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10 Tips for Online Learning

online student success

In the fall of 2018, 35.3% of college students in the United States were enrolled in at least one online education course, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Thanks to the many benefits of online learning — such as flexibility, accelerated progress and lower cost — online education (or distance learning, as it’s sometimes called) has become an integral part of today’s college experience.

Whether you’re already on your way to earning a degree online, you’re new to online learning or you’re thinking about going back to school to finish your degree, get a new credential or advance your career, we’ve created a list of 10 Tips for Online Learning that will help you develop successful online learning strategies to ensure you get the absolute most out of your online education experience.

Tip#1: Know What You Signed Up For

make sure you understand what's expected of you as an online student

Not all online courses are built the same. When getting started in an online program, make sure you are fully informed about such things as the format and content of your courses, the academic requirements of your program and standard communication practices with your school.

To enable a smooth transition as an online student, you can:

  • Take the time to thoroughly read all materials that are provided to you by your school — and by your instructors.
  • Sign up for and attend a virtual orientation for new students.
  • Review the academic policies and procedures on your university’s website to be sure you understand what is expected of you as an online learner.
  • Reach out to the academic advising office and ask any questions that come to mind.
  • Familiarize yourself with all relevant information on your college website, as well as all of the resources that are available to you as an online student.

Tip#2: Do a Tech Check Ahead of Time

laptop and mobile phone online learning

Ongoing developments in academic technology are making it increasingly easier to effectively teach and learn online using various apps, software and equipment. When it comes to technology, however, things aren’t always as simple as they seem.

Before you start your first online class, invest some time in making sure that all systems are ready to go.

  • Review technical requirements (which should be provided to you by your school) to ensure you have a suitable computer system and adequate Internet access.
  • Get your school email account set up.
  • Be certain you understand how to choose and register for your online courses.
  • Familiarize yourself with the online learning platform your school uses (UMass Lowell uses Blackboard, for example), and test drive an online course beforehand, if possible.
  • Download and launch necessary software (many schools provide free software for qualifying courses), and take advantage of any software tutorials that may be offered.
  • Make note of how to access 24×7 technical support (which most online colleges offer) — and keep this information handy for if and when you need it.

Tip#3: Create a Dedicated Study Space

online college student studying at desk

Just because you are learning online at a time and place of your choosing doesn’t mean it will be easy to focus and concentrate when you need to. If you are like most online students, you are probably employed full-time or part-time, and you may also be managing family responsibilities.

Effectively juggling competing priorities as an online student requires careful organization and planning.

  • Set yourself up for success by designating a quiet study spot, ideally a separate room where you can shut the door and block out distractions.
  • If you have family members or roommates you share space with, consider investing in a set of noise-cancelling headphones.
  • When you are studying or taking a test, put a sign on your door requesting that you not be disturbed.
  • When it’s time for you to study or attend an online class discussion, be fully present by putting your phone away (out of sight and out of reach) and turning off all notifications/sounds.
  • If you are struggling to stay focused learning online at home, try a change of scenery such as a public library (or your school’s library, if you live within commuting distance) or a coffee shop.

Tip#4: Do the Work

online learning requires focus and hard work

There’s no way around it: You will need to put in the requisite time and effort in order to enjoy academic success as an online learner. The idea that online courses are “easier” than traditional, on-campus courses simply isn’t true. (In fact, at UMass Lowell, we make a concerted effort to ensure that the standards and quality of our online programs are equivalent to our on-campus programs.)

Online courses require just as much reading, writing, homework and studying.

  • Don’t slack off — make sure you complete all of the reading that is assigned to you in your courses.
  • Do your part and contribute when working on collaborative projects with classmates.
  • Attend all video sessions, or catch up on video recordings as soon as possible if you aren’t able to watch live.
  • Finish assignments and projects on time.
  • Pay attention, take thorough notes, and be sure to study for quizzes and exams.
  • Make use of online study tools such as Quizlet (a flashcard and quiz maker), Evernote (a notetaking tool) and Schooltraq (a study planner for students).

Tip#5: Manage Your Time

online student planning

It’s been said before but we’ll say it again: Strong time management skills are essential for student success.

“Students who allocate specific days/times each week for each course have the best success,” says Lisa Panagopoulos, who was the Director of Online Faculty Development and Services at UMass Lowell for 11 years. “For example, for one class, schedule time every Tuesday evening from 7–10 p.m. for readings, and block off Saturday morning from 9–12 on your calendar for assessments,” explains Panagopoulos, a senior adjunct faculty member who has been teaching information technology and computer science courses (both online and on campus) at UMass Lowell since 1997.

Other time management tips for online learning:

  • Plan ahead and schedule the time you will need for schoolwork each week.
  • Create a calendar to make note of quizzes, exams and project deadlines and to reserve time for studying, reading and assignments.
  • Break larger projects down into smaller, more manageable goals spread out over a longer timeframe.
  • Review the to-dos on your calendar at the beginning of each week. Prioritize tasks, and reprioritize whenever necessary.
  • Stick with the schedule you create — procrastinating may lead to falling behind more quickly than you think.

