How to Succeed in Online Classes

Eleven tips from a professor's perspective.

Posted Mar 08, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

Key Points:

  • Stay in touch with your professors and be respectful in your communications with them.
  • Online classes require self-motivation; read your syllabus and avoid submitting work at the last minute.
  • Don’t make up excuses about technology problems—but do build in time to deal with any tech issues that could arise.

Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part post.

In a recent post, I addressed the assumption and mythology that when students are taking online classes, they are just teaching themselves. Yet, education is supposed to be about getting students to think for themselves, to become active learners, and to be creative and resourceful. I’m reminded of something my mother told me years ago when I started teaching; she was an educator for decades and said something is wrong if teachers are doing more of the work than the students. In no way was she giving me or other educators a pass; rather, she was instilling in me an important lesson about how students need to care as much—and actually more—about their learning, successes, and failures than their professors do. She was right. 

 Beci Harmony/Unsplash
Source: Beci Harmony/Unsplash

To help students have a more successful experience when taking online classes, I’ve assembled these pointers:

  • Remember that professors are human beings, also navigating a pandemic and possibly losing people they love. Address professors as people rather than robots and you will likely get more help and support. Earlier in the semester when a student sent me an email in capital letters asking when our class was meeting (despite the multiple announcements that the class was indeed asynchronous) without a salutation or greeting of any kind, I replied that I wouldn’t answer her questions until she acknowledged my humanity. 
  • Make appointments to meet your professors online or by phone. It’s a myth that most professors are not accessible and available. Last semester, I gave my cell number to 125 students, yet few people used it. Over email and in feedback on papers, I suggested countless appointments to help support students’ success. Most of the time, I did not hear from students; when I did, and we got as far as setting something up, they stopped responding and confirming.
  • It’s a bad idea to use technology as an excuse. A student tried to tell me that she discovered that none of her Blackboard discussion postings had gone through and she claimed that this happened with another class also. Another student insisted that she had been locked out of her Blackboard account the day a paper was due. And there are numerous students who feign “confusion” and “stress,” which would be reasonable claims until one learns that they had never accessed the syllabus or read the assignment to have anything to be confused about. Faculty have technological access to uncovering this information to look more deeply into students’ online activity in the course. 
  • Even if professors aren’t always posting video lectures of themselves, they’re creating and facilitating learning. Remember that they have culled and curated extensive materials for class, dreamed up discussion prompts and activities, created assignments, graded them, posted articles and book chapters, maybe even ones they authored to help shed light on the scholarship they do that informs the class material, shared written versions of lectures, found powerful clips and films, etc. That hardly qualifies as students teaching themselves.
  • Asynchronous classes demand time management and self-motivation. Perhaps that is what leads people to believe they’re teaching themselves. No one is making students go anywhere, no one is standing in front of them aiming to both educate and entertain a large group of mainly late adolescents. It’s imperative to put all due dates in a calendar and to indicate dates by which to start projects to be on track.
  • Review the entire syllabus regularly for what is expected of you. If you’ve had the same professor for other online classes or face-to-face classes, don’t take for granted and assume that everything is laid out the same. 
  • Remember the importance of discussion boards if they are part of the course. They become a place for class participation and the typical expectations are that you create original posts and also give peer feedback. If you skip out on these, it’s the equivalent of not attending face-to-face classes for days or weeks at a time. Also, if posts are due by 11:59 p.m., for example, it is best to not race onto the learning management system to try to write something up at 11:57 p.m. Would you rush into an 11 a.m. class at 11:47 a.m. if it ends at noon and blurt something out and fly back out the door? Hopefully not. Your learning and performance will be enriched by the sort of citizen you are in this learning community.
  • When you send e-mails to professors you've never met, this is a chance to make a good impression. This is a short note and not a text. Write it in a respectful manner and send it from your school account only. Think about subject headings, salutations (i.e., in my case, my name is neither “hey prof” nor “Mrs. Cohan”), grammar, spelling, signing off, etc. Include the name of the class in which you are enrolled; as someone who knows my students by name in face-to-face classes, it’s very different online when we haven’t met and therefore it’s much harder to keep track of who’s who and in which class. Many professors have numerous classes with over 100 students in a given semester, and an organized and clear email from you will go a long way. Before sending the message, consider if you really need to; there’s a very good chance the answer is contained in the syllabus or the assignment, and it’s best to try to think for yourself first and then seek help. These are all good skills to sharpen for communicating with future employers.
  • If you’re taking synchronous classes and you’re not required to have your camera on, try having it on. You’ll likely find that it changes the way you show up to the whole experience and how the experience reflects back to you in a more meaningful way. When students admit that in synchronous classes, they log on and then go nap, take a shower, or leave for a run, these choices probably won’t support success. 
  • Build in time for technology problems that inevitably arise at the worst possible times. 
  • Build in non-screen time in your day to get into nature, exercise, read, or daydream.