Six Tips for the First Time Online College Student

July 26, 2011

As we get closer to the new school year, a lot of college students out there are making big decisions about their fall schedules, including whether or not to take online classes.

As an online instructor for a community college, I’ve noticed some common pitfalls and challenges for the first time online college student. In order to help with the transition to the online learning environment, here are six tips for students taking online classes.

Tip #1: Manage Your Time

Learn To Manage Your Time

Tick, tock, tick, tock ... Photo credit: RBerteig,

To be a successful online college student, you need to be able to work independently. For example, are you the type of student who can read a chapter in your textbook and complete a homework assignment without any direct instruction in a face-to-face classroom? Are you able to plan your time to work on your online class without someone looking over your shoulder?

If you currently have trouble planning time for your homework for face-to-face classes, chances are you will have trouble planning your “class time” in the online environment. If you need a lot of structure, the online classroom is probably not the right choice for you.

Tip #2: Order Your Textbooks Early

Order your textbooks as soon as possible. It’s very tempting to search high and low for the cheapest textbook online. However, any value you get from a super-low price isn’t worth being behind the first week while you wait for your textbook to arrive in the mail. In many online classes, the textbook is especially important as there is not any class time for the instructor to personally deliver any content to you.

Every term I hear long sob stories from students who are waiting for the textbooks to arrive, sometimes in the second or third week of the class. Believe me, online instructors have no sympathy for this.

If you don’t purchase from the school’s bookstore, only order from a reputable vendor (a vendor with lots of sales and lots of happy customers), and order in plenty of time to be ready on the first day of school.

Tip #3: Don’t Freak Out!

Don't Panic!

Resist the urge to hit the button. Photo credit: star5112,

It can be scary and anxiety-producing being a first time online college student. Generally speaking, however, there is never a reason to completely freak out. By freaking out, I mean sending the instructor multiple panicky emails, calling the department secretary in tears, or desperately searching for the instructor’s office on campus (chances are the online instructor won’t be there).

If you find yourself freaking out about something, first take a deep breath. Next, give your instructor 24 hours to answer your email. If something is really urgent, most online programs have help-lines that you can call (sometimes these are open 24 hours). These help-lines are especially useful if you are having any kind of technical problem with the online classroom.

Tip #4: Follow the Online Rules of Etiquette

Online classrooms have certain expectations for etiquette and behavior. Hopefully, these guidelines are posted somewhere in the introductory materials for the class. One of the most important rules for first time online college students is to write on discussion forums with correct spelling and punctuation.

Online classes have social, interactive components, but this is not an informal setting like Facebook. An online classroom is a formal, business-like atmosphere. In addition to using correct spelling and punctuation in discussion forums, remember to do the same with emails to your instructor. Always begin your email with a greeting and use the same care you would use if you were writing a homework assignment.

In addition, be respectful of your peers. If you find yourself getting upset about something in an online discussion, don’t post your response until you are calm and able to read your post objectively. The worst thing you can do is distinguish yourself in the class by attacking a classmate or posting an angry or highly emotional response.

Tip #5: Start Out Without the Right Technology or Computer Skills

You should probably know how to use one of these before you start an online class. Photo credit: izzymunchted,

Most online programs give students a clear set of technical requirements in order to use the online classroom. You can most often find this on the school’s website.

But more importantly, do you have the right computer skills? Are you comfortable using a computer? Do you regularly visit social networking sites? Shop online? Use online banking? Contribute to a blog? When you decide to go to a movie, do you still call the theater for show times, or do you buy your tickets in advance on fandango? To succeed in an online classroom, it’s imperative that you’re comfortable navigating through the online environment. Taking an online class doesn’t require a deep technical knowledge of computers, but it does require being comfortable with the online basics.

In addition to software requirements and skills, you should only take an online class if you have a reliable internet connection. Every now and then, a student will disappear for a week or two, only to reappear with a story about not being able to afford the high speed internet bill. Unfortunately, most online instructors will not be sympathetic with this plight.

Tip #6: Visit Frequently

To succeed in an online classroom, you need to visit the classroom frequently, at least as much as you would go to a face-to-face classroom, but probably more. Sometimes, students think they only need to check in every week–not true. The best approach is to be as active in the classroom as possible, contributing to discussions, following the instructor’s announcements, and keeping track of the deadlines. My recommendation is to visit every day!

Online classes are actually a lot of fun–just make sure you actually have enough time to devote to them. Don’t take an online class because you don’t have time to go to school. Online classes provide a lot of flexibility, but they are still very time consuming.

Hopefully these six tips help you make the right choices for your fall schedule. Good luck with your studies this fall!

- Professor Chad

One thought on “Six Tips for the First Time Online College Student

  1. Dr Greg Ryan

    I agree wholeheartedly with your observations! and suggestions to students I plan to copy and paste in my BB web-based classes for students to read. Many of my students are non-traditional students with minimal computer skills. This helps to lessen their learning curve! thanks

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