Expert Tips For Studying Online For College and University Students

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on 19 November 2020

With studying online having become much more common during the coronavirus pandemic, more students are facing the challenges presented by remote learning.

So, what are some of the key things to bear in mind to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your online learning at college or university?

We asked a selected group of experts to deliver their best advice when it comes to helping students to flourish in an online learning environment.

Here’s what they said.

Preparation And Planning Is Key

Mark Beal, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice, Communication, at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Preparation and planning is the key to successful online studying.

With a shift to learning online, many courses will detail the majority of the assignments and submission deadlines for the entire semester on the first day of class.

With that, students should first take quality time on day one to map out their workback schedule for the course with the objective of completing and submitting assignments one or more days early to account for any unexpected setbacks or emergencies in their lives.

Online learning, as well as working remotely as a result of the pandemic, has created new opportunities for students to engage with professionals like never before for research papers and assignments.

Since the shift to studying online started, I have executives from around the world who are now working from home and have more time because they are not commuting and traveling and they are volunteering their time to conduct interviews with students for their assignments.

This type of primary research for students is incredibly valuable and also serves as a networking opportunity for the students as they plan for their transition to a career.

Planning desk

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Set Up Your Workspace Right – And Dress For Success

Mary Zadnik ScD, MEd, OTR, Program Director and Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy Programs at The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences

1) Set up a workspace that’s comfortable and feels productive

As an Occupational Therapist, I like to point out the importance of setting up your environment. It can be really important to separate your spaces so you have a clear and focused space for virtual school work and studying.

It’s great to have a space you can close the door or at least walk away from. This way you can keep your work psychologically separate from other activities—especially sleeping and eating. So instead of lying in bed or on a couch or working from the kitchen table, find a spot where you can be productive.

For those times when you are online in a synchronous class, natural light and a neutral background can be important. Set up a space with little distraction and one that is ergonomically matched to you: a desk that’s the proper height (a desk that is too high will make your shoulders hunch) and consider a supportive office chair you can sit in comfortably for a while. Find a keyboard and pointing device that you can use easily, without wrist or shoulder pain.

2) Plan out your day the night before

It can be great to map out the following day in advance. This can help you feel organized and less rushed in the morning but also really ready to accomplish the things you need to during the day. Habits and routines can come into play here.

Even though we are attending school in a different capacity, it can feel really good to maintain our usual good habits and schedules are one of these! Consider not only your morning routine but your class schedules and meetings and break it down by lectures, studying, workouts, meals, and personal time. Allow some flexibility though so you can adapt and change things as you need to.

Set some goals for yourselves; goals that are ambitious enough to keep you on track for exams and assignment deadlines. Plan to optimize the hours you are most productive, such as early in the morning, late at night, or whatever works best for you. The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences offers students printable student planners to help you plan your days, weeks, and months.

3) Dress for success

To play the part you need to look and feel the part! It might be fun to stay in your PJs all day, but that isn’t exactly a strategy for productivity, so part of your routines should include dressing for success. Dressing professionally will be super important in putting your best foot forward for all synchronous school work.

4) Ask for support if you need it

Reach out to your faculty advisor, professors, or classmates if you are having trouble making your new routine work. They are familiar with your specific situation and may have helpful suggestions.

Study Online

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Ask Questions And Don’t Get Too Cozy

Jed Macosko, Professor of Physics, Wake Forest University and Academic Director,

Many brick-and-mortar students are discovering what their distance-learning peers have known for a long time: there’s a right way and a wrong way to study online.

The pandemic also adds an extra layer of difficulty, but these tips should help nearly everyone get more out of their studies:

1) Get to class early

One surprising benefit of online learning is that it is easier to interact with your teacher before and after class.

Even if you had sat in the front row for in-person learning, your teacher would likely still be 12 feet away, and behind a podium. But with online learning, you are literally face-to-face, and you have a much better chance to make a good connection with your teacher (and find out more about what will be on the test!)

2) Work ahead

In the old days, you might have been given a syllabus on the first day of class that outlined expectations, textbooks, and final exam dates. But when you are studying online, you typically have some kind of learning management system (Canvas, Google Classroom, Moodle, Brightspace, etc.)

