A Guide to Learning Online

Welcome to the Center for Transformative Teaching’s guide to getting started with partially or fully online courses. This page provides the most essential pieces of information we have to offer for a person preparing to succeed in these types of courses. In Spring of 2020, many students unexpectedly found themselves taking courses online without any preparation. It is important to know that those ‘remote courses’ were very different from courses where the online aspects were planned from the beginning.

However, one aspect that the remote courses of Spring and the online courses of Summer share is that you have much more control over your engagement with the content, your classmates, and your instructor. For some students, this power and freedom make it easy to procrastinate and they often find themselves falling short of the goals they had at the start of the term. This guide is designed to give you some best-practices for approaching your fully or partially online course so that you can finish your courses as successfully as possible! Recognizing that there are significant differences between online and in-person courses that will affect how to optimally learn is an important first step toward becoming a great online student.

When faculty have time to adequately prepare, online courses can be just as engaging as in-person courses. Think about it: you already spend a large amount of your time online, and you are constantly learning new things while doing it! If you had a bad experience this spring, please have some patience here and try not to judge the potential for online learning based on that emergency situation.

The following principles, each of which is explained in more detail below, will help you stay on track and be successful in your online courses:

  • Stay organized & keep studying. Set aside specific times & places to complete your work each day. Pay attention to due dates and get your work done early so that you have time to ask questions and get a response before needing to turn in assignments. Even if your exams are online, you will still need to set aside study time to prepare for them.
  • Communicate effectively. It is easy to avoid participating in discussions and group projects online, but these experiences are key to your success in the course. It can be especially challenging to complete group work online, so you will need to have a very clear and detailed team communication plan.
  • Know how to complete assignments & exams. You will need to pay close attention to instructions from your instructor on how to format your assignments and projects. You may need to refer to the course syllabus for additional information. You may also be required to download special software to take your exams.
  • Have the tech you need. Online courses require, well, the ability to be online. You will need a reliable device with access to the internet. If this might be a challenge, we give some suggestions for getting help below.
  • Use your resources. Lots of the resources from campus are also available online. Your advisers, the Writing Center, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the Huskertech Help Center, Center for Academic Success and Transition (CAST), etc. can be reached by email, phone, or Zoom. There are far more resources available, so if you don’t see what you need, see the bottom of this page for a more comprehensive list! Don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you need something!

Stay Organized

It is normal to feel lost or overwhelmed when you start taking online courses, so we highly recommend that you stick to a regular schedule and maintain a detailed calendar for your coursework. While online courses do not provide the same day-to-day structure that you are likely used to, they will still be as rigorous and time-consuming as a face-to-face class. So, If you find yourself in need of help with organization, the Center for Academic Success & Transition has lots of resources on their website. Note that in-person and online tutoring are both available.

Keep to a daily schedule

An online course is designed to require approximately the same amount of weekly work as an in-person course. Figure out how much time you would need for a face to face course that is at the same level and number of credits as each online course, being sure to include the time you normally spend in class. As a general rule, for a 16 week 3 credit course, you are expected to spend about 3 hours in class and 6 hours working out of class per week. Once you add together the time per week for all courses, set up a weekly schedule setting aside the required amount of time for each course. You’ll notice this is a pretty big chunk of time if you’re taking multiple courses.

The next step is harder: you need to motivate yourself to stick to that schedule every day. If you fall behind, it may be very difficult to catch back up. If possible, set up a specific area in your home that is designated just for work. As your ‘class time’ approaches, do the things you used to do before going to class: get out of bed, take a shower, get dressed, and sit down at your workspace. Put away distractions like your phone and close any unnecessary browser tabs.

Keep track of deadlines

In addition to your day to day course work, you also need to keep track of all of your assignments and deadlines. Make sure that you put due dates for everything on your calendar as well as designating specific periods of time to work on assignments well before they are due. Be sure to use the Canvas calendar, as this will show all assignments that have due dates listed in Canvas. You can even have your Canvas calendar show on your Google calendar or your iPhone calendar.

For large projects and exams, you may need to block out additional times on your calendar beyond the regular times you have already set aside to work on your course each week. The earlier you get all of this information on a well-organized calendar, the earlier you can adjust other events, like family or work commitments, to ensure you have enough time to complete your coursework.

