How to be a Successful Online Student

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Are you considering pursuing an online education? Check out these eight habits shared by successful online students and see if you have what it takes.

By Terence Loose    

If you have a busy schedule, but still want to go back to school to earn your degree, online education could provide the flexibility you need.

"The flexibility online education offers to working adults and those with kids is fantastic. You can put the kids to bed and stay up until two in the morning and still participate," says Cathy Summa-Wolfe, director of communications at the College of Marin.

But slack off, and this flexibility could become a nightmare.

"We recommend that our students assess themselves on their own study habits before attempting online education," says Summa-Wolfe. "Students who are most successful are those who have the ability to work independently and have at least a basic level of familiarity with technology."

But those habits aren't the only keys to success in an online program. Read on to discover what it takes to make the grade in the world of online learning.

Habit #1 - Be Organized

In any class, it's necessary to know when assignments are due. But with an online program, it's even more important to keep track of your tasks, since there's no teacher present to write out your daily assignments. That means online students should try to stay well organized, especially if they already have work or home life commitments.

"Students really have to be self-directed and organized because there's no teacher telling them in person they have to do something. For instance, the teacher isn't personally handing them the course syllabus and assignments. They have to seek that out on the website," says Velvet Miscione, an online counselor at Coastline Community College (CCC).

Summa-Wolfe suggests using computer programs such as Microsoft Outlook to help keep track of obligations. After all, you are going to be near your computer more often.

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Habit #2 - Communicate Clearly

Bottom line: education relies on communication. And in the online environment, communication is written - whether it's for chat rooms, e-mails, or assignments. So make sure you're comfortable with expressing yourself through the written word.

A good way to practice is simply to write more. Create Twitter or Facebook accounts that force you to write more often. Or you could take an introductory writing class online.

"Not to scare anyone away, but the writing requirements can be much higher than for in-classroom classes," says Summa-Wolfe.

"But I also think it can be a much richer experience because of the ongoing dialog in writing. You get to know your fellow students so much more intimately," she adds.


Habit #3 - Practice Good Time Management

If you think online education is a shortcut to getting your degree, think again. There are great benefits, such as flexibility, but expect to log the same number of hours as face-to-face classroom students.

For that reason, Miscione suggests easing into online education. "If a student hasn't been in school for a long time and has a pretty demanding job or home life, I usually recommend that he or she take one course per eight weeks. That equates to halftime."

Also, if you have a full-time job or a family, make sure your boss and/or family members take your education as seriously as you do. That way when you create your education schedule, you can stick to it without too much resistance from loved ones.

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Habit #4 - Get Comfortable with Computers

If you're afraid you need to be on the Geek Squad to succeed in online education, relax.

Summa-Wolfe says that you usually only have to be able to use a word processing program, the Internet, and any software used by the online program. And don't worry, most online institutions provide user-friendly software programs and offer plenty of technical assistance.

Still, you want to make sure that you're familiar with the technology before your first class.

"Students have to be comfortable with the software and not let that be something that stops them from submitting assignments or being able to communicate effectively. So overcoming any fears of computers and the software is important," says Marcela Hernandez, a CCC online counselor.


Habit #5 - Keep Track of Deadlines

There's a reason it is called a deadline: slip past the line, and you're dead. And the best online students don't believe in an assignment's afterlife.

"Respecting deadlines is very important, because if the class is taught in a completely asynchronous mode, that is, there's not a particular time to sign in with your class or instructor, then the student really has to pay attention to complete the assignments on time," says Summa-Wolfe.

In other words, it's on time or it's an F - as in fatal. To avoid assignment assassination, it's vital to get started on projects early. Also, as Miscione points out, there is less "baby-sitting" by the teacher, so make a detailed written planner for your deadlines.


Habit #6 - Create a Social Presence

Since an online education is done from a distance, the virtual aspect can sometimes result in students feeling alienated or left out, which Summa-Wolfe says could hinder their learning experience.

"The single most important thing for students is to create a social presence in an online class. Because student-to-student learning has become an important part of academic success," Summa-Wolfe says.

Let your personality shine online by expressing yourself effectively. In writing classes, it would be called finding your voice. And that takes more writing and becoming more comfortable with the language.

So again, practice makes presence.


Habit #7 - Be an Independent Worker

Sure, there may be some group projects and you could "virtually" meet people for study sessions. But mainly you're on your own. So you better be prepared to work independently.

"You have to take ownership of the educational process. Being committed to being there and doing what it takes to learn is a must. It's the person who really sees that goal and is serious about attaining it who will succeed in online education," says Miscione.

The good news is that you are your own boss. You make your schedule and you define your future.

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Habit #8 - Be Bold and Ask Questions

If something doesn't make sense, please raise your virtual hand high. Unlike in the face-to-face classroom, the instructor can't pick up on your facial expressions that are saying "Huh?"

"If you're not getting it, don't be afraid to ask questions. A lot of students are shy in person, and hopefully the online environment will allow them to be a little more open," says Miscione.

Plus, adds Summa-Wolfe, your question might help the class discussion reach new levels.


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