The University Network

How To Learn Online

Online learning, which was once seemingly reserved for degree-pursuing adults whose busy schedules didn’t allow them to take in-person classes, is now more popular than ever before, particularly with college campuses, high schools, and grade schools transitioning to online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There are many advantages to online learning, as it lets you learn nearly wherever, and often whenever, you want. Online learning presents a number of challenges, though, particularly if you’re new to it. 

In that light, we at The University Network (TUN) have created a guide to help you overcome those challenges and unlock your online learning potential.

1. Take it seriously 

If you’ve never taken online classes before, it’s easy to shrug them off with the assumption that they’ll be simpler and less demanding than traditional, in-person classes. That’s a dangerous approach, though, and could result in grades that you may not be so proud of. 

By nature, in-person classes pressure you to stay up-to-date on readings and assignments. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to keep up during in-class discussions or ace that occasional pop quiz. Online classes, on the other hand, are often less time-sensitive and, therefore, give the illusion of being less demanding.

So, while taking an online class, you need to maintain the self-discipline to complete all of your readings, assignments, and assessments. 

If you’re in middle or high school, it may benefit you to lean on your teachers and/or parents for support. Continue to check in with your teachers throughout the year to make sure you’re doing everything you need to. And if you’re given class schedules or have created some on your own, share those with your parents. They’ll be able to help keep you on track to make sure you don’t miss any important due dates or go into a test unprepared.  

Simply put, remember that online classes are just as demanding and important as your in-person classes. They also have the same impact on your GPA!

2. Become familiar with the software 

Whether it’s Google Classroom, Blackboard, Canvas, or something else, you should always take time to familiarize yourself with the learning management system through which you’ll be taking your online classes. The more comfortable you are using the system going into your classes, the less time you’ll have to spend learning it throughout the semester or quarter. In turn, being comfortable with the system will enable you to put more focus on your studies. 

Don’t be afraid to contact your teachers or professors if you’re worried about using a learning management system and want extra instruction or advice. They’ll likely be able to give you some suggestions or point you in the right direction. 

Additionally, YouTube videos are often an informative and easy way to familiarize yourself with a new system. And if you can, you should play around on the system before your classes officially start. Click on and navigate through the sections where you’ll be able to access your grades, interact with classmates, and check homework assignments. After a while, you’ll start to grasp it. 

3. Set a schedule and stay organized

Your teachers or professors may set specific times for live lessons or lectures. However, for the most part, you’ll have the luxury of deciding, on your own, when you want to complete your work for your online classes.

Because of this freedom, it’s surprisingly more challenging to stay on top of your studies and assignments in online classes than it is in in-person classes. Without teachers or professors constantly reminding you of upcoming due dates, it’s easier to miss a reading quiz or forget to submit a paper, for example.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a morning person or a night owl, but you must set a schedule and stick to it.

Plan out everything at the beginning of the quarter or semester, write down the required readings, homework assignments, quizzes, tests, and other important dates in a schedule book or calendar, and continue to check back and make adjustments. 

Again, if you’re in middle or high school, it may benefit you to routinely check in with your teachers and share your class schedules with your parents. That way you have a support system to make sure you don’t miss anything. 

“Making a schedule is really important,” Beth Barrie, director of the office of online education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told TUN. 

Speaking specifically to college students, she added: “When you’re going to class on campus, you may have to be at class from 1:00 p.m. to 2:15 p.m. So, make a schedule for yourself and say, ‘I’m going to class at these times,’ ” she added. “Because it’s online, you have a lot of flexibility about when those times will be. But, you need to write them down and set that time aside. Plan your day around it.”

4. Make sure you have all of the materials you need

In addition to items you need for in-person classes, such as books and course materials, for online courses, you’ll also need to make sure you have consistent access to a computer, the internet, and headphones for listening to live lectures in a public or crowded workspace. 

If you don’t have consistent access to the internet or a working computer, reach out to your teachers or professors and let them know. They may be able to point you towards programs at your school or in your community that provide internet access and computers to students who need them. 

5. Get out of bed & find a good workspace 

As an online student, it can be really tempting to stay in bed all day to do your daily assignments, readings, or assessments. But, this isn’t a sustainable way of learning. For the sake of your mental health, productivity, and GPA, get out of bed, take a shower, and designate a specific space to work from. 

“Find a remote space where you can take time,” urges Kerlene King, a 10-year veteran of the University of Central Florida’s digital learning team and current leader of its team of learning management system administrators.

It doesn’t have to be a fancy office with a huge desk and a big leather couch. It could be a dining room table, a desk set up in the corner of your room, or a kitchen counter. Preferably, though, the space would not be in a place that you associate with relaxing. 

While taking online classes, it’s important to keep your work space separated from your chill space. Otherwise, things start to mesh together, causing you to take your work less seriously and to have trouble unwinding at the end of the day.

6. Minimize distractions & avoid multitasking

At home, there’s no shortage of distractions. And some things, like your cat jumping on your keyboard or your sibling or roommate working next to you, are close to unavoidable. But if you want to keep your grades up, you’ll have to take your at-home workspace seriously and minimize all the distractions that you can.

That means staying off Facebook, Netflix, and YouTube during class time. And, you should set your phone aside.

“You’re not really supposed to be looking at your phone during class, so put your phone on mute, set it aside, and act as if you’re actually in class,” Barrie told TUN. 

And if setting aside your phone for hours at a time is too big of a test, “you can set a timer,” Barrie added. “Say ‘I can do this for 30 minutes and then I’m going to reward myself with a break. I’m going to check my phone for five minutes and then I’m going to get back at it for 20 minutes.’ ”

Additionally, you’ll want to avoid the temptation of multitasking. Whether you’re watching TV while working on homework, or listening to a lesson or lecture while you’re checking social media, you’re not as good at multitasking as you probably think you are. 