Be sure to study

Studying ≠ Taking and Rereading Notes

Lori Romano: Smiling woman with brown hair.
Lori Romano, Director, Center for Academic Success and Transition

We meet with a lot of students (especially after the first round of exams don't go so well), who say "I don't know how to study. I never felt like I had to study much in HS." I explain it to students this way... Throughout elementary, middle, high school your teachers were driving the learning bus. They were in charge of all the subject matter content, the lesson planning, developing activities and strategies to help you learn the content. In college, students are driving the bus, while professors are standing up front with a microphone describing the scenery in detail. Most students have no idea this change is coming. This is one of those things no one really tells you about college before you get here.

For this reason, incoming students think "studying = taking and looking over notes" but it's so much more than that. I tell students to think back to HS and the classes they did really well in (and maybe the teachers they found most "annoying" because it felt like they were going over and over and over the same information in different ways). I ask them to think about the different activities they did in those classes that helped burn the content into their brains...things like getting new vocab words every Monday and having to make up their own sentences using the words. Tuesdays they had to get into groups and each group was given a certain concept to study/discuss. Wednesdays they had to get back in groups to present the concepts to the rest of the class and take notes on the other presentations. Thursdays they took a comprehension quiz, and then had to get together with a partner to discuss any questions they missed. Fridays they had to write journal entries from the point of view of a character in the novel, etc. Those were all the things they were doing in class with the teacher, activities the teacher planned for a reason. And when it came time for the actual test, all students had to do was do a short “review” of their notes and they could walk into the test pretty confidently and usually pass.

I explain that all of those things are "studying". When they think back to all those activities in HS and jot them down, they suddenly have a long list of study strategies that they can "borrow" to help them learn content in their college classes. College professors aren’t going to build those activities into classes/lectures, that’s the students’ job now. In HS, students did about 80% of the work in class with the teachers, but in college they’re responsible for doing 80% of the work outside class on their own. “Studying” in college means finding the strategies to help “burn the info into their brains”. They’ll get the info from their readings and lectures and labs. Their job is to take all that info and come up with activities to help them absorb and learn the info. So they should beg, borrow, and steal from all the great teachers they had K-12. Students know how to study…they just don’t know that they know. :-)

When completing readings or watching lecture videos, be sure to take detailed notes. Even though the videos are there to re-watch at your convenience, you should treat them like an in-person lecture and take lots of notes. This helps keep you engaged with the material so you can actually remember what you’re hearing about.

Similarly, you still need to study for quizzes and exams, even if they are open-book. Consider finding someone else in your course to be your ‘study buddy’. Studying in groups can be useful for keeping yourself on track with course material as well as helping you cope with the isolation you may be experiencing in your new online environment. Just because you can no longer meet in-person doesn’t mean you can’t still work with your peers. Use Zoom, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype, or another video chat platform to get together for regular study sessions.

Update disability accommodations

The online learning environment is very different, which means that your accommodations list for in-person courses may not be adequate anymore. If there are additional measures that would help you be successful for the rest of the semester, reach out to the Services for Students with Disabilities Office by phone or email to find out what options you have available.

Communicate Effectively

In an online course, it is important to stay in contact with both your instructor and your peers. Pay close attention to instructions on how your instructor intends to communicate and monitor those channels often. Remember that communication with your instructor may take longer now, so you should start all assignments early enough that you can ask questions and get a response before the due date.

Communication with your instructor

Good communication is key to your success in an online course. Check your syllabus or ask your instructor to see what form of communication they would prefer you to use. They may also list specific times that they will be available to check email and have video meetings. Please remember that just because the internet is available 24/7, it doesn’t mean your instructor will be!

Make sure that you are familiar with using the following pieces of technology, as they are the most common way for your instructor to communicate with you. Different courses may choose different communication methods, so be sure to keep track of which instructors will be using which methods!

  • Email: be sure to check your Husker email at least once per day
  • Canvas Announcement: check your Canvas settings to ensure you get email notifications about Canvas announcements
  • Canvas Inbox: when sending emails to your instructor, it is recommended that you use the Canvas inbox feature. The message you send will automatically contain information about what course and section you are in, which will help your instructor answer your email more efficiently.
  • Your instructor may also ask that you use a chat platform such as Microsoft Teams.
  • Canvas Notifications: Many things in Canvas, like announcements and instructor posts and appointments you sign up for, can be set to send you email or phone notifications. Be sure to set your notifications so that you are regularly informed of important information. Consider setting your notifications to ‘daily’ so you only get sent a single notification will all relevant information once a day instead of getting emails constantly throughout the day.

