Home > SparkCharts > Study > Distance Learning > Top Ten Best Practices for Students

Distance Learning


Top Ten Best Practices for Students

These tips will help you succeed in online, videoconferencing, and other types of distance learning courses.

1 Count the (time) costs

  • Many DL students have a choice of either a DL or a face-to-face course. NEVER take an online course assuming it will save time—it will probably take more (perhaps much more) "class" and study time.

  • On the other hand, you may save commuting time with a DL course. A videoconferenced course may be at a center located close to home. With an online course you can choose the hours during which you interact with the online course site.

  • In the traditional face-to-face setting, a 3-credit-hour course typically meets 2 1/2 hours per week. That means you spend 40 hours per class during a typical 16-week semester. Counselors suggest spending 2 hours of study time to prepare for every 1 hour you spend in class, so that means you should spend 80 studying per class per semester. All this adds up to 120 hours of your time for each three-credit class! Few DL instructors are going to think you should devote less total time just because you are taking a DL class. So, if you work 30 hours a week, and/or have a social or family life, be careful before you sign up for 12 hours of online courses (or any other kind of courses, for that matter). Including study time, the "cost" of 4 (3 credit hour) courses would be around 30 hours per week. Can you pay that price?

  • TIP: Only sign up for the number of hours that suits your situation.


2 Make a "regular" study schedule

  • Once you have decided to take only a reasonable number of courses, devise what a normal week will look like and create a plan.

  • Decide when your mind is most efficient. One test is, "When do I type the fastest?" You may like to stay up late, but your mind (and fingers) may be best for learning early.

  • Some students go to their computer early in the morning and put in an hour or two before breakfast. Distractions are often fewer and Internet service (especially dial-up) is often faster. Some students work on class at their computer during lunch at work (if it is allowed). Others devote Saturday mornings or Sunday afternoons.

  • Make a study calendar and mark the 7 1/2 hours you plan to work on each class each week. (In the case of a videoconferenced course, you have to be available at a specific class meeting time and then schedule 5 additional hours of study time). DON’T just "make time" as you go; schedule specific hours for yourself instead.

  • TIP: Set a pattern for devoting enough time to each class to be successful.


3 Read class materials carefully

  • Determine expectations up front. Read the syllabus, schedule, and other documents that might be found on the class site more than once, and make notes.

  • The earlier you read this material the quicker you can form accurate estimates of the expectations of the instructor. All instructors are different, so LOOK for what might be a unique demand from the instructor.

  • Some instructors want weekly "busy work" uploaded, others want thoughtful discussion on discussion boards or chatrooms, and others want you to do frequent web or library research. Most have a combination of assignments. Determine what applies to each specific course.

  • You will be most successful if your work matches the instructor's expectations.

  • TIP: Ask questions about the syllabus in the first week, and about any assignment as soon as it is given—NOT near the deadline.


4 Be interactive

  • Correspondence courses are low on the interaction curve; online courses are most interactive.

  • Though it's surprising, face-to-face classes are where many students "hide" by sitting in the back or remaining silent, with their eyes lowered. There is no hiding in online courses. Research finds more instructor-student and student-student interaction in online courses.

  • Interactions are almost as active in a videoconferenced class as in a face-to-face class.

  • Identify how your instructor wants interaction (through use of assignments, discussion board participation, chatrooms, or otherwise), then comply. Often the interaction your instructor requires takes a short amount of time.

  • TIP: If you are among the earliest to fulfill participation requirements each week, it will take less time (since everyone else will have to read MORE discussion).


5 Impress your instructor by "adding value" to the course

  • Instead of repeating material from the book, relate your assignment to the world around you. Give examples of the topic under discussion to show your understanding.

  • Your instructor will form an opinion about you from your writing, so "manage" your instructor's impression.

  • Grade your own input: Do your comments add something? Are you being careful to NOT repeat what another student has already said (a real time-waster for everyone who needs to read the discussion)? Have you found a good article that updates the discussion or moves it up a notch?

  • TIP: Most platforms allow students to build a small web page for the class. Establish yourself by uploading a good photo (.jpg file) and tell things about yourself that will establish you as both an interesting person and good student.


6 Create a "study zone"

  • Just as you need to create a habitual time for studying, so will you benefit from having a habitual place, or "zone" in which you study, one that tells you that you are "at school." This could be a desk, an end of the dining room table, or a spot out on the deck.

  • The real challenge of a DL course is self-discipline. Colleges and training centers provide the structure—time, place, fellow students—that helps in learning. As an online student YOU have to provide the structure for yourself, and a place that signals "study zone" can be a key.

  • TIP: Even the small area around your laptop or desktop can be your "designated study zone."


7 Identify personal support

  • Taking DL courses is a challenge, so you need your family and friends helping, instead of hurting, your chances for success.

  • Tell your supporters about your regular study schedule and your "study zone." You may even have a friend, parent, or child who will help you stay on schedule and keep your spirits on the positive side.

  • TIP: Listen to those who want you to succeed in your classes.


8 Check your work

  • All word-processing programs can check your spelling. ALWAYS check.

  • If you are poor at spelling you may want to spell-check even your discussion comments. Write them in a word processing program and then cut and paste them into the discussion area.

  • A grammar check by a word-processing program might also help improve your writing. Be careful, though, for some of these programs are unsophisticated.

  • Follow whatever document formats your instructor specifies. For example, your instructor might want all documents in Word (.doc), or Rich Text Format (.rtf), or 12-point Arial font.

  • TIP: Spell-check just before turning in an assignment.


9 Have the required equipment

  • Some people sign up for an online course without owning a computer or having access to the Internet! Ask about minimum requirements when you enroll.

  • Minimum computer hardware requirements should be established. These might include minimum processor speed, RAM, connection speed, hard drive size, CD or DVD capabilities, sound card and speakers, and video card.

  • Determine all software you will need for the course. Is any old word-processing software acceptable, or do you need access to a specific program? What about spreadsheet and graphics software? You might ask how familiar you need to be with various software programs.

  • Make sure that you have a current edition of one of the better antivirus programs. You will be both adding (uploading) and getting (downloading) many files in any Internet-assisted DL course, which makes your computer vulnerable to viruses and worms. Since there are new viruses and variants almost every day, make sure that you have a current and regularly updated virus control program running on your computer. Norton, McAfee, and PC-Cillian are a few of the main companies that offer help against downloading a dangerous virus or worm

  • TIP: For online courses buy the fastest Internet available (typically cable or DSL). Consider this investment part of your commitment to succeeding online.


10 Take responsibility for your own learning

  • The key philosophy in online learning is that it must be student-centered. Therefore, you are the one responsible for what you do, or don't, learn. Even if you somehow get the worst instructor in the world, who knows nothing about the content of the course, YOU can still learn by directing your attention to the materials and exploring the subject matter. The model for online learning is not the "gas station" model, where the instructor "fills up" your tank/brain as you passively sit there. Instead, since the instructor is not there with you generally, you pull the text, assignments, and the opportunity to explore resources yourself into your new knowledge set. In other words, "I learn myself," because the instructor cannot "learn me."

  • TIP: Instead of thinking, "What is the instructor going to do to help me learn?" ask yourself, "What am I going to do to learn a great deal in this course?"