How to Succeed in Online Courses

Online courses can seem daunting, whether you are a first-time student or a veteran test-taker.

To succeed in online courses, you need to master four basic principles: communication, organization, motivation, and time management.  You should have a plan to communicate with classmates, organize resources, motivate yourself, and manage your time.

Before you take on the challenge of an online course, make sure that remote work is right for you.  To learn more, check out my article on the pros and cons of telecommuting.

Online Course Success Principle #1 – Communication

Good communication skills will help you to find online course success.  They will also help you to succeed at work, in business, and in personal relationships.  Communication with your instructor and classmates will ensure that you understand class expectations.  The following can help you to establish communication and start the class on the right foot.

Establish Rapport with Instructor and Classmates

Most online classes will have a discussion board.  Here, the instructor and students can post comments.  Look for a “Welcome” thread.

If you do not see one, then start one yourself!  Share some information about yourself, such as your area of study and other classes you have enrolled in.

Also include some personal interests, such as sports and hobbies.  You will often find that some of your classmates share the same interests, which can create an instant bond.  In addition, your instructor will learn a little about you and your interests.

If there is no discussion board, send a brief email to the instructor, sharing the same information as above.  You can also request a way to contact other students in the class to form study groups.

I would suggest using Skype to coordinate study groups, especially if your classmates live all over the country.  You can read my post about Skype calls here.

Ask About Tutoring Resources

If you have trouble in the course and need extra help, contact the instructor and ask what is available.  The college may offer tutoring in-person or online.  Sometimes, a little time spent one-on-one with someone knowledgeable can clear up any confusion.

You might also find a list of tutors at colleges and universities.  These tutors often charge by the hour, so you can simply pay them for help when you most need it.  Some students hire a tutor to help them study for a midterm or final exam.

Get a Sense of the Instructor’s Style

Read the syllabus carefully at the start of the class.  If anything is unclear to you, ask the instructor to clarify.  When you receive a grade for the first assignment, look it over to see what you missed.  Learn how the instructor grades your work, and adjust accordingly.

Sometimes, an instructor will tell you exactly what he looks for in an assignment.  If not, ask for a rubric, or the way he grades assignments.  Also ask how you can improve and do your best work in the class.  As an online class instructor, I can tell you personally that I love it when students want to succeed.  It shows drive and initiative when you demonstrate the desire to improve.

Below, I have included part of a screenshot from the online course that I teach:

Find Friends for a Study Group

As mentioned previously, you may find that you share common interests with other students.  Go ahead and ask them if they would like to form a study group.  This does not have to be formal.

For example, you can send out an email to the group with any questions.  Anyone who knows the answer can reply to the whole group and share his knowledge.

As an alternative, everyone can pick a time to get on Skype and ask questions.  If someone else can answer, you may gain a valuable insight.  If nobody knows the answer, you can ask the instructor and share what you learn with the group.

You can also use Skype to quiz each other on class material.  A study group can save you a lot of time spent chasing answers that others already know!

Ask Specific Questions

This applies to questions for your instructor or classmates.  If you ask a more specific question, your instructor or classmates can give a more helpful answer.

The following question is too vague, and makes it difficult to help you without going through every step in detail.

Example (vague question)

I could not get #4 on Homework 2.  Can you tell me how to do this one?

The following question communicates your problem.  The question also makes it easy for your instructor or classmate to help you at a specific step.

Example (specific question)

On Homework 2, Question #4, I was able to factor out the greatest common factor.  I could not factor the remaining quadratic.  Can you give me a hint?

Make sure that you ask a specific question, so that you will get a helpful answer!

Ask for Feedback – and Use it!

There are a few steps to improving at something.  First, you learn about it, either from a teacher, course, book, or other source.  Next, you try to do it yourself.  Then, you receive feedback about your work.  Finally, you act on the feedback to improve your next attempt.

This process sometimes works in a cycle.  After the first time through, you will know a lot that you didn’t know before you began.  If you read about the topic again, you will pick up on more details.  You will also have a better understanding of what the author is talking about.  Your next attempt will likely go more smoothly, as well.

