10 Tips For Taking an Online Class

With the sudden shift to online learning for millions of students, we felt it would be a good idea to include some best practices for taking classes online.

Research has shown that there is no significant difference between what you can learn in an online course and a traditional face-to-face course. There are benefits to both methods, and you might have a preference for one over the other, but there really isn’t a difference in what you LEARN. Now social is a different story and a topic for another time. So, without further lecturing, here are my top tips for taking online classes in no particular order:

Use a timer
When taking an online class or going to school full-time online, a timer can be invaluable. I use a clock app in Chrome that allows chimes at the beginning of every hour so that I can know more easily how long I’ve been working on something, or if I need to move on to something else. It is a simple way to keep yourself on task (or pull you back on task if you got distracted by Instagram or YouTube videos).
You can download the Chrome extension for the clock with a chime here.

Keep a tidy space to work
While neatness is relative, keeping an organized space can help you stay more productive. This includes your laptop or desktop screen. I use tools like Fences and Groupy (both available from Stardock on STEAM) to keep my computer desktop organized.

Which brings me to folders on your computer. I recommend organizing your folders on your laptop by semester and class. Keep all of your assignments together and BACK THEM UP on a regular basis. Buy an external hard drive and plug it into your computer weekly to do backups.

If you are really paranoid about losing files (like I am), keep all of your files organized in a local Google Backup and Sync, Dropbox, or Boxx folder so that it will backup to the Cloud continuously.

Post a schedule
Whether you are taking your online classes at home or from your apartment, a schedule helps you, and more importantly, the people you live with know what you are doing and when you are doing it.

Obviously a schedule will help structure your day, but it is an important tool to enable those around you to support you in your educational efforts. Posting a schedule on your door will let everyone know that you are taking your learning seriously and that you are busy at certain times; and will hopefully discourage your roommate from blasting their electric guitar while you are holding a video conference with your professor (or your mom bringing you milk and cookies).

Be sure to make your schedule balanced and include time for exercise.

Schedule time to visit with your friend virtually
Just as it is important to schedule your class and homework time, it is also important to maintain the relationships that you have built. With the social distancing taking place, it is important you schedule time to meet virtually with your friends either to just talk or to play a game.

Be flexible
The vast majority of faculty and teachers have never taught online before. They were given a one week notice and minimal (if any) training on how to transition their course online.

They are still figuring this stuff out, just like you are. Chances are they are a little older and also dealing with new technology that didn’t exist when they were in college.

A nice word of encouragement and understanding goes a long way! If you don’t understand something, or the expectations are not clear, ask the professor, in a friendly manner, for clarification.

At the same time, your family, roommate, and friends are also dealing with this stressful time. Be an encourager. Help them through this hard time. No one needs a narcissist thinking this is all about them (and don’t horde TP!)

Close social apps/tabs when you are working
When you are working on homework or class material online, close your social media tabs and turn your phone off, or at least to silent. Set that timer, and focus on your classes for 20 to 30 minutes, then take a SHORT break.

Research shows that learning in short chunks of 20 to 30 minutes is the most effective way to retain the information. Get up and move around. Get a glass of water, then get back to it for another 20 to 30 minutes (this is where that clock app comes in really nice!)

Use music to help you focus
I really wish I had known about this when I was a student. Instead of playing whatever you normally listen to, play Mozart when you need to focus. I purchased Music for the Mozart Effect Vol. 4 when I was working on my doctorate, and it made it so much easier to focus on my research and writing. FYI, it’s playing right now as I write this!

It helped so much, I have continued to use it and now have five textbooks and many book chapters and papers published (this from a guy who never got higher than a ‘C’ on a spelling test due to dyslexia).

Use or create a back-channel for your classes
Get connected and stay connected with others in your class. I was thrilled to learn that my Serious Games class was using Discord to communicate with each other outside of class!

This allowed them quickly and easily to share questions and help one another succeed in the course. It is vitally important that you are in contact with other students in your classes to help one another learn the material and support each other.

Keep a To-Do list
Generally, there are two types of people in the world; those who keep lists and get things done, and those who rely on the people who make lists.

I wasn’t a list maker until I got to college. One of my first supervisors, Dan, strongly encouraged me to start making lists if I want to accomplish my work goals and grow within the organization. As a result of that advice (and a lot of hard work), I was the youngest supervisor ever hired at that University.

All because I made a list. It doesn’t matter if the list is on paper or a digital document. It still works if you use it. And, there is something immensely satisfying about crossing something off your list when you accomplish it.

Keep a schedule for your classes
This might seem like a repeat from earlier, but it’s not. You are used to taking a class on a schedule: Tue/Thur, Mon/Wed/Fri, or an evening course. Treat your online classes the same way. Set blocks of time for the online class just like you would for a face-to-face class and spend your time completing the assignments for that class.

There you have it, my top tips for taking classes online. Did I forget anything? Do you have a tip that has helped you succeed in online learning? Share it in the comments below!

Dr. Brian Burton has been teaching online classes for over 20 years. He and his wife created and ran one of the first online schools for junior/high school students in the United States. If you have questions for Dr. Burton, you can contact him at drburton@drprofessordad.com or leave a comment, he reads all of them!

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