Monday, October 6, 2014

Four Success Tips for New (and old) Online Learners

by Michael S. Miller, Ed.D.

There is a great deal of information on the internet regarding how to be successful in an online course.  One can find anything from tips for managing your time to staying organized.  Much of what is written is done so by researchers and poll groups; little information exists from actual online professors.  Having spent several years now teaching online, the following are some general guidelines from someone in the trenches.  While this list may seem simple and “common sense,” you would be surprised at how few students actually follow them.

1.       Check your email regularly.  The main form of communication in the online learning environment is through email.  Your school and professor will likely use this as the first step in getting information to you.  Many online professors do not have access to your phone number…so the next best thing is email.  Professors may use email to notify you of a missing assignment, an incorrectly submitted assignment, a grade or attendance issue, general announcements, or changes in due dates, just to name a few.  You will feel much more connected to both the course and your professor if you check your email on a frequent basis.  A good rule of thumb is at least once every other day.

2.       Read the Course Announcements.  Many students see this as superfluous information and do not spend the time reading through the course announcements.  Particularly, at the beginning of the course this is critical.  You will likely find information about: how the course is run, important due dates, professor expectations, and sometimes hints for completing your assignments.  Most online professors spend a great deal of time designing and developing these…use them to your advantage!  Not to mention, when a student asks a question and the answer is ‘in the announcements section,’ it is very frustrating for both parties.  This is similar to the syllabus; read it thoroughly.

3.      Review Assignment Feedback.  For each assignment you complete, there is a great chance that the professor will provide detailed and constructive feedback.  The Illinois Online Network (2010) suggests that the feedback process continues the learning experience, adds depth and understanding to the assignment already submitted by the student, and affords the instructor an opportunity to reiterate key concepts.  In addition, this feedback gives you specific information on your course work in relation to the course objectives and expectations.   "Research suggests that students want feedback, and personalized feedback that includes suggestions for improvement, with explanations" (Getzlaf, Perry, Toffner, Lamarche & Edwards, 2009).  In an online course, detailed and specific feedback on assignments is even more critical given the medium.  Therefore, once your grade is posted for an assignment or assessment, you are encouraged to take the time to read the feedback provided by your professor.  It can be very frustrating for a professor to have to repeat the same comment for subsequent assignments.

4.      Spend Time Learning APA Style Formatting.  If you have never used APA Style formatting, or if it has been a while, it is crucial that you spend time with it. The important thing to remember is that APA can be difficult, but do not get discouraged.  Learning APA takes time and practice.  Even your professor did not learn it in just a few weeks or months.  So, why APA you ask?  Not only is APA Style formatting required of at most schools, but the APA Style format is a standardized system for formatting research papers and citing resources.  By following its rules, one can write a paper that conforms to standard guidelines, the paper will appear professional and scholarly, and readers will easily understand how to find the resources you used.  The American Psychological Association began setting standards for research paper format and citations in order to help scholars, like you, everywhere, follow coordinated guidelines.  Standardized papers are easier to read, understand, compare, and study.  Since researchers often build upon past studies, these guidelines help make that progress smooth (Smith, 2013).  You will be using it a great deal throughout the online learning experience.  A good way to familiarize yourself with it is to take notice when reading journal articles formatted in APA.  You will want to take a closer look at both the in-text and reference citations.  The more time you spend learning it now, the less difficult it will be as you progress through your degree program.

Becoming a successful online learner requires the student to be on top of things- and to be self-directed.  Whether you are brand-new to the online learning experience, or you are a professional online learner; these four tips will help you get the most out of your education.


Getzlaf, B., Perry, B., Toffner, G., Lamarche, K., & Edwards, M. (2009, July). Effective instructor feedback: Perceptions of online graduate students. The Journal of Educators Online, 6(2).  Retrieved from

Illinois Online Network. (2010). Strategies for providing feedback in online courses. Retrieved from

Smith, D. (2013, January). Five principles for research ethics: Cover your bases with these ethical strategies. Monitor on Psychology, 34(1), 56.

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