how to succeed as an online learner

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Persisting with Online Courses When The Going Gets Tough

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By Carolyn Siccama, EdD

You’ve signed up for your first online course. After hearing how convenient and flexible they are, you decide to give it a try. Within the first few weeks of the course, some challenges come your way. You are asked to travel for work, you are moving into a new house, and your young child gets sick.

How do you hold it all together? It feels like they’re not enough hours in the day.

How to Find Success in Online Learning

You may be asking yourself, can I do this? Should I stay in the class or drop the course? This is not an easy decision to make given that you are working hard to gain a professional credential or degree to advance your career. There will always be obstacles – it’s how you handle those obstacles and recognize the numerous variables that may impact persistence. Some of these variables are within your control and some are not.

Research shows three factors that may impact persistence in a course, these include external, internal and contextual factors.

External Factors

As a working professional who is trying to earn a credential or degree, you cannot do this alone. You need the support of family, friends, colleagues and your workplace. Researcher Rebecca Croxton at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro looked at the role of online interaction as it relates to student satisfaction and persistence and found that family pressure, time constraints, and lack of organizational support from workplace can impact persistence in an online course. Even your perception of how much your employer supports you has been proved to be strongly linked to persistence. Raymond McGivney at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic of adult student persistence in online education, and found that the more a student felt that they were receiving emotional support from their employer and fellow co-workers, they more likely they were to persist.

Internal Factors

You have most control over the internal factors that strongly relate to course persistence. These factors may include motivational issues, time management, self-determination, and self-efficacy. McGivney’s dissertation research also found that a student’s desire to complete the course and the course assignments have been shown to have a direct relationship on student persistence. If students complete reading and homework assignments on time, they are more likely to continue.

One of the primary reasons why students drop an online course is a miscalculation of the amount of time that they will need (or have) to dedicate to the course. Having strong time and study management skills can mean the difference between persisting in a course or not. As simple as it sounds, sometimes it may be as easy as allocating a specific study environment to work in, both a time and a place, to make a big difference.

If you feel as though you may be falling behind or have had other obstacles come your way, don’t be afraid to reach out to your instructor or your advisor. Instructors want to see you succeed in your studies and often times they will be willing to work with you to identify an appropriate plan to help you successfully complete the course. An article from US News and World Report offers similar suggestions to bounce back after falling behind in an online course by contacting the instructor, reaching out to other students, and getting reorganized.

Contextual Factors

Contextual factors include influences such as poorly designed courseware, course relevance, problems with technology, lack of interactivity, feelings of isolation, and/or lack of instructor presence.

While many of these contextual factors may seem out of your control as a student, they are not all out of your control. For example, at UVM Continuing and Distance Education, we send out a survey to students within the first few weeks of the class to find out how they are doing and where they might need help.

Unfortunately, online courses sometimes get a reputation as being isolating with no interactivity. But many times students report that their experience has been just the opposite. Faculty at UVM often comment that they get to know their online students more than in a traditional face-to-face class. There is also strong evidence that shows a correlation between student-instructor interaction and student satisfaction and persistence.

Most online courses require some type of regular, asynchronous interaction between your classmates and your instructor. This may be posting to a course blog, online discussion board, or collaborating in a wiki space. We highly recommend that you fully engage in these course activities because it will make your online learning experience much richer. It is these types of interaction that can reduce what is called ‘transactional distance’ and increase your satisfaction with the course.

Here are a few tips created by successful online students:

  • Develop a time-management strategy
  • Make connections with fellow students
  • Make the most of online discussions
  • Make questions useful to your learning
  • Communicate the instruction techniques that work
  • Stay motivated
  • Use it or lose it

Recognizing that there will always be challenges that may come your way, it is important to be able to identify the various factors that may impact your persistence in online courses and do your best to juggle it all.

Perhaps Benjamin Franklin said it best: “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”


Ready to get started in your first online course?

UVM Continuing and Distance Education offers more than 40 programs, with over 500 courses online each year.


Carolyn Siccama, EdD, is an instructional designer at UVM Continuing and Distance Education.