When you ask your instructor for feedback, you will see what the instructor considers good work.  You will then know that to include in future work.

When you ask your classmates for feedback, you might learn something that you completely missed.  This is why a different perspective is important: it can help you to learn more effectively.  It can also help you to understand topics more completely.

Learn the Vocabulary

When taking a course, you will usually see a huge amount of new vocabulary.  Make a list and study the words until you know them all!  This is important in mathematics and in most other disciplines as well.

First you learn the basic definitions, and then the more advanced ones.  Once you “speak the language”, you can understand more complex ideas in the course.  In addition, you can express yourself better, and ask questions that make sense to others.

Communicate Properly

When writing papers, group assignments, or even emails, make sure that your grammar and spelling are perfect.  Also, take the time to check your tone and style.  You don’t want your writing to sound arrogant or snide in any way.

One benefit of writing well is that others will have a better understanding of your ideas.  Another benefit is that it will be easier for your instructor or classmates to help you and communicate with you.

There is one more thing to consider.  You might have trouble reading, writing, speaking, or understanding the language used in the course.  If so, consider taking a remedial course to learn the language before the actual course starts.

This investment of time and money might even pay for itself.  With the language barrier removed, you will be able to learn more from your instructor and classmates in less time.

Online Course Success Principle #2 – Organization

Good organization skills will also help you to in your quest for online class success.  Good organization will also make your life less hectic.  The following will help you to organize and make the most efficient use of your resources.

Review Course Prerequisites

Sometimes, you must pass a basic course before you can take a more advanced course.  We call this earlier, more basic course a prerequisite course.  For instance, you need to pass pre-algebra to take algebra.  Take some time before a new course begins to review any prerequisite course material.

You might only have time to spend a few days reviewing your old notes from a prerequisite course.  However, this will give you an advantage over students who go into the class “cold”.  This is especially true for students who took the prerequisite course months ago, and have forgotten some of the material.


If you plan to take a calculus course, make sure to review relevant concepts in algebra.  You need to understand topics like factoring, functions, and graphing to do well in calculus.

If you don’t know what to review, or where to start, ask your instructor.

Find and Setup Your Work Space

First, you should decide on where you will do your work.  You can choose a couple of different places to change things up.  The following can make good work spaces, depending on your tolerance for noise or solitude:

  • Home office – you can work at home, unless family will make it too distracting.
  • Library – you can work in solitude without interruption at the library, and you can do research as well.
  • Coffee shop – you will find a social atmosphere, but this might distract you!
  • Bookstore – similar to the coffee shop, know that you will find more distractions here than at the library.

No matter where you choose to work, you will need the right equipment.  Make sure to bring your computer!  Also bring any accessories, such as headphones, USB mouse or keyboard, etc.

In addition, bring any books you will need for reference or studying.  Finally, bring some scrap paper and pens or pencils, to do scratch work.

If you choose to work at home, ensure a comfortable area.  Find a comfortable chair, a desk, and good lighting.  Communicate to family and friends that you will study during certain hours.  Ask them not to disturb you.

Fix Technical Issues Early

When I teach, I like to see students fix technology issues early.  On the other hand, some students tell me two weeks into the course that they cannot access the homework.  This makes me wonder what they were doing for the first two weeks.

If you have a problem, ask a classmate or your instructor for help!  The instructor has likely seen the problem before, and can help you to solve it quickly.  In the worst case scenario, he can point you in the right direction to contact IT support.

Some of the most common technology-related problems I have seen include the following:

  • Popup blockers – these may prevent animations or videos from playing in the course.
  • Software versions – you may need to update to the latest version, for example: Java, Adobe Flash or Reader for PDFs
  • Browser – you may need to update to the latest version, for example: Firefox, Chrome, and Edge.  Remember, some courses will simply work better on one browser than another.
  • Operating system – you may need a certain minimum, for example, Windows 10.  Keep in mind that some courses will simply work better on Windows than on a Mac, or vice versa.

