Tips for Learning Online

Students studying in a group

What can I expect from online learning?

Online learning has the same basic elements as face-to-face learning. The major difference is that instruction is delivered online – either through synchronous interactions (e.g. Zoom meetings, live-streamed lectures, live chats), asynchronous interactions (e.g. discussion forums, self-paced online lessons, pre-recorded videos), or a combination of these.

“Online learning” is not a monolithic experience – it will look different depending on whether you’re learning synchronously or asynchronously, together with a cohort or in a self-paced mode, independently or with a group. When thoughtfully designed, online courses can be very effective and engaging experiences and can even provide some benefits over face-to-face learning, such as greater flexibility and the ability to work collaboratively on digital projects.

Courses for academic credit typically provide opportunities to interact regularly with instructors and peers, however some online courses, including many of our self-paced professional education courses, build in content interactions and automated feedback in place of these human interactions. Regardless of how online instruction is delivered, we encourage you to engage in a learning community. Studying together with a group of colleagues or friends is one way to make these types of courses more interactive and engaging.

How can I ensure I’m successful in an online course?

Many of the strategies for effective face-to-face learning also apply to online learning. However, online learning may require some additional skills to be successful—such as self-direction, time management, creative problem-solving, and self-advocacy skills. Here are some strategies we recommend:

  • Keep an open mind. We encourage online learners to leave their expectations at the door. Learners who approach online learning with an open mind are more likely to be successful.
  • Create space to learn. Invest some time up front to understand your needs and preferences as a learner, and what an effective study environment looks like for you. For example, you might need a quiet place to study, or you might need to listen to classical music. Consider what equipment you might need (e.g. headphones, microphone, webcam, computer, stable Wi-Fi, comfortable chair). While it is useful to create a designated study space, don’t be afraid to study in different locations, as this can aid learning and memory. Wherever you study, try to minimize distractions, and work with your roommates, friends, and family to set expectations and create boundaries so you can stay focused on the task at hand.
  • Manage your time effectively. Spend some time getting familiar with your online courses, understanding what is expected of you, mapping out key due dates, and planning study time. Block out study time in a physical or digital planner (such as an Outlook calendar). A consistent routine will help you stay on track. Research shows that learners retain more information if they spread their study over multiple days or sessions. Make sure your routine works with your other commitments so you’re more likely to stick to it.
  • Actively engage with the course materials. Just as with face-to-face learning, mental energy counts: take time to reflect on whether you have understood the materials, try to remember and recap the information you have learned to aid retrieval and memory, test your understanding, mix different concepts and skills into the same study session to build connections and fluencies, participate in class discussions, ask questions, attend study groups and office hours, and try teaching concepts to others.
  • Have a plan for technology troubleshooting. Whenever you’re relying on any form of technology, it’s always possible the technology will fail, and it may take additional time to troubleshoot and get the support you need. It’s useful to plan ahead and start your assignments early in case you run into unexpected difficulties. In addition to IT support, it may be helpful to identify someone in your life who can help with general technology troubleshooting.
  • Ask for assistance! In an online learning environment, you may need to ask lots of questions and take ownership over shaping the learning experience so that it meets your needs. This might mean asking your instructors or peers for help, or attending office hours and study groups.

I’m worried about getting behind, especially with asynchronous classes. What can help me stay on top of my studies?

Time management and keeping on top of your studies is one of most difficult skills for online learners to master, so if you feel like you’re struggling to keep up, know that you’re not alone. In addition to the above tips, here are some ideas to help you stay on track:

  • Know your limits, and set realistic goals. If you’re juggling your studies with a full-time job or childcare responsibilities, it may not be feasible for you to complete 15 units of coursework. Keep in mind that 15 units equates to about 45 hours of work per week (one unit = 3 hours /week)! Academic Advising at Stanford suggests that new students should consider the transition to Stanford itself as the equivalent of a 3-unit course (9 hours/week). We would argue that this convention holds true for fully online academic study.
  • Create a set study routine throughout the week.  For example, you might wake up at 7am, study from 8am to 12pm, take a break, then resume your studies from 2-6pm. At the end of the week, reflect on how you did, and adjust your routine as required.
  • Take time to check in with yourself each week. You should spend some time reflecting on your progress and success each week. We recommend scheduling regular weekly check-ins with yourself, or with a coach or study partner who can help you stay on track.
  • If you’re already feeling overwhelmed, start with a mental mind dump: take 10 minutes to put all the to-do items buzzing in your head onto a page. Circle the things that you must do, and add them to your to-do list. Put everything else on a “perhaps” list.
  • Create consistency in your study patterns. For example, you might try to make discussion posts every Monday afternoon, and submit online quizzes on Fridays. If you can work out a consistent weekly rhythm, you are more likely to be successful.
  • Be kind to yourself. Give yourself the same encouragement you would give to a friend or loved one. Take breaks to breathe, hydrate, laugh, exercise, meditate, connect with loved ones, and eat well-balanced meals. This will help you focus during study times, and prevent burnout.
  • Regularly attend any synchronous sessions, such as office hours and study sessions, and use these meetings as milestones to help you stay on track.
  • Overcome procrastination:
    • Start small. Committing to 10 minutes of work will often lead to a longer study session.
    • Build study time into your existing routines. For example, if you go for a daily run, make it a habit to read for 10 minutes every day while you cool down.
    • Enlist a study buddy or coach who can check in with you at set times throughout the week to help you stay on track.
    • Use productivity tools, like to-do lists, alarms, reminders, or Pomodoro timers.
    • The d.school has some great playlists to get the creative juices flowing.
  • Celebrate your achievements when work is completed: dance to a favorite music video, go for a walk, hug a loved one, or share your success on social media (but don’t let these things serve as unnecessary distractions!)
  • Get support: Many learners are reluctant to ask for the help they need to maximize their success, but asking for support and guidance is actually part of a healthy learning mindset – a growth mindset – so make sure you take advantage of the support that is available to you.

Finally, if you’re facing specific challenges such as illness, mental health, accessibility, balancing childcare responsibilities, time zone differences, technology access, etc., it’s important for you to reach out to your instructors or the relevant student support services for discussion and creative problem-solving.

Resources for Stanford Online learners