Thanks to those platforms, you can often start your homework before the class even has its first meeting. Do it! It will give you a lot of breathing room and make you feel (and ask questions) like the smartest student in the class.

3) Ask questions

Speaking of being able to ask questions like the smartest student in the class, make sure to use every available channel to ask at least one question per week. The nice thing about online learning is that your fellow students don’t have to know that you are that person who always asks questions.

Even in a video conference platform such as Zoom, there’s always a way to privately chat with your teacher.

4) Don’t get too cozy

It’s so tempting to curl up in bed to watch the synchronous or asynchronous lectures. Don’t do it! Soon you will be fast asleep, or a least daydreaming about something that is completely unrelated to the class material (this is not to say you shouldn’t find new places: getting outside, changing to a different room, etc. can really help keep your focus of the lectures).

Just keep in mind that these lectures are your main way of figuring out what parts of the class are important to your teacher. If you can learn to focus on those parts, you will save yourself a lot of time and get in all the cozy naps you could ever want.

5) Use the 80-20 rule

It turns out that 80 percent of your grade comes from 20 percent of all the things you could do in a class. This is true for in-person instruction, too, but it’s even more important to realize this with online learning because grading protocols have all changed with the pandemic.

So, use the questions you ask, the time you spend talking with your teacher when you show up early to class, and the wide-awake attention you give to the lectures to figure out which 20 percent is really, really important.

6) Watch at 2X

Just because you can’t sleep through the asynchronous lectures doesn’t mean you have to watch them at the painfully slow 1X speed. Take time to investigate methods to watch all the lectures at 2X speed. If they are on YouTube, it’s a snap. Other platforms make it a bit more tricky.

Still, the time it takes to figure out how to do it will be well worth it. Remember, teachers often take a while to get from important point to important point. Speeding up the lecture gets you there faster, and you can always rewind and listen to the important points over again if they fly by too fast.

7) Multitask

If all your lectures are synchronous, you might do well to work on homework while your teacher is lecturing. This works best if you are the kind of person who can keep one ear open for things like, and this next point is the real key to what I’m talking about.

You don’t want to miss that part of the lecture! But it’s a big benefit to get something useful done during the time it takes for your teacher to go from one important point to the next.

8) Take notes

This is the hardest tip to follow. It’s a lot easier to take notes when you are in-person and everyone sitting next to you is also taking notes. But note-taking is as important online, or perhaps even more so.

It helps you process what is being said and gives you a tidy crib sheet for when you have to study the material for a quiz or use it to figure out the 20% of an upcoming assignment that will be worth 80% of the grade.

9) Make a calendar

Don’t just rely on whatever calendar shows up in your learning management system. That’s a great place to start, but your teacher might forget to include some of the important dates.

If nothing else, your personal calendar can have entries like start researching a topic for essay #2, which will keep you from having to scramble the night before your paper is due.

10) Stay social

It’s a big bummer to have hoped to spend time with fellow students only to find yourself holed up in front of your laptop. Make an effort to stay connected to your old friends and even make new ones.

Use the small group time that your teacher may assign you to get to know people in your class. Set up times to meet in person or virtually.

There are a lot of fun games (‘Among Us’ comes to mind) that people can play virtually and still get to know one another.

Journaling Guide

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Stick To Your Schedule And Turn Your Phone Off

Annie George-Puskar, PhD, Assistant Professor, Curriculum and Teaching at Fordham University Graduate School of Education

It is important to schedule time that is specific for school work and stick to the schedule.

It is easy to get distracted with email, social media, the news, and other aspects of being online so it is important that students minimize the number of distractions during their study time.

Students should decrease temptation by closing extra tabs on their computer, putting phones on airplane mode or turning them off completely in order to protect scheduled time for school-related tasks.

Setting a timer could also be helpful and rewarding uninterrupted study time with fun activities or treats may increase motivation for studying.

Keeping as much structure to the day as possible is going to be a key to successful online learning.

For example, getting dressed every morning instead of doing work in pajamas and sticking to the routines that would be expected if you were in person.

