Tools and Strategies for Succeeding as a Distance Student

How to succeed as an online student

Degree program admissions director Kimberly Parke and several Extension School alumni explain the benefits and challenges of studying mostly online—and what it takes to succeed at a distance. 

In her role as director of Harvard Extension School admissions, Kimberly Parke has spent a lot of time considering which factors lead to success when pursuing a degree primarily online.

Strong academics and comfort with a variety of technology help, sure. But to Parke, one of the most reliable predictors of academic success is found within. Success is about your ability to commit, to persevere: it’s all about grit.

“Grit is your belief in your own abilities to deal effectively with various situations,” Parke says. “It’s about stamina. It’s 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. There are studies indicating that working through challenges, being ‘gritty,’ improves intelligence and often results in higher grades. Intelligence isn’t fixed; it can grow. That’s important to know, especially when confronted with the choice of persisting or stopping out. There are many benefits to choosing persistence.”

“Distance learning is a field that’s still evolving and changing, with new ways to interact and connect developing every semester. ... There’s a great deal to learn, and going back to school is a large responsibility to take on. That’s why grit, both academic and personal, is so important.” — Kimberly Parke

A trait studied extensively by psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, grit—as defined by Duckworth—is the “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals,” often in the face of obstacles. In fact, Parke says, grit can be the determining factor between achieving one’s goals and letting them drift away. 

Why Grit is Important for Online Learners

“Distance learning is a field that’s still evolving and changing, with new ways to interact and connect developing every semester,” she says. “This variability can be intimidating to students who didn’t grow up in the digital age. For our students in their 20s who are digital natives, evolving technology is normal to deal with. But students in their 30s and 40s, who are taking on mortgages and endeavoring to advance in their careers—this is yet another challenge. 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. That’s why grit, both academic and personal, is so important if a student aims to manage all of his or her obligations successfully.” 

German Posada, an alumnus who earned most of his Master of Liberal Arts, Management degree from Florida, says, “It really does require grit to complete an academic program online. But what you’re trying to achieve here is worth it. I know the graduation ceremony is something I will never forget. I do want to encourage new students to use as many resources, be they online or on campus, to enrich themselves in this academic process.”

Angela Duckworth discusses her concept of grit as a marker of success. Get your grit score.

Connecting with Faculty and Fellow Students

Those who succeed know when they need to rely on external resources. Parke insists that taking the initiative to connect with the greater Harvard community—particularly faculty—is also key to success. 

Instructors know Extension School students have a great deal of passion, commitment, and initiative. Adult students bring so much to the table, but they have to reach out and make that connection, build that relationship.” — Kimberly Parke

“The exclusive part of Harvard Extension School is that you can have personal interactions and relationships with faculty and instructors, but you have to take that initiative when the opportunities present themselves,” she says.

Start with something as simple as reaching out during office hours, scheduling a call if you’re out of state, or even just sending an e-mail. “Instructors know Extension School students have a great deal of passion, commitment, and initiative. And because our students have diverse life experiences—they’ve organized business committee meetings and soccer games and nonprofit initiatives—instructors know they’re very dedicated to getting as much as they can out of the classroom. Adult students bring so much to the table, but they have to reach out and make that connection, build that relationship.” 

Posada agrees. “If I could do it over again, I would use more of the resources,” he says. “I didn’t reach out to faculty or the teaching assistants as much as I could have. I only started to do so when my advisor pointed out that there were many resources available to students. That’s when the experience became really fulfilling.” 

Ashok Prasad, an alumnus of the Graduate Program in Sustainability, also emphasizes the value of connecting with classmates—particularly the international community that participates online. 

“There are so many opportunities to interact with your cohort group across the world,” he says. “That cohort diversity is an amazing strength.” When you're tackling a global issue like sustainable building practices, he says, the varied global perspectives are a real advantage. “My buildings course project members presented from four different parts of the world: Washington, DC, Canada, India, and China. The diversity that can be found in cohorts is a distinct plus for students.” 

The On-Campus Experience at Harvard

Although many Extension School degree programs may be completed mostly online, all programs require some time on campus. During this time, you can connect with faculty and classmates in person, and you can participate in the larger Harvard community. You might partner with fellow Harvard students on a project at the Innovation Lab, study as a Special Student at Harvard College or the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, or attend the JFK Forum, a series of talks at the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics. Many of these options are outlined on Academic Opportunities for Degree Candidates and Degree Privileges.

The on-campus experience offers you the opportunity to connect with so many resources. And when you’re on campus, you feel like you really are a student, you really are a member of this community. That was really important for me. — Sidney Falconer

Many alumni find that making the journey to Harvard gave them a sense of true belonging. Sidney Falconer, who earned a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree, says, “The on-campus experience offers you the opportunity to connect with so many resources. And when you’re on campus, you feel like you really are a student, you really are a member of this community. That was really important for me.”

