10 Tips for Success as an Online Learner

Some of the same principles that apply to face-to-face learning also apply online, but the activities are different:

1. Arrive early

In the same way that you would budget time to find a parking space, walk to your classroom and get settled for a face-to-face training session, you need to arrive early for an online learning session. Your “arrive early” activities include:

  • Logging on
  • Testing your audio and mic
  • Saying hello to fellow participants and the facilitator

Plan to arrive 10 to 15 minutes ahead of your scheduled start time. That way, when the session starts, you’re ready to go.

2. Just say “No” to distractions

In a face-to-face learning environment, you can’t do laundry, answer the door, cook lunch, deal with staff questions, answer inquiries, staff the front desk or do any number of other activities that would detract from your learning. Create a “learning sanctum” that is free of distractions and allows you to be fully present during your e-learning session.

  • Turn off your telephone(s).
  • Put a sign on your door that says “Do Not Disturb”.
  • Go to the bathroom before the session starts.

3. Be An Active Learner

What are the qualities of an active learner in a bricks-and-mortar classroom? Someone who pays attention, doesn’t distract other learners, doesn’t allow themselves to be distracted and seems genuinely interested. The same thing applies on line:

  • Listen actively
  • Ask questions
  • Take notes (See the next point…)

4. Take notes – in a way that makes sense for you

Whether you use  a traditional notebook and a pen or a word processing program, taking notes is an important part of learning. It helps you capture the main ideas and embed them in your brain. Notes also give you something to refer back to later on.

Not everyone is comfortable taking notes on a mobile device or hearing a keyboard click as they’re listening. Other people may get hand cramps if they hold a pen too long. Don’t get too caught up in the idea of using technology for everything. How you choose to take notes is incidental. The important thing is to do it. Write down key points to help you remember them later.

5. Engage with other participants

You wouldn’t sit in a classroom and not speak to anyone else would you? Make a point of engaging with other participants. Ask questions, make comments, give kudos where they’re due. Remember that, just like you, those are human beings who are sitting in front of their respective screens. More than anything, humans crave connection. Try to connect personally with at least one other person in your session, if you can.

6. Go Green

E-learning provides a tremendous opportunity to be environmentally responsible. Experiment with reading on line. Test different font sizes and document sizes to find what works for you. Try not to print out every single handout, or .pdf file.

Digital materials are often meant to be interactive. If you print them, you lose the interactivity and web links may not show up in your print out.

7. Organize Your Stuff

In the same way that it’s frustrating to have a messy bookbag or a binder with papers falling out, it can be just as frustrating to have your digital materials scattered all over the place.

Set up folders and sub-folders on your computer to organize and store your files, course materials and handouts. Not only will this help you find it more easily later, it will also help to “make it yours”. Synch between devices to keep everything current.

8. Share and be social

Share online links to other resources. Explore online bookmarking sites (e.g. Diigo or StumbleUpon) to store and share interesting resources you find. If you’d like more resources or information, ask others to share with you. Be sure to thanks others who share interesting and helpful resources with you.

9. Be patient and kind

As in a traditional classroom, there are likely to be learners who are less capable than you… and others who are more capable. In an online environment, this applies as much ability with technology, as it does to the content. Think of comfort and ability with technology as a continuum. People will be scattered all along the continuum. Be patient with those who aren’t as far along as you.

10. Find reasons to celebrate and have fun!

Remember when you were a kid in school and you got a gold star from the teacher? Humans respond well to positive reinforcement, regardless if it is face-to-face or online. Successful online learners look for opportunities to compliment and notice others’ progress. They are also self-aware and self-realized learners who acknowledge their own progress. Cheer on others when you see them making leaps and bounds and give yourself a pat on the back when you do a good job. Remember, learning is supposed to be fun!


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


4 Responses to 10 Tips for Success as an Online Learner

  1. Nicole says:

    Thankyou, these tips are great.

    I’ll be studying online this year for the first time and I’m finding it a bit scary.

    • It’s not as scary as you might think. Learning the technology and how it works becomes a simultaneous learning experience, and the course content is the other part of it. Take it one step at a time and you’ll do great!

  2. vicky says:

    hello Dr. Sarah.
    i was so delighted to come across your profile onine. i was wondering if you recommend a reputable University in Canada where i can do a Ph.D in Educational Technology?

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