Starting an online degree or certificate can be intimidating. After all, online learning platforms are still relatively new in higher education. Many of us developed learning skills in a traditional classroom. But to be successful in a virtual classroom, you need to adjust your study habits and adapt to new technologies.
According to Kimberly Parke, director of admissions at Harvard Extension School, success as a distance education student requires—first and foremost—grit. Parke offers 10 tips to help you bring your best self to the table each semester.
1. Take Advantage of the Resources Around You
No matter where you’re enrolled, there are always resources to help you get the most out of your courses. Most accredited higher ed institutions will offer virtual office hours with an instructor, and many will give you access to research databases and other resources. Be sure to check out your school’s resources page as a starting point.
This page includes information on computer facilities, research tools, and academic and career support—and knowing how to use these resources is just as important as knowing where to find them.
If you have an advisor, be sure to use this crucial resource. A dedicated advisor who can direct you through the experience, from admissions to graduation, can make all the difference in your journey.
Students should also take advantage of networking opportunities with their classmates and instructors. Instructors are not just in charge of uploading lectures and grading assignments. They can also act as a valuable resource for you as a student, containing a wealth of knowledge within their fields of interest.
Start by reaching out during office hours or even sending a quick email to introduce yourself—small connections can end up going a long way.
2. If Possible, Get Your Employer On Board
Many employers are happy to support their employees’ continuing education as long as it doesn’t interfere with their job duties. In certain cases, they may even be willing to help with tuition costs, particularly if your course of study relates to the business.
In any event, your employer may be willing to give you flexible hours or remote work privileges to help you fit coursework into your schedule. If you have a long commute, saving yourself those hours on the road can free up significant time.
If you are pivoting careers and taking courses in order to transition to a different field, it may not be possible or desirable to share this with your employer. If this is your situation, at a minimum ensure you have enough flexibility (including vacation hours) to accommodate the time commitment.
3. Prepare and Plan Ahead of Time
When choosing a course, check the syllabus to ensure you have no personal or professional conflicts. Have an important board meeting on a test day? Is a large assignment due the week of your kids’ school vacation? Such conflicts can jeopardize your success. Be realistic about the demands and choose a course that will fit into your schedule
If you’re ultimately pursuing a degree or certificate, remember to be flexible. There are going to be semesters where taking two or three courses is doable, and others where you may only be able to dedicate the time to one. Keep in mind that planning too far in advance can be overwhelming at times.
Try mapping out a semester or two in advance rather than planning your entire academic curriculum at once. By planning accordingly, you should have no problem balancing your personal calendar with your academic studies.
4. Don’t Underestimate the Time Commitment
Harvard Extension and other credible online courses are rigorous! Don’t treat them differently than you would a regular class.
Though online courses are inherently more flexible than traditional face-to-face classes, the time commitment required to succeed is no different. You’ll need to manage your time well. Build in time not only for completing assignments, but also participating in discussion boards and peer conversations.
Without face-to-face reminders, it can be easy to overlook looming deadlines and wind up scrambling to finish at the last minute. To avoid this, schedule regular study time, preferably daily. During study sessions, look through upcoming assignments to ensure you’ve budgeted enough time to give them all your best effort.
5. Know Your Strengths, Limitations, and Motivators
If you’re not a morning person, don’t plan on doing your coursework before work. If you’re consistently exhausted by 7 p.m., don’t schedule study time for the late evening hours. Some people work best in long uninterrupted chunks of time, others fare better with shorter more frequent sessions. Set yourself up for success by making plans you’ll actually stick to.
Consider what motivates you. Yes, education is its own reward, but it doesn’t hurt to build in more immediate rewards for your hard work. Set yourself a goal and treat yourself when you accomplish it. These treats don’t have to be expensive or overly indulgent. Even allowing yourself to watch your favorite show will work if that feels rejuvenating to you.
The key is to know yourself well enough to create a routine that enables you to do your best work. And choose rewards that encourage you to stick with it until it’s done.
6. Find a Quiet Workspace
While reading on your bed or couch can be relaxing, separating work from home is crucial when taking an online course. Setting up a quiet and productive workspace is especially important for those online learners who are not able to access the campus library, and are restricted to their own home during class hours.
Try finding a quiet room, or section of a room, with minimal distractions. Studying in the same place at the same general time creates a routine of stability as you participate in your course modules each week, and sets the tone for any future online courses you may take.
7. Schedule Time for Your Relationships
Returning to school, whether online or in a traditional classroom, is challenging. You’ll need both logistical and emotional support throughout. Students who find themselves neglecting their support networks in order to take classes are much more likely to drop out.
Be sure to communicate with the important people in your life – let them know what you are doing and what kind of support they can provide if needed.
Strive for work/life harmony, not balance. There will be times when you must give your all to your coursework, so make sure to carve out time during the less intense periods to spend time with your family and friends and nurture those relationships.
Knowing that you’ve made time to spend with the important people in your life can make periods of intensity more bearable for both you and the people you love.
8. Develop Grit
Having grit can mean different things in varying circumstances, but what it really boils down to in this context is being able to persevere and overcome difficult situations. Parke is a strong believer in “sticking with your plan day in and day out, not just for the week or for the month, but for years, and working hard to make your future a reality.” Using the suggested tools and strategies for how to succeed as a distance student can help you exponentially along the way.
“There’s a great deal to learn—not only in the classroom, but about how school works today—and committing to it is a big responsibility,” said Parke. “That’s why grit, both academic and personal, is so important if a student aims to manage all of his or her obligations successfully.”
9. Read Everything
From registration procedures to course descriptions and syllabi, in order to be a successful student you will need to read as much as you can. As an online course-taker, a lot of the information you receive from your instructors will be in text form. It’s important to remember that not all information is intuitive, especially when it comes to policies. The website and course catalog are built in a way that is easily navigable for students, and should be used as a reference point throughout your studies.
10. Stay Active and Engaged
Finally, remind yourself why you’re taking classes in the first place. Online courses provide opportunities for continuing education that were undreamt of just a generation ago. Treat your course as an exciting opportunity rather than an obligation.
Participate in everything you can – connect with your instructors, your classmates, and any additional resources you are provided. As with anything else, you will get out of your course as much as you are willing to put in.