Prasad went a step further, encouraging students to complete the on-campus requirement sooner rather than later. 

“The on-campus experience is invaluable,” he says. “It’s very useful to finish it early in your coursework after you’re admitted: it makes a difference in terms of connecting with the people on campus, gaining valuable insights, and feeling at home. You need not wait for the mandatory requirement to come up at the end of your work—completing it early on is definitely what I would suggest.”

Many student resources are available from a distance as well as on campus. For example, many academic and career workshops are held online, the Harvard Libraries has extensive electronic resources, and career advising appointments can be conducted over the phone or by Skype. 

Mapping Your Path Forward

In the end, Parke says preparation is key for individuals considering an academic journey at Harvard Extension School. “You have to prepare well in advance of the event,” she says. “And there’s more to consider when you'll be studying primarily online.”

A few essential considerations:

  • Determine the technical requirements for courses that interest you (see an overview of the various types of courses we offer, as well as links to technical requirements).
  • Evaluate your own educational commitment: Do you have the time right now? The financial capacity? Will you be able to balance the school work with other commitments? Parke suggests comparing the academic calendar and course syllabus against your schedule, taking into consideration any upcoming demands on your professional and personal lives. Then determine whether you have the bandwidth and support. 

Interested in a Degree Program?

“Enrollment coaches can help you contemplate these questions initially and build good habits for the future. Admissions and academic advisors also remind you to think deeply about course selection in any given term,” she says. “If you’re up for a promotion, if you’re going to have more hours at your job, if you’re getting married, if you or your life partner is taking on a new job—you have to look at all these considerations and contemplate the bigger picture first.”

If you have concerns after such self reflection, Parke says, there are alternatives. “You can start small. Maybe you wait a semester. Maybe you take just one course. Or maybe, even if you live nearby, you register for a course online so you can watch it whenever you can. Whatever your course, there's advising along the way that can help you map it out.” See Advising

Parke emphasizes that there’s no need to traverse a degree program alone. “The staff at the Extension School understands our students—their interests and challenges—and we thrive on helping them reach their goals.”

Article by Jennifer Doody

Have a question about our academic offerings?

Our Enrollment Services team can help.

Share this story

More posts from Inside Extension


Tahini Kablan (not verified) replied:

I love everything you indicated . It's really encouraging , and I always believe learning continues from birth to death. I always loved learning, I have a science degree , and also a law degree. However , I am also visually impaired. I am unemployed now, and I want to check out online master degree . Do you have an advising team to talk to.

July 30, 20156:55pm

leslie replied:

Hello, Tahini Kablan. We're happy you're interested in continuing your education. Fill out our request for information form, and a member of our Enrollment Services team will be happy to assist you. The form is at this URL: Best, Leslie

August 17, 201512:37pm

Kolamaliki Kris (not verified) replied:

On point; very informative. Thank you. Kris

July 30, 201511:48pm

Bill Opiyo (not verified) replied:

great I am encouraged

July 30, 201511:53pm

Mark DeForge (not verified) replied:

Keep up with assignments, be an active participant during class, and use the resources available to you.

August 9, 20159:15pm

ROYDA MATUTU (not verified) replied:

Iam so inspired, am a student studying clinical medicine and I really need your help. I want to check out the online lessons.

August 22, 20157:20am

Obiora Ibe (not verified) replied:

Very informative... I have just registered for classes in pursuit of a masters degree and most of it will be completed online since i live out in Chicago. However, i intend to be on campus as much as i can for classes an otherwise so i can get the experience needed to attain the long term goal. With work and kids, there definitely has to be a high level of commitment and grit to achieve this.

January 11, 20162:29pm

Bernard Antah (not verified) replied:

Be passionate about the whole program from start to finish,by staying on tasks and connect very well with faculty as well as fellow students to enhance pertinent exchanges.Make extensive use of all the resources available at your disposal .Thorough research of class courses will give you heads up and keep the grades up.

January 11, 20165:30pm

cesar (not verified) replied:

I would like to know which technique or method of study can recommend to improve my learning in the studies

May 4, 20177:26pm

Ebony Moody (not verified) replied:

This is excellent information! In my experience, grit is a topic that is very rarely discussed in an academic environment. By taking the Grit quiz, I now have a greater sense of my own grittiness. As a new Harvard Extension School student, I recognize that there are a plethora of resources available to me. So with my newly measured grit, personal commitment and HES resources, I look forward to achieving my academic goals!

August 22, 20175:57pm

Add a comment