Online Education: How to Study Well

It's the age of the MOOC, of quick weekly video guides, tutorials, for credit online courses, and other courses galore. You're literally surrounded by options to continue your education. Yet for all of the benefits and flexibility online courses can provide, there's a large and often unseen stumbling block. The flexibility itself, and the fact that no one is making you finish your work requires good study habits, communication skills, and for students to be self starters.

Besides just learning the material presented in a course, learning a new way to think, through interactions with your professor and peers is often one of the most valuable parts of an education. These interaction-centered parts of learning can easily be missed in online learning. To take full advantage of the course material, and the larger educational experience, online students have to know how to study well. That's why the editors at Online School Center decided to write a guide for how to study effectively for online work.

Estimated time to work through guide: 2 hours

The Basics: Is Online Study For You?

Over 7.1 million students found online study the way to go last year, but many students still find it difficult. Before taking it for granted that online study is the way to go, or that unsuccessful online coursework is something you're doing wrong, let's take a look at how you can decide if online study is a fit for you at all.

If online courses are the only courses you can fit into your schedule, or that you can do from your location--some study is obviously better than none. Here are some very basic questions to ask yourself in deciding if online study is for you:

  • Do you have access to a computer, reliable internet, and all the tools you will need to access course materials?
  • Are you adequately computer savvy so that technical difficulties won't get in between you and your work?
  • Are you comfortable through solely online communication (video chat, voice chat, emails, forums, text chat)?
  • Have you plotted out a realistic schedule detailing how schoolwork will fit into your other obligations?

Here are some resources for deciding if online study is for you, and on what distance learning programs are looking for in students.


Did you know that exercise can make you a better online student? What about keeping a routine? Both can help with focus and organization, but they also help keep you motivated in online courses.

Motivation is easier in traditional classroom education. Your peers are present, there's a teacher in the same room, and usually a whole campus to soak in the learning vibes from. But these sources of motivation aren't as palpable in online education. If keeping yourself healthy and focused don't seem important to getting a quality online education, think about it this way: you use your time and energy to develop relationships with fellow students and teachers in a physical classroom. Yes, it may be easy for you, and yes it may be required, but it's also part of why traditional college education is tried, true, and successful. These simple healthy habits keep you engaged, motivated, and constantly improving.

With online education there's often no one looking over your shoulder to tell you when to do work, or even always to check in. Trust us, it's worth the extra time to get yourself in a good place for learning. Some key ideas to focus on with this aim in mind are (1) pursuing a topic you love, (2) pursuing online education for another good reason (job stability, to advance your career, to prove to yourself you can do it), and (3) good physical, mental, and sleep habits will benefit aspects of your life outside of the classroom as well.

What type of learner are you?

Most of us are predominantly one type of learner. This fact may not seem any more pertinant to your online courses than it would be to normal classroom courses, but it really is. While online courses afford you flexability, this also means that it's up to you to be your own advocate and make the course material stick.

You can do all your coursework in the middle of the night, not interacting with classmates, but if you're auditory learner-- who learns best while listening to others, or explaining topics to them-- this may not be the most effective route. It's up to you to craft your learning environment as an online student. Luckily there are many resources online for determining your learning style, and to help adapt your education to it.

Study Habits for Online Courses

As we've already discussed, being a successful online student requires a good bit of work on your end. From being your own advocate through quality communication, to keeping track of deadlines (no one else is going to do this for you), even good extra-curricular habits.

As far as actual coursework, you're going to need some new tricks as well. Check out these lifehacks and study tips. Key concepts include using interaction and higher level thinking to work through course content. For the blooms taxology link, keep in mind that performing actitivies higher on the taxonomy help you retain the information more. Students should also tailor how they study to how they best learn. Who knew flash cards don't really work that well?

Taking Advantage of Flexibility

If you're really looking to fine tune yourself and become a master online learner, it's important to think about what options the flexibility of online learning give you. Full time online students should have the most flexibility, but those with work and other obligations can still benefit from thinking outside the box with how to structure their time and energy. Here are some resources on alternate sleep schedules, how to balance other obligations and online learning, and deciding if the flexibility of online work is for you.

Online Learning Communities

Critics of online education like to cite the lack of interaction as a shortcoming of distance education. This, however, doesn't have to be the case. Most online courses suggest or require study groups, have forums, and offer quick response times from professors. There are also tons of online learning communities, and communities centered around the topic you're studying. Reach out to explain what you're learning, ask questions, or just socialize with fellow learners.

Locating Courses that Match Your Goals

Though you may only pay for the courses that count towards your degree, don't limit yourself to offerings at one institution. There are tons of free courses, tutorials, and lessons online. Many of which can augment your current course of study. Don't be afraid to dabble in courses not for your degree. Take what you can from the courses, then come back and wow your instructor and classmates!

Communicating with Instructors

Communicating early, and often with instructors is key to succeeding in online education. Make sure to pin down the instructor's expectations and the protocal for getting in touch with your professor. Unlike traditional classrooms where a professor can just call you aside to comment on your work after class, online education requires you to go the extra mile and set up communication avenues early. Perhaps your instructor will start the conversation himself, but is it worth staking your grade on? Besides, early exchanges should allow you to gauge if the level of interaction is the right fit for you, informing you as to if the course is the right fit, or if you should switch to another.

Below are some resources for helping pave the way towards successful interactions with your instructors.

Testing Well

While you may have deadlines for when to take your test, or time limits once your test is begun, online learning offers much greater freedom as to when and where you take tests. Coupled with study habits you've been developing as an online student, this can allow you to show greater mastery of the test material than traditional testing situations. For those with testing anxiety or who don't have a few hours to sit down and take a test during the day, online exams are a good fit.