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Student Guide to Online Learning Success

Online learning provides flexibility and ease, but it also comes with its own set of challenges. By learning about those challenges and how to navigate each, you can be a more confident and prepared online student. Read until the end for tips and tools for a successful online semester.

Author: Kathleen Curtis
Editor: STEPS Staff
Reviewer: Chris Drew

The coronavirus reshaped the educational landscape, requiring millions of K-12 and college students to transition to online learning for the very first time. But even with the pandemic behind us, online learning remains popular at all levels of education.

Whether you’re already taking a few courses online, considering going all-in on remote learning, or looking to help someone else make the move, this guide is for you. Taking the leap from a brick-and-mortar classroom to a digital one can take some time, but with the right tools and mindset, it can be done with relative ease. Read on to learn how to make the switch to online education and review our expert tips and tricks to find distance learning success.

Online Learning vs. Traditional Classrooms: What Are the Biggest Differences?

Several major differences exist between online and traditional learning. Some may seem easy and straightforward, while others could pose a challenge to even the most technologically savvy students. Here’s a detailed look at how they compare, and a few key solutions no matter your online learning skill level.

Course Delivery/Communication

Rather than sitting with classmates and teachers in a physical classroom, distance learners use online discussion boards, video streaming services, and chat programs to stay in touch with each other. Some classes meet together in a live format while others offer asynchronous learning, meaning students can watch pre-recorded lectures and interact with peers and professors at times that work best for them.

Internships/Service Learning

Degree programs or high school classes that require internships/service learning components typically allow students to find suitable sites near their place of residence rather than near the school. Learners often work with an academic or career advisor to find an approved location. Several virtual options also exist, especially for service learning and volunteerism opportunities.

Course Materials and Textbooks

Rather than receiving printed syllabi, learning packets, or test prep materials, all of these are available online through a Learning Management System (LMS). Some schools provide digital textbooks while others require students to purchase printed versions. Many online K-12 schools and colleges also provide digital libraries so learners can access materials needed for research papers, group projects, and book assignments.

Assignment Submission

In a traditional classroom, it’s not unusual for students to print out their papers, assignments, and projects before bringing them to class and delivering them to the teacher. In online settings, learners submit digital versions of their assignments through the secure learning platform. Teachers then grade these online and return them with notes left as comments.

Group Projects

Group projects typically take place after school or in the dorms for high school and college students, but effective alternatives exist for distance learners as well. Some students decide to meet in real time to tackle the assignment while others use task management apps to divvy up the work. Once each piece is completed, students can use programs such as Google Docs and Sheets to organize and prepare the project simultaneously from wherever they live.

Challenges and Solutions of Online Learning

Students may encounter roadblocks when they first transition to online learning, but these can be rectified with a few simple solutions. Here’s a set of solutions for each of the primary challenges you or your student may face.


Computer literacy

Some students may not be familiar with all the tools and learning management systems involved in online learning, but that shouldn’t stop them from digging in.


Many schools now offer mandatory online school training prior to the semester to help students build confidence before assignments begin. Most schools also employ tech assistants to help learners address any ongoing issues.


Time management

Some students may find it easier to attend in-person classes because there are built-in requirements around being somewhere at a particular time or meeting for in-person group work.


Even though your couch or the outdoors may be calling, it’s important to remember that effective time management allows you to take advantage of things you enjoy, as well. Some solutions include setting a timer and working steadily until the buzzer goes off, creating a daily schedule and checking off items as they’re completed, creating deadlines for yourself, and being accountable to other students.


Staying engaged

Seeing students in-person multiple times per week is different than interacting with them via an online learning platform. Some learners may find it challenging to engage with people they aren’t physically around.


It’s worth remembering that you probably interact regularly with lots of friends via text, FaceTime/Skype, and email. Try to think of your virtual classmates in the same way. It’s also important to make sure you’re staying connected by posting regularly, asking lots of questions, and making time to interact with and get to know your peers and professors outside assignments. This will help you feel more connected generally.

Making the Switch to Online Learning: Do’s, Don’ts, and Tips

K-12 and college students who previously learned in a traditional classroom environment may need a little time to adjust to their new virtual settings. That being said, there are plenty of tips, tools, and resources out there to help make the transition go smoothly.