Be Prepared So You Can Fully Engage

Dr. Deb Geller, Associate Dean of Students at UCLA

When the stay-at-home orders came in March, like most colleges and universities, we transitioned to remote teaching.

That meant that faculty, myself included, needed to quickly learn how to teach using zoom, and students needed to quickly learn how to succeed in online classes.

I share the following tips for students based on my personal experience and that of my students.

1) Be prepared for classes

Whether your classes are live or asynchronous (pre-recorded), you have the best chance of success when you are prepared and fully engage.

That means be sure to do your reading before class, and participate as fully as possible in discussions and class activities.

2) Set a schedule

If your classes are pre-recorded, set a specific time when you will watch the recordings, and be consistent. If class is taught live and you are in a different state or country, double check time zones and daylight savings time’s impact.

3) Form study groups

Whether you study together in a socially distanced physical space or create virtual study groups, the connection and community you will experience will be beneficial both to your academics and to your mental wellness. This is especially important for new freshmen and transfers.

4) When something isn’t clear, ask questions

If you are having a problem that affects your ability to attend class or do the work, talk to your professor before class or before the deadline.

Your faculty and TAs will likely offer virtual office hours, and you can always contact them by email. Trust that they want you to succeed.

5) Not all students have the same access to resources

If you are in a residence with poor internet access, or if you don’t have a computer, ask your school if it has resources to support you. It may have negotiated discounts on internet access, or offer technology grants or loaner equipment.

6) If you don’t live alone, talk to your family and roommates about expectations

When do you have class or exams? Where will you work from? Establish ground rules for privacy and quiet time that meet the virtual work and school needs of everyone in the residence.

One critical mistake to avoid at all cost: Technology and distance may make it easy to engage in unauthorized collaboration or cheating. Academic integrity rules still apply. Ask your faculty to explain the forms of collaboration that are permitted and avoid those that are prohibited.

If interested in an internship or work, the remote environment offers a unique opportunity to pursue opportunities across globally. Take advantage!

To Do List

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Make Your Routine As ‘Normal’ As Possible

Kyle Vickers, Learning Skills Specialist and Academic Resource Center Coordinator at Clarion University of Pennsylvania

My number one tip for students studying online during the pandemic would be to establish as much of a “normal” routine as possible.

Many students who planned to be physically in the classroom, at a designated meeting time, were given the unforeseen flexibility of asynchronous online courses; which can give the illusion of having more free time.

My suggestion would be to make a schedule that includes a designated meeting time for each course, even if there is no required meeting time for a particular class (create a fictional course schedule that fits within the parameters of your life).

This time can be used to view recorded lectures, read course materials, participate in graded discussions etc. You may need to get a bit creative with the times you are “attending” these courses, as changing work schedules, and children learning from home can make creating a schedule challenging.

In addition to scheduling a designated time to participate in each class, it is also very helpful to devote time each day to your course (as little as 30 to 45 minutes can be extremely beneficial), so you are not having to cram, or re-learn a month or more of course material, prior to an exam.

Even if you do not have an assignment due, take some time each day to read the textbook, re-write, condense, summarize, and organize notes, make flash cards, view PowerPoints, etc.

Another suggestion I give for all students, regardless of their modality, is to stay organized, and use a daily, weekly, and monthly calendar to map out assignments, quizzes, exams, etc.

When doing this, be sure include a start date, along with a due date for that particular assignment. Finishing an assignment, or studying for an exam can often not be accomplished in one sitting, and simply listing a due date can actually lead to procrastination.

There are many great apps out there that allow you to see your schedule in a daily, weekly, and monthly view, without having to enter each separately. Most also give you the ability to color code and prioritize tasks.

A simple Google search for “College Planner Apps” or something similar will yield countless choices, many of which are free, or low cost.

One final suggestion is to stay connected! Although this pandemic doesn’t allow us to interact face to face like we used to, there are countless ways to stay connected that are almost as good!

In addition to Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, etc. I have found that Discord is a tremendous site/app that allows for students to collaborate via text, video, audio, direct messaging, and also allows for file sharing. This can be used to share and compare notes, collaborate on assignments, and communicate in a variety of ways.