Tip#6: Take Regular Breaks

It's important to take regular study breaks to avoid burnout and fatigue

If you are an online learner who is juggling numerous responsibilities, it is especially important for you to figure out a study approach that works best for you. Imposing a deliberate structure by scheduling shorter, more frequent study sessions can help to avoid a common pitfall: burnout.

“Working for long stretches without breaks leads to stress and exhaustion,” says Meg Selig, a contributor to Psychology Today who holds an M.A. Ed. in Counseling. “Taking breaks refreshes the mind, replenishes your mental resources, and helps you become more creative.” Frequent breaks have also been shown to help enhance memory and restore focus.

Sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on end can also lead to eye strain, headaches, blurry vision and tired, dry eyes, according to Stephen Lipsky, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

So how can you integrate regular study breaks into your schedule?

  • Set a timer to remind yourself to take frequent breaks. You can use a simple kitchen timer, a timer on your phone or an online productivity tool such as Marinara Timer.
  • Stick with your break schedule. When the timer goes off, be sure to stand up and step away from your desk and computer.
  • Try to use your break time to reinvigorate your body and mind: eat a healthy snack, fill up your water bottle, go for a walk or do a quick stretch.
  • During your breaks, try to limit activity on social media, YouTube, Netflix or anything else that is likely to distract you and derail your study schedule.

Tip#7: Utilize All Available Resources

use all resources your college offers

There are many resources dedicated to helping online students succeed. Make sure you take the time to find out what resources your university has to offer, and take advantage of as many of them as you can.

Remote learning resources for online students include such things as:

  • Online tutoring
  • Virtual orientation
  • Online library access and e-textbooks
  • 24×7 technical support
  • Academic advising
  • Financial aid assistance
  • Career resources

Also, make sure you also learn your way around the online learning platform your school uses, which is likely to offer numerous virtual learning tools. “Blackboard provides a variety of interaction tools to help you succeed,” says Panagopoulos. “You can use Blackboard’s Collaborate tool for real-time interaction with your professor and classmates. In the Discussion Forum, you can ask general course-related questions, while the internal Mail tool can be used for private questions you want to ask your professor.”

Tip#8: Be an Active Participant

college course online group video chat

“I like to say, ‘Just because the course isn’t live, doesn’t mean it is not alive,’” says Panagopoulos. “As is the case with anything, the more you put into it the more you will get out of it.”

Readily participating in all class activities is one of the best ways for you to get the most out of your online learning experience.

  • Don’t be afraid to speak up! Taking a class online for the first time can cause some anxiety but rest assured that you are not alone in feeling this way.
  • Contribute to group discussions, as it can help you better understand different perspectives on the course material being presented.
  • Ask questions when you have them — whether it be submitting a question in the chat box during a virtual lecture or emailing your professor when you are studying and find yourself confused or stuck.

Tip#9: Get to Know Your Professor and Classmates

Get to know your professor in your online class

Building a relationship with your professor and classmates when learning online is entirely possible. Making the effort to do so can have numerous benefits such as fostering camaraderie, facilitating peer support, increasing your confidence, guiding your academic pursuits, and opening your mind to different ways of thinking, learning, and living.

“Don’t be afraid to share who you are with your instructor and classmates,” advises Panagopoulos. “Although you are all together as a class for only a brief amount of time, by taking a class online you have the rare opportunity to learn from one another and share experiences from all around the country — and the world! This is a uniquely special side-effect of the online learning experience. Don’t miss out on it.”

To form connections in your online courses, you can:

  • Read and respond to posts from other online students on message/discussion boards.
  • Reach out to classmates to organize a virtual or on-campus (if you live within commuting distance) study group.
  • Attend your professor’s open office hours when you can.
  • Reach out to your professor via email if you have questions about a grade or a comment your professor made on an assignment you completed.

Tip#10: Ask for Help When You Need It

confused online student

The importance of knowing when and how to ask for help when pursuing your college education cannot be underestimated. Becoming a competent independent learner is the ultimate goal of attending college but waiting for your professor, a classmate, a friend or a family member to notice that you are struggling is not the right approach.

If you are having trouble with your coursework, the first step is to admit to yourself that you need help. Once you do that, you can:

  • Email or call your professor to let her/him know that you need her/his help and guidance.
  • Reach out to the advising center to get some informed advice and to check in on your academic progress.
  • Take advantage of any online tutoring or academic support your college offers.
  • Reach out to classmates who seem to have a good grasp of the material, and ask if they would be willing to help you study and get up to speed.

When it comes to online learning, there is one last very important tip for you to remember: Your university wants you to succeed. Support is there for you if you need it — all you have to do is ask.


At the University of Massachusetts Lowell, we have been making our traditional undergraduate and graduate academic programs available online to students all over the world since 1996. We offer one of the largest selections of online programs available through a traditional university, and our online courses and programs have earned national recognition and awards for innovation, faculty development, inclusive education and online teaching. Interested in taking a course or applying to a program? Our admissions and advising teams are available to help you every step of the way.