.
Do what you can to eliminate or at least minimize these distractions. Having a study space will help, but you can also use apps like Freedom to block digital distractions.
If you’re having trouble focusing on one assignment, use the Pomodoro technique to force yourself to study. Set a timer for 25 minutes, work only on one task, and then take a short break before repeating the process until your work is done.
Without live classes, it’s tempting to skip taking notes. All of the information is available online, so you can just refer back to it when it’s time to do homework or study for an exam…right?
While having all the class info online can be helpful for reviewing material, you should still take notes.
After all, the main value in taking notes isn’t to produce an archive of the material.
The real benefit of taking notes is that it helps you engage with the material and put it in your own words. This boosts both your comprehension and retention.
Beware of Sneaky Deadlines
In an in-person class, the professor probably reminds you of upcoming due dates. But with online classes, you may not get these reminders. Therefore, you need to be extra diligent about monitoring deadlines.
At the start of the class, read through the syllabus and find all deadlines for assignments. Put this information on your calendar, and consult that calendar regularly. Also, look out for changes to deadlines so that you can update your calendar accordingly.
Having a calendar of deadlines won’t guarantee that you’ll turn everything in on time (you still need to do the work). But it will help you avoid damaging your grade just because you forgot an assignment was due.
Check Your Email Regularly
Normally, I wouldn’t advise you to spend more time checking your email. But with online classes, it’s crucial to keep up with messages from your instructor. This way, you’re aware of changes to due dates, new guidelines for assignments, updated study resources, and announcements of office hours.
Depending on how you’re taking online classes, there may also be an online message portal to check in addition to or instead of email. Whatever method the professor uses to communicate, be sure to monitor it regularly. To make sure you don’t forget, create a recurring task on your to-do list called “Check for messages from my professor.”
Online classes can invite epic procrastination. Without regular class meetings to keep you engaged and accountable, you can end up leaving all your work until the end of the semester.
This can be fun when the final exam is still months away. But it can turn into a world of pain when you’re trying to cram a whole semester of learning into one night.
To avoid this situation, create your own schedule for completing your work. Set due dates for reading a certain number of pages, completing problem sets, or whatever you need to do to learn the material.
Spreading the work throughout the semester will make it more manageable and help you actually learn it (as opposed to memorizing it once for an exam and then forgetting it).
Since online classes don’t require you to meet in-person for 3 or 4 hours a week, it’s easy to underestimate how much work they can be. If you aren’t careful, you could end up with a crushing workload.
To avoid this, assume that each online class will require the same amount of time as an in-person class. Even if this isn’t true in practice, it will prevent you from overscheduling yourself and getting overwhelmed.
Additionally, speak to an advisor if possible. They can help you decide how many online classes are realistic for your schedule.
Get Help If You’re Falling Behind
When you aren’t physically in the classroom, it can be harder to ask your professor for help. You can’t just walk up to them after class or find them in their office around campus. You’ll need to take more initiative.
However, don’t let this difficulty prevent you from getting help. If you aren’t understanding the material or you’re falling behind on assignments, talk to the instructor ASAP. The longer you wait to get help, the further behind you’ll fall and the more likely you are to perform poorly on exams.
If the assistance your professor offers isn’t enough, look into additional resources.
Chegg Study offers affordable help with homework from subject experts, as well as solutions to problem sets from many textbooks.
Online Classes Are an Opportunity
While this article has mostly focused on the potential pitfalls of online classes, distance learning also has many advantages. It’s a chance to become more productive since there are fewer distractions. And you can work at your own pace, pausing or rewinding lectures that you don’t understand (try doing that in-person).
If you view online classes this way (and follow the tips above), then they can be just as rewarding and educational as in-person classes.