This list may solve your technical issue.  If not, ask your instructor for help early!

Organize Your Resources

First, make sure that you know what you will need to succeed in the course.  This includes physical resources such as your computer, textbooks, pens, pencils, calculators, and paper.  It also includes digital resources, such as electronic copies of textbooks, documents (PDF, Word, Excel, etc.), and the course syllabus.

Once you know what you need, put all of the resources together.  Keep your computer, textbooks, etc. together on your desk.  Create a folder on your computer desktop to store all of your files, including course handouts and the syllabus.  It may help to create subfolders in this folder to stay more organized.


The folder on your desktop could say “Fall 2018 Semester, Alpine College”.  Within this folder, you could have a folder for each course, such as “College Algebra” and “Chemistry 101”.  Within these folders, you could have subfolders for “course handouts”, “essays”, “assignments”, etc.

Keep your materials organized, and update your filing system as necessary.  You never know when you may want to look back on your work!

Track Missed Questions

Make a list of any questions you miss on a homework assignment, quiz, or test.  Also note the type of question you missed, and what mistake you made.  Also try to explain the correct answer, what you did wrong, and how you would solve it now.

In addition, you should check your list and see if you can find any patterns in what you missed.

  • Homework 1, Question 2 – I misread the problem and solved for the wrong value.  Read carefully and understand vocab words.  Know what the question asks for.
  • Homework 2, Question 5 – I did not know how to use the quadratic formula.  Memorize formula, and practice!
  • Quiz 1, Question 4 – I did not know how to factor a difference of squares.  Memorize the formula, and know what to look for to recognize a difference of squares!

Do the Toughest Work First

I know it is tempting to complete the easiest work first.  However, you might not have the motivation for a tough assignment after spending all day on easy ones.  You tend to have more willpower earlier in the day, and it wanes as time goes on.

In fitness, some people suggest that you start with a warmup.  Next, you do your heaviest lifting and exercises.  Then, you work your way down to lighter weights until you finish your workout.

The same reasoning applies to course work.  If you have trouble tackling your toughest assignment first, then do a warmup.  Start off with a light, relatively easy task or assignment.  Once it is complete, let that sense of accomplishment carry you into the beginning of the tough assignment.

After you complete the tough assignment, you can breathe a sigh of relief.  Then, you will feel good about tackling some of your easier work.

Online Course Success Principle #3 – Motivation

Motivation will keep you going, even when you want to quit.  The following will give you some ideas to stay motivated and push through to the end and pass that class!

Try Before You Buy

Before you enroll in an online course, it might make sense to see what you are going into.  Try out a free online course first.  There are many options available.  One is MIT OpenCourseWare, which you can check out here.  Another option is Coursera, which has free material, but in some cases charges for access to graded assignments and feedback.  You can check out Coursera here.

Choose a course that interests you, and read through some of the material.  Take notes on what you read.  Then, try some of the quizzes or course exercises provided in the course.  This will give you a sense of what some online courses are like.

You might also do this with a friend who is taking an online course.  Together, you can talk about the material, discuss what you learned, and review what you struggled with.

You might decide that you don’t like the course.  In that case, decide if it is the material, the presentation, or the online format that is bothering you.  It might be that online courses are not for you, but only you can decide this!

If the trial run did not scare you away, then you should be ready for your online course!  By the time you begin, you will know what to expect.  Also, you have already begun building up the self-discipline to do any required reading and work.

Remember Why

Remember why you enrolled in this class in the first place.  For example, you might need this course as a prerequisite for a later course or for a specific degree.  You might also want to prove to yourself or others that you can pass your first online course.  You might take the course to earn a pay raise or promotion at work.

Whatever the reason, let that motivate you when you want to quit.  Think about how good it will feel to succeed.  Do not trade short-term gratification (Netflix!) for long-term rewards (degrees, raises, promotions, knowledge).

