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Strategy Guide: A Playbook for Online Student Success

During the past two decades, online education has democratized access to learning, specifically with respect to geography and time. By illustration, a farmer in the American heartland may be hundreds of miles from the nearest university, but she can still enroll in an MBA program; or a nurse may have a demanding work schedule at a local clinic, but he can simultaneously pursue his graduate degree in nursing at an institution located six states away. In short, online schools have massively disrupted previous distance- and time-based restrictions on aspiring students opening up opportunities across the US and beyond.

While some people harbor ideas about the typical online student, the real demographics are as diverse as the country with a mix of income levels, ages, and cultural backgrounds. In fact, a growing proportion of all American students is enrolling in distance-based classes. The Babson Research Group (Feb. 2016) found that 28 percent of all students—more than 5.8 million people—are taking at least one online education course, a 3.9 percent increase over the previous year. Furthermore, the vast majority of institutions enrolling online students are public (as opposed to private), and there’s a large share of “nontraditional students” who turn to online education. These individuals may be older, may have children, and/or may work part- or full-time. Distance-based schools have also broadened educational opportunities for active military, veterans, and their families.

Of course, oft-cited qualities such as persistence, organization, tech-savvy, curiosity, discipline, and resourcefulness contribute to a student’s ability to complete a distance-based program, but those qualities are abstract. These interviews breathe life into the lived experiences of students completing online degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, graduate certificate, and PhD level.

In six exclusive interviews with distance-based students of varied academic interests and backgrounds, this guide uncovers how to get the most out of an online education.

Meet the Interviewees: Six Online Students

Strategies for Online Student Success

The six above interviewees graciously responded to three main questions in early March 2017:

  • Why did you choose an online program?
  • What techniques did you use to succeed in your online program? (e.g., time management, staying self-motivated, workspace decisions, etc.)
  • Were there any unexpected challenges? If so, how did you overcome them?

Drawing from their experiences and pulling direct quotes from those interviews, here were the most common strategies on how to succeed as an online student:

Be clear on why you’re enrolling in an online program and how you plan to stay self-motivated. There are varied reasons for enrolling in online programs and not all of them are valid. For example, those expecting an easy academic experience will be sorely disappointed; the coursework and expectations of distance-based programs are every bit as rigorous as those of campus-based programs. Furthermore, online work can present unique challenges, particularly in terms of motivation. David G. poignantly stated, “Before attempting an online program, you have to really be honest with yourself…Motivation comes in different forms for different people. Know what motivates you and channel it into your school work. If not, constant struggle will follow.” One valid reason for enrolling in an online program is for the convenience. All of the interviewees already had families, careers, or both while pursuing their degrees online. Distance-based learning erodes the old location- and time-based barriers to earning a degree and allows students to tailor their schedule to their own unique responsibilities. Speaking about how she stayed self-motivated and designed the use of her time, Danielle B. shared, “Even though I didn’t have to go to a brick-and-mortar campus, I tried to schedule ‘class times’ when I would complete the work. I also limited my time each session to hours typical of face-to-face courses.”

Create a structured roadmap. All of the interviewees spoke about how they managed their time and organized assignments, often while juggling multiple professional and familial commitments. There’s no one-size-fits all solution to planning, but there are some tried-and-true strategies that have worked for these graduates of online programs. For example, Sunny S. shared, “I carried a large planner with different class assignment due dates (for the ENTIRE semester) all color-coded. This helped me to have a visual for planning and not letting anything ‘sneak’ up on me.” In that same vein, David G. reported, “I made an Excel spreadsheet listing requirements in order of completion so I had a road map to follow. I would make sure that I was not missing anything before moving forward (like getting the IRB before Prelim Exam).” Danielle B. added helpfully, “Some techniques I found useful were to map out each course on my calendar, sometimes down to which nights I would complete readings, which nights I would write reflections, and which nights I would work on longer term projects.” Above all, the interviewees felt as Julie C. did: “Without planning out my week (or weeks ahead) it wouldn’t have been possible to do well in my courses while juggling all my other responsibilities.”

Designate a specific, physical space for completing your program. Half of the interviewees mentioned that they’d selected a specific space for their studies where they could learn in a distraction-free, quiet setting. David G. not only dedicated his home office explicitly to completing his online PhD program, but he also bought a MacBook Pro Air for special use on his dissertation. Sunny S. designated an extra room in her home as her School Room, adding, “Having [the School Room] really helped to have a location to disappear to. When I was in my School Room, interruptions were kept to a minimum. It also allowed me to get into the frame of mind, much as entering an actual classroom tells your mind and body that it’s time to learn.”

Ensure that the program fosters a sense of community. One of the oft-cited themes among the interviewees was a concern over the ability to create a sense of belonging or togetherness while learning at a distance. This can be achieved through regular meetings online with faculty and the student cohort; participating in Google Hangouts (or similar video services) to mimic the experience of in-person interactions; or taking advantage of the university’s community-building resources available specifically for the e-Campus, a factor mentioned by Julie C. as a big benefit at EKU. There are various methods to create routine, synchronous interactions with people in distant places, and it pays off for online students. In fact, Heather S. identified one of the most attractive features of her online master’s program at MSU: “There was always a presence of people. It made it real. You started with the same group of people, and we got to know each other. The core of students stayed together and we built relationships like we were sitting next to one another in a class.” For the students who didn’t have the same sense of community, it proved challenging. For example, David G. is still the sole online PhD candidate in his field at UIC and he stated, “I feel somewhat alone in the PhD program…There is a core group of other doctoral students on campus that you can lean on and vent to when you get frustrated. In cyberspace, there is email but it simply is not the same.”

