Studying online has become the norm over the past few years, with students at all levels forced into the world of online learning by a worldwide pandemic. For many, however, studying online is still new. If you are preparing to study for an online degree, there are a few things you can do to prepare that will ease your stress and increase your chance of success.
Make sure you’re happy with the program
Choosing the right education program for you is the first step to success in an online degree. You may know exactly what you want to study, but it is still important to compare a variety of options to make sure the degree you choose is the perfect fit for you. You will want to look at exactly which courses make up your degree program, the way those courses are delivered, the teaching hours, the amount of coursework, the time scale, the cost, and the ways you will be assessed and graded.
It is fine to contact providers directly with any questions you may have, and to get clarity on anything that you’re unsure about. This is an opportunity to ask about the details of what will be expected of you, how you will access your instructors and what further opportunities the program presents. Many online programs may have extra perks you probably haven’t really considered. When you study a Master of Business Administration online degree with Kettering University Online, for example, you can potentially add a second degree, after your MBA, by studying just four extra courses. Make sure you know what your future options are from the start.
Gather what you need
The bare minimum you will need for an online degree will be a suitable computer or other device, and a reliable internet connection. It is unlikely you can get by without a computer, but you may find that you can also access your learning portal and study materials from your mobile devices, making studying on the go an easy option. Check if you need to download extra software or a mobile app to access what you need, or if the provider’s online learning portal works better if you install a particular browser.
You will also undoubtedly need textbooks, or other learning materials, but check this carefully with your program provider. Many online schools provide students with a digital reading list, including journal articles or book chapters that can be downloaded or accessed online. Digital libraries may also lend out eBooks that cover many of your courses. Textbooks used to be one of the biggest expenses for students. Now, there are a range of digital options that mean you may not have to spend as much money as you thought.
Set your goals
There is often some flexibility when studying online. You may be able to study part-time, for example, and decide on your course load at the beginning of each academic year or semester. If time is very tight for you right now, you might want to just study one or two courses at a time, slowly building credits until you have your degree. You will, however, want to have a clear plan of how you’re going to achieve this degree and what your timeline is.
Work out in advance exactly what you need to do to walk away with that diploma, and then draw up a timeline and set yourself time-bound goals to ensure you achieve it. Be aware of all the mandatory courses you need to take, when they are offered, which electives are available and when, and how many credits you need in each category. Then draw up a detailed list of goals that will help you get from where you are now to where you want to be. Make sure that you’re not doing more than you need to, as well. Talk to your provider about any previous study that could provide credits towards your degree, so you don’t spend more time and money than you need to.
Organize your time
Decide in advance exactly how you are going to make this new stage in your life work for you. Studying online is a common choice for older students, who usually also have jobs, families and other commitments, so brushing up on your time management skills is essential before you start studying. Don’t just decide in your head how you’re going to do things. Sit with your calendar, physical or digital, and actually try and schedule all your commitments, including classes, study time and all your work and personal commitments.
As soon as you have your schedule from your online school, make sure you add any important dates to your calendar, such as exams, assignments and presentations, as well as any other regular tasks you’re made aware of, such as quizzes, forum discussions or peer critiques. You should also assume that you will have readings for each class and that you will want to read over your notes afterwards. Put everything on your calendar. No doubt it’s starting to look a little crowded, but it’s important for you to be aware of how much needs to be achieved each week, and when it can be slotted in.
As you progress towards your degree, monitor yourself to ensure your plan is realistic. Knowing how long it takes you to do your required reading while also taking notes, or to go over your notes from your last lecture, will allow you to plan your time with increasing efficiency. Forbes suggests you use a time-tracking app such as Toggl or Harvest to track the time you spend on each task, and ultimately plan your time better. Before you start your degree is a great time to download and experiment with these apps to see which one suits you.
It’s also a good time to look, realistically, at how much you have on your plate and eliminate or delegate things that you just don’t have time for. A degree is time consuming. You’re probably going to have to streamline your life and make sacrifices, whether that’s giving up a hobby, cutting down on some volunteer hours or arranging some extra childcare. It could also just mean delegating chores and errands to other family members or using paid services to get them done. Whatever it is you need to do, getting it arranged before you start will be helpful.
Prepare a study space (or several)
Where you study is as important as when, especially if you share a household with others, including kids and demanding family members. Having a dedicated study space that you can retreat to and shut the door to is ideal. Having a comfortable workspace of some kind, even if it’s in a corner of your bedroom, is essential. Consider the type of environment where you work best, and what you need in order to concentrate. Some people can work away happily in a noisy environment. Others need complete silence — or a good pair of noise cancelling headphones.
Many parents find they can study at the kitchen table with their kids completing homework right alongside them or take their books to the park and get their reading done while the children play. Others will find it’s best to plan a retreat to their workspace when another parent or adult is around to take care of the kids. Whatever works for you is fine. It’s just important to plan that out and work it into your schedule.