In such an uncertain and stressful time in all of our lives, I find it beneficial to establish as much normalcy as possible.

Having a routine that mimics your previous, “pre-pandemic” life can be comforting, and it is empowering to regain some control, especially in a time when so many things are not within your control.

How To Be More Organized At Work

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Have A Sense Of Urgency And Make The Effort To Connect With Your Classmates

Roger Johnston, PhD, Adjunct Physics Instructor at Waubonsee Community College

1) Establish a connection with some of your classmates so you can discuss course concepts, but also to feel less isolated.

2) Frequently ask the instructor thoughtful questions to make yourself get interested in the subject, and to make a positive impression on the instructor—which is harder to do when you are not doing face-to-face classes. (If nothing else, the Internet can be a could source of non-trivial questions.)

Whether asking questions live on Zoom, during remote office hours, via email, or with some other messaging method, always refer to the instructor as “Professor” (regardless of their official title), and always give your full name so the instructor remembers you.

Instructors like students who are engaged, respectful, and professional, and this will often work out to your benefit.

3) If the lectures are offered in real-time, try to attend them. Alternatively, if the course is “asynchronous” (you don’t have to tune in at some specific time) and you can’t attend in real-time, set aside regular days and times hours to do the course.

This is like setting aside regular days and times to workout at the gym—so that you will actually get it done!

4) As with any kind of course (online or face-to-face), have a sense of urgency. Learn the concept NOW, don’t just make a mental note to watch the recorded class video or review the lecture PowerPoint “sometime”.

5) Have a professional looking and sounding background if your camera or microphone are to be on. Kill your mic if you are not talking.

6) Understand that open book tests are a lot different than the closed-book exams you might have done for face-to-face classes.

7) If the course is online and “synchronous” (you have to be logged into it when the class is in session) and you wander off to play video games, binge watch videos, or get food, be sure to come back and log off at about the time the course is supposed to be over. It looks real bad if you are still logged on 45 minutes after the class ended!

Best Journaling Techniques

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If Your Class Seems Too Easy, You’re Probably Missing Something

Lowell K. Davis, PhD, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success at Western Carolina University

Stay on top of your assignments and go to every single class meeting. If you have videos to watch, watch every single one of them during the times when you would otherwise be in the classroom for that class.

Take notes on everything your professor presents to you, seek clarification at every point where you aren’t 110 percent sure you know what is being taught/presented to you.

Make weekly appointments with your professor if you feel the least bit behind, confused, uncertain, or curious about class. Meet with your professor weekly anyway to go over what you think you know.

Do your homework. Do extra problems when you can if it’s that kind of class (chem, math, phys, etc.). Check every answer you can in the back of the book if possible and go to tutoring when you do a problem you don’t have a way to check if you got it right (or go to your professor).

Participate in class regularly. Study every single day, at least some, and do not wait for the test to see if you know what’s going on; try problems on your own every week, for every section you cover, to see if you really know how to do the required work, and make certain you are practicing like you would be performing on the test (meaning no notes, no tutors, no professors, no peers to check your work).

Check Blackboard every single day, multiple times a day, then double check it to make sure you did not miss any assignments, videos, notes, presentations, etc. etc. etc. Then check it again before you go to bed.

Accept that you will struggle to learn the material online, and you will have to struggle to learn the material with yourself if you don’t work with your professor, a classmate, or a tutor.

Even then, you need to be prepared to struggle to learn. If you aren’t struggling to learn, you aren’t learning at all, and if it seems easy you better make sure you are doing what you’re supposed to and not just scratching the surface.

I would say that if you think a class is easy, you are missing something somewhere, and if you don’t believe you are missing anything and you still think it’s easy, talk to your professor about it. (I have literally seen students get to the middle of a semester in an online class, and they didn’t even know there was a homework folder in blackboard; they just thought the class was super easy, and then the first test happened, and they were like: “where did all this stuff come from?”)

Seek help and more help and more help – from your peers, your tutors, your professors, your advisors, and anyone else that is here with you in this struggle. Because this struggle is real. You will not succeed on your own in this environment.

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