Major Dos and Don’ts for New Online Students

K-12 and college students with little to no experience of online learning may feel intimidated at first, but it’s more than possible to successfully transition to this format. Check out our key do’s and don’ts when first making the leap.

K-12 Students


  • Respect others.Remember that communicating via email or forums can sometimes lose the nuance of communication that exists in face-to-face interactions. Err on the side of respectful and kind to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Make time for exercise.Just because PE and outdoor time doesn’t exist in the same way it does at a brick-and-mortar school doesn’t mean you should forego these. Consider joining a local sports team to get involved.
  • Identify helpful apps and tools.Whether timers, website blockers, or digital student planners best speak to your organization style, don’t forget to incorporate these into your routine to stay focused.


  • Procrastinate.Waiting until the last minute to start a big project can increase anxiety levels and lead to lower grades. Get started early to avoid 3:00 a.m. feelings of despair.
  • Avoid asking for help.Online learning looks different from traditional learning. Because of this, teachers want you to ask for help early and often. Know that you are by no means the only one reaching out.
  • Forget to review feedback.Because you can’t go to your teachers’ offices to meet, it’s vitally important to carefully and fully read any feedback or notes provided on your assignments. Paying attention to feedback can help you improve over time.

College Students


  • Email your teachers regularly. “If you do not go out of your way to email them, you’ll find studying online a really isolating experience,” says Dr. Chris Drew.
  • Get your family onboard. Especially true for adult learners with partners and/or children, getting your family onboard and helping them understand your schedule can go a long way in easing domestic tensions.
  • Make sure your internet is reliable. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting knocked off the internet in the middle of a lecture or group project meeting. Invest in a strong Wi-Fi connection if at all possible.


  • Forget to check-in with classmates.“If you have a good back-and-forth email chain, you’ll feel a lot better about the whole experience,” says Dr. Drew.
  • Start the semester unprepared.Be sure to read all available materials and complete any tutorials and training programs prior to diving into coursework. This will help you feel prepared and confident as the semester begins.
  • Underestimate time commitments.Most schools suggest that learners should devote 10-15 hours per class, per week to their studies. Don’t underestimate how much work must be done for each class.

Traits of Successful Online Students

Successful online students typically possess several common traits, some of which we highlight below.

K–12 Students

  • Ability to work independently.Not being around fellow students in a physical classroom benefits many students who enjoy working independently and focusing on the task at hand.
  • Focused on thoroughly reviewing all instructions and reading materials.Because online K-12 students do not have a teacher at the front of the classroom going over each step, it’s critical that they possess the discipline to carefully read instructions and finish all reading requirements.
  • Make sure your Unafraid to reach out for help and support.It’s natural for learners to encounter challenges from time-to-time. Being able to recognize those before they get worse goes a long way in a successful online learning experience.
  • Willing to ask questions.Asking questions helps digital learners stay engaged with their teachers, classmates, and the material at hand. Active participation also helps ensure better grades.

College Students

  • Committed to gaining an education.According to Minnesota State CAREERwise, persisting through any type of challenge that arises – whether it be related to school or not – is an important quality for distance learners who know they want a degree regardless of if that means overcoming a few obstacles along the way.
  • Aware of problematic tendencies.Recognizing habits around distractions and time management issues early can help students troubleshoot these tendencies and seek solutions to them early on.
  • Comfortable using technology.Most students have never encountered the likes of Blackboard or Canvas prior to online learning, but tools and support services are in place to help. Students who ask for help early and often soon achieve technology mastery.

10 Tips and Tools for Setting Up the Online Learning Environment

Having a successful online learning experience has a lot to do with setting up a conducive environment. Follow these tips to minimize distractions and maximize productivity.


Dedicated, quiet work space.

Even if it’s a desk in your room, a dedicated work space is far more effective than sitting on the couch or in bed while working.


Camera/mic setup.

To avoid frustrations around communicating with teachers and fellow students, set this up early and make sure it works effectively.


Installing a VPN for security.