Make Goals, Set Milestones, & Take Action Steps

You should have goals, so that you have a clear direction and purpose.  For example, you have a goal to earn a bachelor’s degree.  This can seem overwhelming before you begin (and even after you begin!).  For this reason, split the goal into milestones.

For instance, you might need 32 credits for your bachelor’s degree.  Set a milestone of 6 credits per year, or 3 per semester.  Finally, you should set action steps to achieve each milestone.

As an example, you might decide to take the action of studying 2 hours per day for your Algebra class.  Once you form this habit, the action takes care of itself each day, and success will come much more easily.

Have a Plan & Follow It

Plan your week in advance, and stick to the plan!  Lay out your work schedule and your time spent studying.  Set aside time for your study group (as mentioned earlier).  Also make time for family and friends.  Communicate to everyone your plan for the week, so that they will not sabotage your study efforts.

Seek Support

Tell other supportive people about your plans, and check in with them regularly.  This might mean talking to your boss about the business course you are taking.  This might also mean telling your family about something you learned today.  When other people become invested and interested in your success, you will find your motivation enhanced.

Tackle Difficult Material in Layers

With a difficult topic, you won’t master it the first time you read it.  Instead, try to get a general idea on your first read.  Then, take a little break from it.  Go back later with your general understanding, and dig a little deeper.  Keep on doing this, and eventually you will have a deeper understanding.

You have probably already done this, without realizing it.  Do you have a favorite movie that you watch over and over?  If you get something new out of it every time, then you are processing the movie in layers.

Find an Accountability Partner

This could be as simple as asking someone to check in with you every few days.  You could ask a family member, friend, coworker, or classmate.  Your partner can help to ensure that you finish your work on time.  Otherwise, you will feel guilty when you have to admit that you are not completing your work.

Another benefit is that you have someone who can encourage you and refuel your motivation.

Reward Yourself!

There is nothing wrong with rewarding yourself when you finish your work.  However, make sure that the reward matches the accomplishment.

For instance, let’s say that you complete one homework assignment out of 40 in the semester.  That might not warrant a night out on the town!  However, your reward could be to read a chapter from your favorite book.  You could also watch an episode of a show you like.

On the other hand, let’s say you complete a major course milestone.  For instance, you score well on a midterm or final exam.  In that case, you can have your night out on the town!

Online Course Success Principle #4 – Time Management

Good time management practices will help you to achieve success in your online class.

The following ideas will help you to make a schedule that works for you.

Establish a Routine

Steve Jobs wore the same turtleneck every day.  That way, he did not have to think about what to wear.  I eat the same breakfast every day.  That way, I do not need to think about what to cook.  A routine saves you time.  It also saves you willpower, or mental energy, since you do not need to make so many decisions.

Research has shown that even making small decisions (clothing or breakfast) can sap your willpower.  This leaves you with less willpower to work and study later in the day.  Establish your routine, form good habits, and watch your successes grow!


Every day, I will study for an hour after I wake up, from 6-7am.  After breakfast, I will study from 7:30-8:30am.  After work, I will study from 5:30-6:30pm.  Before bed, I will study 9:30-10:30pm.  This gives me 4 hours per day of studying.

You can change up your weekday routine for the weekends to get more studying in if needed.

Establish a Schedule

Set aside time each day for each area of your life.  This includes family, friends, work, study, exercise, sleep, food, and fun/relaxation.  Make sure to give yourself time in each area every day.  When you sit down to study, make it clear to others that you need to study now.

Review Missed Problems

You should make the most efficient use of your time.  Focus on the topics where you can improve the most.  It might feel good, but do not waste time reviewing what you already know!  Spend time on material that you missed.  If you cannot solve a problem, ask classmates or your instructor for help.


To succeed in your online class, remember the four principles: communication, organization, motivation, and time management.  You need to adapt these principles for your class.

If you are ready to begin your journey with online classes, then it is time to make sure you have the right equipment!  To get started, check out my article on the best tools for telecommuting.

I hope that this article is helpful in achieving online class success.  If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comments below.

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