Communication with other students

The other students in your course are an essential part of your learning experience. In the classroom, you are generally given opportunities for discussion of different topics. Your instructor is likely to replicate these experiences in your online course using discussion boards or collaborative documents like Google docs. Be sure to think carefully before posting and commenting in these platforms - remember that without access to vocal tone and facial expression, it can be difficult to convey your full intended meaning. Make sure you use inclusive language and follow any discussion rules provided by your instructor.

If you are required to complete any group assignments, you will need to put in extra work to ensure good communication. As soon as a group project is announced, get contact information for everyone in your group and decide what platform you will use to communicate. Also, decide if you will be having any real-time video conference meetings and, if so, when they will take place to get them on everyone’s schedule as early as possible. Be sure to set up a detailed project schedule so that everyone knows what they need to complete when. Consider using a program like Trello to visually organize and assign tasks.

Complete Assignments & Exams

Even in-person courses often have students turn in assignments using virtual platforms like Canvas, so you may already be familiar with some of the concepts in this section. If you are not used to turning in assignments and taking exams virtually, be sure to read the information below in detail.

Turning in assignments

Your instructor will likely be using Canvas as the place to turn in any papers and assignments you complete for your online course. These instructions will help you submit an assignment via Canvas. Similarly, you may need to post to a discussion board where you will have conversations with other students. Other Canvas tech help resources can be found at the end of this document.

Taking exams

The format of your exams, as well as requirements for how to take them, may be very different in an online course. Pay close attention to instructions such as whether the exam has become open-book or not. Please be aware, if you are not explicitly allowed to use your book or notes, it is considered cheating if you do so. If it is not clear what the expectations for your exams will be, reach out to your instructor for clarification. The sooner that you understand what you need to do, the better prepared you will be when you take your exams.

To help prevent cheating, your instructor may require you to use special software when taking your exams. If this is the case, be sure to get everything ready and test whether it works well in advance of your first exam or quiz. The Respondus LockDown Browser and Monitor Quick Start Guide for Students (PDF) or the ProctorU Student Help Guide will help you get started if you are required to use either of these pieces of software.

Have the Tech You Need

In order to complete your course work online, you will need regular internet access as well as a device to play video and audio information provided by your instructor. Ensure you have access to a computer or a mobile device that can access the internet. Minimally, you will need to be able to access Canvas and read documents that are in Word, PPT, and PDF formats. Your instructor should provide you with information about any other technological needs in your course syllabus. If you do not have access to a computer that will be adequate for your needs, the UNL Husker Helpdesk has a limited number of laptops available for checkout. You may also want to check with your department or college to see if they have any available.

Online courses require that you have adequate internet that allows you to access course content. If this could be a problem for you, see the ‘What if I don’t have internet at home’ section of this guide for options.

If you have an internet connection but still have trouble accessing course content, start by ensuring that your internet browser is completely up to date. If it is, try a different browser - often, Chrome and Firefox work better than Safari. While mobile browsers are not supported in Canvas, there is a mobile Canvas Student Application that works well for most Canvas functions.

If you know that your problem is not with your browser, try contacting your internet service provider to troubleshoot connection and bandwidth issues. If this doesn't resolve your problems, you can contact your instructor to discuss alternative ways of accessing course content. For example, they can provide you with a recorded video of any Zoom meetings so you can watch them later when you have better internet access or get you a transcript of any video or audio content which will be easier for you to download.

Be aware that while public places like libraries, restaurants, and coffee shops generally have free wifi, it is important to ensure your own safety before using public spaces. Always follow best practices from the local health authorities. This article has some good tips if you need to use public computers or wifi

Use Your Resources

There are many resources available to help you transition to being an online student. Remember that most campus resources are also available remotely for students that cannot physically be present on campus.

When you have questions about your courses, your academic career, or other aspects of university life, always feel free to reach out to your academic adviser. They are always ready to listen and offer help for a wide range of challenges that you may be facing. And if they can’t answer your question, they almost certainly can point you to someone that does!

Other UNL services: