Jul 9, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Deciding to pursue online studies and picking a program are terrific first steps on the path to getting your degree. However, just because you’re enrolled doesn’t mean you’re ready to start. Avoid these five pitfalls in order to hit the ground running and get the most out of your online studies.

1. Assuming online courses are easier than conventional courses.

Many students make the mistake of thinking online study programs are going to be easy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In addition to the work you’d encounter in a conventional “bricks and mortar” classroom, you will also have additional commitments -- some of which can be rigorous.

From regularly logging into to check course postings to meeting expectations for forum participation, online studies can be surprisingly demanding. If you’re taking a compressed course, meanwhile, these demands will be even more intensive.

The takeaway? If you’re expecting to breeze through an online class just because the delivery system is different, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise.  

2. Underestimating the time commitments.

We’ve already established that online degrees aren’t easy. It follows that they’re also time-consuming -- a reality which many first-time online students underestimate. So even if you’re trimming time on commuting, you should still expect to devote a significant amount of time to studying, reading, course projects and class participation.

According to online instructor Charlotte Babb, A-seeking students should expect to spend a minimum of 15 hours a week on a single class, and as much as 100 hours total over the course of a five-week class.

3. Overlooking the importance of scheduling and organization.

Just because you don’t have regularly scheduled course times doesn’t mean you don’t need a work routine. If you’re juggling online studies with professional or personal commitments, setting aside time for your studies, as well as designating the most productive environment in which to do so, can help ensure that you’ve got the time you need.

Says Andrew Wolf, who coordinates online learning at a nursing school, “I’ve actually had students who have told me that they’ve been in the middle of an exam and their 2-year-old starts crying. You need a place to study that’s quiet for a time that’s set aside where you can focus on your work without distractions.”

Getting organized is equally important -- especially because online students are responsible for keeping track of their many assignments. University chief undergraduate advisor Karen Stevens told US News & World Report, “Students really, really need to be organized from the beginning to be successful in an online course. All assignment due dates should be in their calendar, online or paper folders should be created for each week, [and] the work area should be not only quiet but clean -- keeping all coursework materials together.”

4. Failing to familiarize yourself with the course platform and online tools.

The ability to quickly and easily access course materials can make or break your online studies experience. Conversely, assuming you can just turn your computer on seconds before a course’s first scheduled discussion can be stressful and frustrating.

“You’re going to need to understand what the technical requirements are. Make sure before the course starts that your computer will work [with all the online tools] and that you know how to navigate them so you don’t have to spend time during the course trying to figure out the technology,” continues Wolf.

Not sure what computer specifications you’ll need? Check in with your program well before the semester starts.

5.  Ignoring class participation requirements.

While failing to participate in class discussions in a conventional classroom can lead to a minor ding on your grade, failing to participate in an online class can be hugely detrimental -- both to your grade and your learning. Your course will likely set for specific requirements for student participation. Commit not only to meeting them, but to exceeding them. This is not only an opportunity to master the material, but it can also help you make a lasting impression on the instructor.

But even if your class doesn’t have formal participation requirements, interacting with other students and the instructor can help you maximize your learning.

Do you have any warnings or tips of your own for new online students? If so, please share them in the comments section.

Looking for more online studies tips? Check out Four Global Trends in Online Education and Should You Take Online Courses if You Study on Campus?



Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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