When you try to do too many tasks at once, you not only risk submitting lacklustre work, but you also may risk negatively impacting your memory.  

7. Be an active participant 

Whether you’re aware of it or not, much of what you already know you learned through peer-to-peer interaction and discussion. While this is a natural component of in-person classes, it can feel forced and less meaningful if conducted on an online class discussion board.

But if you want to get the most out of your education, you must take class discussions seriously, even if they’re online.

“Treat that discussion board as a conversation,” Barrie told TUN. “In a lot of classes, the discussion board ends up being a lot of one-way declarations, because people might be in a hurry and they’re trying to check that assignment off of their to-do list. They say their opinion and maybe they reply to a few others. But you should read through what other people have said and refer back to them. If your (peer) has said something, say, ‘I like what you said, that helps me build my understanding of this. ’ ”

If you’re under the age of 25, chances are, you know more about effectively communicating online than any generation before you. You do it all the time via texting and social media messaging. Bring that same intensity, thought, and engagement to your online class discussion boards.

“Try to be engaged. Try to respond as much as you can,” King told TUN. “We find that students who are engaged tend to do a lot better in online courses. So, continue to post comments and questions.”

8. Set goals

Just like with an in-person class, you need to set goals for yourself at the start of the term and actively check in with yourself to make sure you’re working to accomplish those goals.

What do you want from the class? If you’re a high school student with aspirations to become a doctor and you’re currently taking biology, are you actually retaining any of the information? Are you evaluating your level of interest to determine if biology is something you’ll want to study for the next handful of years? 

Or, if you’re a journalism major at a university taking an editing class, have your editing skills actually improved? Or, are you just going through the motions, looking up style rules online and moving on with your day?

In online classes, you’re often the only one holding yourself accountable. And if you’re unable to do this, consider asking a peer to be your study partner or telling your siblings, parents or roommates to check in with you from time to time to make sure you’re accomplishing the goals you set out to achieve.

9. Check in with your teachers or professors 

Just because you’re taking classes online doesn’t mean you should forget about checking in with your teachers or professors. Just as in an in-person class, your teachers or professors are there to help you. You shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to them.

Particularly if you’re concerned about your grades or progress in a class you’re taking, you should regularly contact your teacher or professor to see what you can do to maximize your learning and earn the best grade possible. Of course, teachers and professors are busy people. Without seeing your face in class every day, they may forget to check in on you. So, while taking online classes, even more responsibility falls on you to keep track of your progress, monitor yourself, and reach out for help or guidance when you need it. 

Additionally, it’s always a good idea to develop relationships with your teachers or professors. If you’re a high school student, for example, you may need a recommendation to include in your college application. And If you’re a college student who will be looking for a job in the near future, it’s important to develop a relationship with your professors, as those connections may be useful throughout your professional career. 

10. Stay patient

There are all sorts of problems that could arise while taking your classes online. You could lose internet connection during a live lesson or lecture, while taking a test, or right before you have to submit a paper. There’s a chance your computer crashes while you’re in the middle of a big assignment. Maybe, a storm comes by and kocks your power out. 

These issues are all too common. If you run into a problem, don’t freak out. Just make sure you’re transparent and honest with your teachers or professors about what happened to you. Shoot them a direct message or email explaining the problem you ran into. In most cases, they’ll be very forgiving. 

There are however, some things you can do to minimize the chances of such problems arising. If you have the option, you should plug your computer straight into your router. That will give you the best internet connection. If you aren’t able to plug in and have to stay on WiFi, try sitting as close to the router as possible. Additionally, you should try your hardest to avoid going to public spaces like coffee shops or restaurants, as the internet in such places is often less dependable. If you must leave your house, apartment, or dorm room, go to a library. 

11. Keep in mind what others in your class can see and hear

If your teacher or professor conducts live lessons and discussions and you have to log on to a video chat, do your best to make sure you’re in a quiet and appropriate environment. 

Remove any inappropriate objects or posters visible behind you, and ask your roommates, siblings, or parents to stay as quiet as possible and stay out of the camera shot. 

Of course, most video chat platforms give you the option to mute your audio and black out your video, but doing so could inhibit your ability to participate in discussion, which may impact your grade. 

12. Build and maintain personal relationships

In-person classes force you to be social. By attending in-person classes, you naturally start to build up relationships and form a network of peers who you can rely on for support. Online classes, however, make building those relationships much more difficult.  

So, to avoid feeling isolated, you should try your hardest and go out of your way to reach out to people in your classes, whether it’s through a discussion board or direct message platform. Introduce yourself and treat the situation as you would if you were meeting someone for the first time in person. 

The online relationships you build can be stronger and more resilient than you think. It could be that all you gain from a relationship is a one-time reminder about tomorrow’s homework assignment, or you could build a relationship that leads to a long-lasting friendship or a job opportunity. Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to try to meet people.

If you struggle to build these online relationships, however, make sure you rely on the people you already know for support, as you may need it throughout the term. It could be a roommate, your brother, or your mother, but you need to maintain some sort of support system while taking your online classes. Too much time staring at a computer screen can leave you feeling isolated, both in your studies and in your personal life. 


Online classes can be great, particularly because they give you freedoms that you never could have dreamed of experiencing while taking classes in person. However, they don’t come without their challenges. Approaching your online classes with the same seriousness that you would bring to your in-person classes and following the tips listed in this article will put you on a path to success.