It may be that you can study at home when necessary, but also in a coffee shop, co-working space, library or other environment when needed. Just remember to plan for all eventualities. Many remote students and workers were quite happily working in coffee shops and libraries in early 2020. Then a worldwide pandemic shut down all non-essential businesses in some areas and things got a whole lot harder. However you arrange to work, having one or more spaces that you regularly use for studying will help you build a routine and settle down to each new study session quickly.
Make some friends
Just because you’re studying online doesn’t mean you won’t be interacting with your classmates. There will probably be online discussions, peer assessments and maybe even group assignments or presentations to complete. Plus, it’s always useful to have a study buddy, virtual study group or just people you can chat with about the course. While most interactions will stay online, some online courses will even have a residential component, or perhaps recommend real life events to attend, so there’s a chance you’ll end up meeting some of your classmates in person.
Many online courses will start by having the students write an introduction to post in the discussion forums or bulletin board. Take advantage of that, then reach out to others who have posted and start a conversation. You might also want to start a group chat on social media or via a messaging app to discuss stuff that you will all be dealing with that might not be directly related to the course, or there might be threads within the forums to facilitate that. Having buddies in your online classes can be useful and make learning more enjoyable. You can compare notes, share thoughts on assignments, and check what you missed if you can’t make a class. Plus, it can just help you feel less alone and more engaged with the classes you’re taking.
Get support in place
Having support from those around you is essential when you go back to school as an adult, whether you’re completing your degree program online or in person. It can help you better balance your time, meet your commitments, and keep stress to a minimum. Ultimately it can be the difference between success and failure.
The type of support you’ll need will vary depending on your circumstances. If you’re currently employed, you might want to talk to your employer about your studies and see if they can offer any flexibility and support to help you get the most out of your studies. This will depend on your job, and your relationship with your employer, of course, but many businesses are supportive of workers returning to school and increasing their level of education. Some will offer time off, or more flexible hours, and some will even contribute to the cost. The exception of course, is if you are completing your education in a completely different area than your current job, because you want to leave and start a whole other career. In that case, it’s unlikely your employer will make many allowances for you.
You will also want to look at the support you can rely on from family and friends and talk to your spouse or partner, if you have one, about what this new stage will mean for you. You and your partner may have to agree to split household chores, family responsibilities and errands differently, while you are studying, to make sure everything gets done.
This is particularly important for parents obviously. You may need to rearrange your schedule with the other parent, whether you are happily living together and sharing day-to-day childcare or separated and co-parenting. You will also want back-up babysitting in place if your kids are very young, so you can still attend classes if they are sick or your regular childcare arrangements change for some reason.
If your budget allows, you can also consider paying for extra support. This could take the form of a babysitter, dog walker, gardener, cleaning or ironing service or simply planning a bigger budget for take-out and convenience food if you’re not going to have time to cook. While you’re looking at what you can delegate or outsource to others, also look at what you can eliminate completely. Many of us spend time on chores or activities that are not actually essential, so cut out of your schedule anything that simply doesn’t need to be done. This will help reduce stress and make it easier to manage your time around your schoolwork.
Find your way around
You may not be physically attending school but knowing your way around the online system is vital. Find out where to find the links that will allow you to join online classes, where to find study materials and where to submit your assignments. Bookmark important pages on your school’s website, such as your weekly class schedule, your hand-in dates for assignments and your reading list.
You might want to click through various links to see what is available and get a feel for how your school lays things out on their website. Most online learning providers will require you to login to access course information, so get your login and password sorted out, and test them in advance, so you are ready to get started on your first day of classes.
Know who to turn to
Find out who your tutors are and who to turn to if you have any difficulties, whether they are technical, academic or personal. Locate the contact details of any offices you might need, such as technical support, the business office, the department teaching your course, and the library. Ask how to access academic advisors, peer tutors or mentors, counsellors and other support staff. Knowing who to turn to and when, and having their contact details available, can help you avoid stress.
Be aware exactly how your classes work
Generally, you will have a link to click through to join your classes. You will usually need to login to each class, often using your general login credentials, but it is also possible there will be specific login instructions for different classes. Some instructors may send out emails with the link for each class each week, along with a password or code word. Generally speaking, your instructor should be able to see who is logged in and participating in the class.
Some classes will require you to have your camera and microphone on to interact with the teacher and other students. Others may be more ‘lecture style’ so you can simply watch and listen. Many providers make recordings of classes available after they have finished so you can catch up if you miss a class, or re-watch classes to prepare for exams. Finding out exactly how your classes work before the first day should ensure things run smoothly for you.
Prepare for success
Whether you are studying online or in person there are certain things you can do to prepare for success in your degree. Make sure you are familiar with the program handbook, if there is one, and that you read any information sent out about your program, and your individual classes. Take a look through any textbooks that are on your required reading list, and those on your recommended reading list if you have time. Reading about your subject and getting a feel for the course material will help you feel more confident and less overwhelmed in those first few classes and set you up for a successful course of study.