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August 2005

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Linda Sweeney

Guidelines for Being a Good Online Student
(or Helping Someone with Learning Online)

By Linda Sweeney, National-Louis University

Although they aren't the perfect learning situation for everyone, the number of online classes seems to be increasing every year. Unfortunately this is not due to completely positive reasons: Many institutions of higher learning see distance courses as money-saving and many students often think distance learning will be easier.

I'm not sure about the money-saving idea, since online courses require extensive infra-systems of software and training, if not actual classrooms. As an online course developer, online program director, and online instructor, however, I can state with absolute certainty that distance education is not easier than face-to-face learning. If an online student doesn't watch out, she will wake up one morning and realize that the course that she paid for has already ended or has lots of assignments due which she hasn't prepared. A distance course is "silent" unless instructors have the time to call students who are missing in action.

Prepare for the New Environment

There is always a tutorial on the software used by an institution of higher learning. Students need to take advantage of such tutorials and familiarize themselves with online coursework. If a book is recommended, such as Watkins' and Corry's E-Learning Companion: A Student's Guide to Online Success (2005), make sure to buy it or check it out of the library. What you learn will save you time in the long run.

Manage Your Time

Speaking of time, managing it is the number one issue that online students must tackle. If a student is the type who waits until the last minute to prepare assignments or read textbooks for class, he or she may very likely be in trouble in an online environment. The best action to take if you are enrolled in an online class is to make out a schedule for yourself and post it somewhere you will see it (like your front door, if necessary). Check the online class web page every day, if possible, to keep up with discussions -- if it is discussion-based -- and other communication. Check the calendar that usually is part of online classes because it will tell you when assignments are due. Make a list of them for yourself and make notations on your schedule.

Check your email every day and don't allow your mailbox to get overloaded. Email may be the major way your online instructor is going to contact you. As an online instructor myself, I don't have a lot of patience for students who tell me they didn't realize I emailed them. I want to say, "Hey, what the heck are you doing? You're in an electronic class!" I suspect other instructors feel the same way.

Remember You Are a Social Creature

Just because you're taking a class online doesn't mean it's only "you and your computer." There are other students in a class and you will probably be frustrated if you don't have any contact with them. More than one study has been done indicating that "social presence" is very important to online students (Richardson & Swan, 2003; Mishra, et al., 2001). Therefore, if the instructor doesn't suggest that you introduce yourself at the beginning of the class (he or she should), do so anyway by sharing a few personal details about yourself, including why you're taking the class and what you hope to get out of it. Other students will likely respond to you and you may have some "study buddies" for the future, even if communication is through email or the mail feature in many online software programs. Furthermore, if your fellow students know something about you, they likely will contact you if you disappear for a few days and they will remind you to keep up with the class.

It's also a good idea to introduce yourself to the instructor. This can just be a brief email message such as:

Hi, Professor Smith,

Just touching base here. I'm in your Math 102 course. Algebra has always been hard for me but I'm hoping to learn a lot.


Jason Student

A polite note such as this can stamp you in an instructor's memory and impress him or her with your social skills. Most students say little or nothing to a teacher until it's the end of a course and they're in trouble. It's also a good idea to email the instructor if you must be gone for a few days (which is sometimes necessary). After all, software programs can tell a teacher when you last visited, what you read, and when you posted. If you say you will be gone ahead of time, your responsibility will be appreciated.

Emotions can run high in distance learning (Redden, 2003). Online instructors, including myself, have found that communication (and emotion) are heightened by the limitations and text-driven aspects of the online environment. If you become angry, frustrated, or upset, therefore, don't be surprised.

Read Over Your Correspondence and Don't Send it Right Away

Because online learning is text-driven and because emotions can get away with you, it's easy to post remarks that may seem offensive to others or to email someone with an angry tone. If you feel emotional, write a note in your word processing program and reread it some time later before posting or sending it. I realize everyone has heard this kind of statement about electronic communication but a warning for an online class is especially crucial because you don't want to "flame" someone and get yourself kicked out of school.

Watch Out for Online Burn-Out

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned students who forget to come to class when they take a distance course. There are some students who do the opposite, suffering from "over attending." Enthusiastic about some fellow students and receiving responses to their comments, these students can't stay away from an online Discussion Board. An example was a very good student from one of my graduate classes - I'll call him John -- who found himself checking the course area about six times a day. John also got involved in extensive email exchanges with several of his classmates. That was fine except that John nearly forgot about the rest of his life (yes, this actually happened!) and started suffering headaches from staring at a computer screen for hours and hours. John's boss was not pleased when she found him working on responses for the class discussion board at his job and John's wife was furious that he got so wrapped in his computer course that he stayed up half the night.


Online learning is new to the scene of higher education and is still being developed. If you find that you are going to be a virtual student (or are helping a virtual student), try to learn as much as you realistically can about the online environment and take precautions, especially figuring out how to manage your time.


Mishra, P., Nicholson, M., & Wojcikiewicz, S. (2001, April). Seeing ourselves in the computer: How we relate to technologies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44(7).

Redden, C. (2003). Emotions in the Cyber Classroom. Educator's Voice, June 11.

Richardson, J.C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining Social Presence in Online Courses in Relation to Students' Perceived Learning and Satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, Vol. 7(1), pp. 68-88.

Watkins, R., & Corry, M. (2005). E-Learning Companion: A Student's Guide to Online Success. NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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