To lessen the chances of getting hacked or contracting a computer virus, consider using a VPN such as ExpressVPN.


Communicate to family/roommates.

Let them know you will be unavailable between certain hours and ask them to please reserve questions/needs for once you finish.


Get a calendar.

Use a wall calendar you can see easily from your desk for easy access to information about upcoming deadlines and projects.


Create a routine.

Set specific times for reading, studying, responding to forum posts, and other tasks to stay on track.


Set your phone aside.

Consider leaving your phone in a different room and only checking it at specified times.


Eat meals separately.

Rather than bringing lunch to your desk, take a break in a different room. This will help you recharge.


Set website filters.

If you struggle to stay away from fun websites during the school day, set a filter such as SelfControl that blocks them during certain times.


Build in time for fun.

Make sure to take breaks for exercise, creative pursuits, and connecting with friends.

Advice for Parents and Guardians of New Online K-12 Students

Parents and guardians of K-12 distance learners can support their students in achieving academic success through a number of innovative ways. Some of these include:


Educate yourself on the technology.

Students will inevitably run into problems, so make sure you understand how their devices and learning platforms work so you can help when these arise.


Encourage discipline.

As an authority figure, help children understand the value and importance of staying disciplined and focused during the school day – and how this will pay off long-term.


Set boundaries.

If other children are in the home, set boundaries for each so they do not get interrupted by you or their siblings. It may be helpful to sit down with each and develop individualized schedules.


Get to know the teachers.

Just because you cannot meet with them in person does not mean you shouldn’t get to know your child’s teachers. Schedule regular online meetings to check in on progress and address any issues.


Model self-discipline.

Online students who see adults mismanaging their time will do the same. Show them what you expect by modeling it yourself.

Interview with a Digital Learning Expert


Chris Drew
eLearning Advisor

Chris Drew is an eLearning Advisor with Swinburne University and author of the Helpful Professor blog. He has a Ph.D. in Education and has been teaching online for more than five years. He loves the flexibility online classes provide and believes they offer huge benefits for busy students. His online learning research can be found in the journals eLearning and Digital Media and the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

What do you see as the biggest differences in online vs. traditional learning?

Online learning requires a lot of self-regulation. You need to set yourself a study timetable and you need to follow it. You won’t have a teacher telling you when to study. This is a great benefit for fitting study around your life. But you need to have that self-regulation skill.

How can students learn to manage their time effectively when not in a physical classroom?

Study in short bursts. Study for 25 minutes then when you feel yourself getting exhausted – stop. During your break, I recommend leaving your computer entirely. If you spend your break between study sessions on the computer you won’t feel as refreshed as if you’d gotten up, done some laundry, and reset before sitting down again.

What would you suggest for creating an effective learning space at home?

Make your learning space a dedicated space, not a shared space. You’ll give yourself a psychological advantage if you only use your study space for school. Train yourself to associate that study space with focus and productivity, not recreation.

What are some helpful thing students can do when they feel distracted/unfocused?

If you’re feeling unfocused, don’t force it. Take breaks and compartmentalize your life between study time which is focused and productive vs. rest time.

What tips would you give for effectively structuring a day of online learning?

Wake up, get dressed, have breakfast. Starting your day like you would if you were going to a physical campus will help you to create structure and purpose in your day. If you don’t create that structure and compartmentalization, you’ll end up in bed telling yourself you’ll study but really spend the whole time browsing YouTube in your pajamas all day long.

Additional Resources for Online Learners

myHomeworkThis app functions as an online student planner.

NoisliUse this if you need white noise for studying.

InsightTimerThis free app provides guided meditations to help you rejuvenate.

Dragon DictationIf you get tired of typing notes, use this dictation software.

PinnaThis ad-free streaming service provides podcasts, audiobooks, and music for kids aged 3-12.

CheggStudents can order paper textbooks and use eTextbooks via Chegg.

StudyBlueUse this app to create flashcards and prep for tests.

SimplemindThis mind mapping tool helps you lay out papers and come up with ideas.

RocketbookIf you hate typing notes, use Rocketbook. This app allows you to write by hand then translates them to online text.

TodoistThis app helps you keep a running list of required tasks and also set deadlines.