Make sure you have a dedicated, hands-on advisor. Two of the interviewees mentioned the importance of having a communicative and continually involved advisor. These individuals help guide the student to completion of the program by giving them structure and targets, in addition to an overall better academic experience. Julie C. celebrated the continual presence of EKU’s program faculty and mentioned, “I was in constant communication with my instructors, and was not afraid to ask questions. They were always happy to answer my questions and guide me in the right direction.”

Communicate your needs and limitations to employers, professors, family, and friends. One of the predominant challenges for all of the interviewees was balancing program requirements with their professional and familial commitments. Heather S. notably said, “It’s more than just the time management. A helpful routine will get you 80 percent of the way there, but there’s always that 20 percent of unexpected variables in your life or job that affect your ability to complete a paper on time or assignment.” One of the ways to mitigate the inevitable conflicts between an online program and other parts of life is openly recognizing and communicating one’s situation to all affected parties. Successful online students are able to draw boundaries with their relatives, friends, and colleagues, asking them to respect time set aside for studying and assignments; on the other side, online students should also be clear with professors and program advisors on the needs of their home and professional lives, recognizing when to ask for help or an extended deadline due to more pressing responsibilities. After all, as Sunny S. remarked, “It’s important to remember that you want your family and friends to still be around when you are DONE with school, so create balance by making time for them as well.”

Integrate studies into family time. One of the benefits of enrolling in an online program is the convenience, especially for working parents. Since children may be of school-age, two of the interviewees found it useful to study jointly with their children and create a routine. Mark T. shared one of his common evening rituals, underscoring the mutual benefit when families learn together: “I could work at my kitchen countertop when the kids were doing their homework so we could be in the same room together, or we created a little work desk in our home office for me to spread some reading materials on…Nothing wrong with my two kids learning and seeing that learning is lifelong.” Heather S. echoed this practice and the importance of enlisting loved ones in the process of completing an online program: “My daughter and I did our homework together…Getting your whole family and support group rallied around what you’re trying to do is key.”

Make sure to actively appreciate those supporting you. While enrolling in an online program will necessarily take time away from other parts of a student’s life, creating a regular show of gratitude can help mitigate this challenge. For instance, Mark T. divulged, “After every class, I would take the family out to our favorite restaurant to say ‘thanks’ for letting dad study.” By implementing a recurrent expression of appreciation, Mark was able to turn his own time constraints and studying into something to be regularly celebrated over good food and family time. Whether it’s a date night, periodic day trips during weekends, or even habitual notes or affectionate gestures, continuing to show loved ones their importance is crucial to maintain support.

Recognize the complementarity of professional and educational experiences. Although simultaneously working and going to school can be strenuous, there are often points of intersection between one’s work and academic lives which should be pointed out to both employers and faculty. This can take different forms. David G. stated unequivocally, “Each side (school and work) has complemented the other. Strategies from school are quickly implemented at work and work experience lets me see the information in the program in a much different light.” While these activities seemingly compete for an online student’s time, ideally they dovetail and reinforce or enrich the lessons from the other side. Heather S. articulated another application of this idea when she restructured her daily drive as a learning opportunity: “In my commute to work, I listened to my course lectures through iTunes.” Finding ways to achieve multiple objectives simultaneously is a valuable skill for online students.

Maintain momentum and discipline. Finally, once in an online program, it’s advisable for students to get into a flow and finish as efficiently as possible. Sunny S. candidly shared, “I knew that if I took summers off, it may be difficult to dive back in. I enrolled every semester until I was done.” The pace may seem grueling at first, particularly for those with work or parenting responsibilities, but slowing down may compromise the ability to muster the motivation to get back into it. Mark T. stressed the importance of self-regulation in his routine, stating, “You have to be pretty disciplined to study online. The only hours I could guarantee before work or my family life were the morning hours. So I would be up early on weekends…On Saturday and Sunday mornings at 5-7 am, not too many people needed me….Otherwise I would not be 100 percent at work or with my family and that was a sacrifice I didn’t want to make.”

Above all, successful online students accept that there will be both productive and unproductive days, unforeseen challenges, and a lot of creative planning to meet the needs of the program, their families, and their employers. When all is finished, however, all interviewees expressed satisfaction with their decision to pursue an online degree, especially since they all came from accredited schools with campus-based counterparts. In closing, Mark T. stated, “People only see the MSM from Michigan State. Not one person has ever asked, ‘Was that online or in the classroom?’ Same diploma, same school recognition, etc. Good deal!”

Strategy Guide: A Playbook for Online Student Success

Jocelyn Blore

After graduating from UC Berkeley, Jocelyn Blore traveled the world for five years as a freelance writer. She lived in Japan, Brazil, Nepal and Argentina. In 2015, she took an 11-month road trip across the US, finally settling into Eugene, Oregon. She currently serves as the managing editor for several websites on distance-based programs in nursing, engineering and other disciplines. When Jocelyn isn’t writing about schools or interviewing professors, she enjoys satirizing global absurdities on her blog, Blore’s Razor.