Online Student Success Center

How to Be a Successful Online College Student

Online courses offer increased flexibility for students who work full time and/or those who have family obligations; therefore, many college students are opting to enroll in online classes while earning their degree. But is online learning right for you? This page introduces a variety of tools and resources that help support online learners, covering keys to academic success and the skills needed to flourish as an online student.

Meet the Expert

Lynne M. Lander Fleisher

Lynne M. Lander Fleisher holds an M.Ed. with a concentration in technology. In addition to coordinating all distance education programs, she creates and delivers an online orientation every semester to all newly registered online degree-seeking students at Clarion University. Lynne has been employed at Clarion University since 1995.

 

 

 

Is Online Learning Right for Me?

Online programs often offer increased flexibility and convenience compared to on-campus programs. They may allow you to enroll in some of the nation's top programs without having to relocate, and many are designed to accommodate students who need to continue working while earning their degree. Online programs also make specialized degrees more accessible by allowing students to enroll in degree tracks that may not be available at local institutions.

Schools may offer a variety of online student support resources, such as online advisers, virtual tutoring, and online study groups. If you prefer an on-campus learning environment, you can also look into hybrid programs, which blend online and on-campus coursework. Learn more by reading our online college guide and e-learning guide.

Skills Needed to Be a Successful Online Student

The adult learner deserves and should expect great service. The key is for the student to be able to effectively communicate their needs to instructors and support staff. Being proactive is the key.
Lynne M. Lander Fleisher

Online student success requires strong study skills, digital literacy, and excellent time management. Without strong time management and study skills, you may struggle to complete your coursework and earn good grades. Additionally, online classrooms require digital literacy in order to interact with fellow students, complete group projects, and participate in online discussion forums.

Characteristics of successful online students also include strong communication skills, which you will use when interacting with instructors and fellow students. You should also be strongly self-motivated in order to meet deadlines for classwork. Successful online students typically thrive in an independent, self-directed environment.

Each of these skills can help you succeed in the classroom. They may also help you gain admission into an online program — many programs ask students to submit an essay explaining how they are prepared to succeed in an online learning environment.

Keys to Academic Success as an Online Student

Keys to academic success include not being afraid to ask questions and accept advice, being honest with yourself and your needs and expectations, [and] planning out early how you are going to make your educational goal a reality financially.
Lynne M. Lander Fleisher

What does it mean to succeed as an online student? For some students, success means simply earning their degree. For others, it could mean maintaining a certain GPA or meeting ambitious academic benchmarks. As with personal success, you can set your own academic success goals.

Many online colleges and universities offer resources for distance learners, including tutoring, online student guides, and advisers. Outside of school, time management apps and study programs may offer additional support and advice for success as an online student. You can learn more about what it takes to succeed by reading about student study skills or different ways to master digital literacy in college.

Avoiding Common Struggles of Online Students

I counsel students to be honest with themselves and really take the time to audit their situation (family life, work, etc.). Literally, attempt to map out when the best time may be to spend on their classes. Work with their partner, spouse — make an agreement with themselves when they will devote time to their studies each week.

Regarding combating the feeling of isolation in an online course, students need to be proactive with their instructors. Reach out to them early to introduce themselves and give the instructor an idea of what their expectations are for the course. Do not be afraid to ask questions.

If a student has been honest with themselves and actually committed a set time each week to their studies, this is the best strategy to combat course fatigue and failing motivation. Also, do not be afraid to speak with your instructor if your work schedule is impeding your ability to meet deadlines. Most instructors will work with you. They appreciate honesty and students who plan ahead.

Lynne M. Lander Fleisher

Online student success often depends on avoiding common struggles. For example, many online students feel isolated outside of the traditional in-class environment. To avoid this problem, you can create study groups with other students in your program or locally.

Many online students also struggle to manage distractions -- life and work obligations may affect your ability to complete schoolwork. Setting aside a designated time to study can help you better manage your time and limit these distractions. You can also research motivational activities that other college students have used to stay focused on their ultimate goal: earning a degree.

Many online programs rely on online discussion boards; in some classes, participation requirements may make up a significant part of your final grade. Fortunately, discussion boards offer opportunities to connect with other students and your instructors. Learning how to navigate group presentations and meet participation requirements could be crucial for your academic success.

What to Look for in an Online Program

Flexibility of programs, meaning courses delivered in a timeframe that works for [students'] needs. Accommodating staff who are honest. Faculty who are honest and willing to work with students who have done their job [by] reaching out to them in a timely fashion.
Lynne M. Lander Fleisher

You can increase your chances of success by choosing the right online program. The best online programs provide ample online learning resources and offer support for distance learners. Consider looking for programs that offer generous transfer policies, mentoring and support services, and other tools designed to assist online students.

Online programs should also hold accreditation from a regional or national accrediting agency. Accreditation demonstrates that an online program meets the same educational standards as an on-campus program. Regional accreditation remains the highest standard. Depending on your degree, you may also need to look for programmatic accreditation. In some fields, accredited degrees may be required to meet licensing requirements.

Additional Guidance for Online Student Success

Scholarships for Online Learners

Students attending online programs often qualify for scholarships, including some that specifically target online learners. Many organizations offer scholarships for online students earning associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees. In addition, you may qualify for discipline-specific awards, such as scholarships reserved for learners pursuing a degree in business, nursing, or teaching.

SR Education Group Undergraduate Scholarship

This award is a $5,000 scholarship for students attending an accredited institution, including online students. Applicants must write two 300-500-word essays.

View Scholarship
GetEducated.com Distance Learning Scholarship

This scholarship awards $1,000 to a student attending an accredited online degree program. Applicants must hold a minimum 3.0 GPA and submit a 500-word essay.

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Undergraduate Distance Learning Degrees Academic Scholarship

Students earning an online associate or bachelor's degree, with at least one year remaining in their program, can apply for this $500 scholarship.

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STEM Major Scholarship

This $2,500 scholarship targets students majoring in a STEM field. Applicants must hold a minimum 3.0 GPA. Online programs meet the eligibility requirement for this award.

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Jane M. Klausman Women in Business Scholarship

Women pursuing an accredited degree in business or a related field can apply for this scholarship, including learners attending an online program. Award amounts range from $2,000-$8,000.

View Scholarship

Resources for Online Students

If you're still worried about how to be a successful online student, feel free to visit the resources listed below. These sites detail time management skills for college students, online communication tools, and methods for identifying the best online programs and online learning methods. Each of these resources promotes online student success.

  • Coursera: Coursera offers video lectures, community discussion forums, and classes from top universities around the world. Student members can also access academic and technical support.
  • EDUCAUSE: A nonprofit association connecting technology, academic, and industry leaders, EDUCAUSE provides resources related to higher education and career advancement.
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission: DEAC hosts a student center to help prospective learners identify accredited online programs. It also provides resources related to transfer credits and programs for military service members.
  • U.S. Distance Learning Association: This nonprofit group supports research on distance learning, publishes research, hosts events, and offers awards.
  • Online Learning Consortium: OLC connects higher education leaders and innovators who promote digital teaching and learning. The consortium publishes quality benchmarks and best practices in online education.