5 Tips for How to Succeed as an Online Student


Whether you're taking a single course, starting a degree program or completing a graduate certificate, review these helpful tips for how to succeed as an online student.

Online learning platforms are still relatively new in the timeline of higher education. Starting a degree program or an online graduate certificate can be intimidating, especially if you’re unfamiliar with web-conference software such as Zoom. In order for you to succeed in the virtual classroom, you’ll need to adjust your study habits and be able to quickly adapt to new technologies. 

While this adjustment may come naturally to some students in their 20s, it is not as easy for students in their 30s and 40s, according to Kimberly Parke, director of admissions at Harvard Extension School. Being a distance education student requires some grit in order to succeed, but by following the tips below you should have no issues being successful in your online courses.


1.  Take advantage of the resources around you.

The Resources page is a great jumping off point as you embark on your academic journey. This page includes information on computer facilities, research tools, and academic and career support—and knowing how to use these resources is just as important as knowing where to find them. If you still have questions after reading through this page, our Enrollment Services team is here to help. Admissions advisors are also available if you have already taken at least one course towards a degree program.

Students should also take advantage of networking opportunities with their classmates and instructors. Instructors are not just in charge of uploading lectures and grading assignments. They can also act as a valuable resource for you as a student, containing a wealth of knowledge within their fields of interest. Start by reaching out during office hours or even sending a quick email to introduce yourself—small connections can end up going a long way.

2. Prepare and plan ahead of time.

When choosing a course, check the syllabus to ensure you have no personal or professional conflicts. Have an important board meeting on a test day? Is a large assignment due the week of your kids’ school vacation? Such conflicts can jeopardize your success. Be realistic about the demands and choose a course that will fit into your schedule 

If you’re ultimately pursuing a degree or certificate, remember to be flexible. There are going to be semesters where taking two or three courses is doable, and others where you may only be able to dedicate the time to one. Keep in mind that planning too far in advance can be overwhelming at times. 

Try mapping out a semester or two in advance rather than planning your entire academic curriculum at once. By planning accordingly, you should have no problem balancing your personal calendar with your academic studies.

3. Develop grit.

Having grit can mean different things in varying circumstances, but what it really boils down to in this context is being able to persevere and overcome difficult situations. Parke is a strong believer in “sticking with your plan day in and day out, not just for the week or for the month, but for years, and working hard to make your future a reality.” Using the suggested tools and strategies for how to succeed as a distance student can help you exponentially along the way.

“There’s a great deal to learn—not only in the classroom, but about how school works today—and committing to it is a big responsibility,” said Parke. “That’s why grit, both academic and personal, is so important if a student aims to manage all of his or her obligations successfully.”

4. Read everything.

From registration procedures to course descriptions and syllabi, in order to be a successful student you will need to read as much as you can. As an online course-taker, a lot of the information you receive from your instructors will be in text form. It’s important to remember that not all information is intuitive, especially when it comes to policies. The website and course catalog are built in a way that is easily navigable for students, and should be used as a reference point throughout your studies.

5. Find a quiet work space.

While reading on your bed or couch can be relaxing, separating work from home is crucial when taking an online course. Setting up a quiet and productive work space is especially important for those online learners who are not able to access the campus library, and are restricted to their own home during class hours. 

Try finding a quiet room, or section of a room, with minimal distractions. This should create a pattern of stability as you participate in your course modules each week, and set the tone for any future online courses you may take. 

Don’t forget to look back on these tips as you begin or continue to take online courses. It’s important to remind yourself of the resources available to you as a Harvard Extension School student, no matter how many courses you’ve already taken. 

When in doubt, if you can’t find the information you’re looking for on the website, reach out to our Enrollment Services team and they’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

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