How to Study Online: 16 Tips & Tricks

Learn how to study online like a pro with these e-learning tips and tricks.

Taking online classes might seem intimidating to those new to virtual learning. Not only do you have to get comfortable on an entirely new learning platform, it can be tough to juggle multiple logins, resource sheets, assignments, and expectations—and that’s before you even start to think about how the heck you’re going to learn all of the actual content (and ace your final).

On the bright side, you can learn how to study online pretty quickly. Once you have it down, you’ll be able to transfer your know-how to any kind of online course, whether it’s for school, for work, or an online course dedicated purely to your personal interests (like machine learning or mindfulness).

Here's a stock photo of Harold using a laptop to illustrate the previous paragraphs.

Know and name your underlying motives

Everyone has to have their own individual motivation for studying online, and it’s not uncommon for everyone’s motivation to be a little bit different. Several studies show the importance of motivation in an educational environment—even if that “environment” is your home office desk instead of a typical lecture hall.

If you’re learning online for your college degree, your motivation might be to get an A and improve your GPA. If you’re trying to master how to build your own online course to launch your own business, your motivation might be a profitable commercial venture. 

Hell, maybe you’re just trying to fulfill random credits, and that’s okay too.

Knowing—and naming—your motivation from the onset of the course is the first of our online student tips for a reason. You’ve got to have it. If you don’t, you’ll never progress towards any level of learning or proficiency, AKA you’ll waste your (and your teacher’s) time and money.

Take an hour in the beginning to look over all of the course documents

Psst. We’re going to let you in on a little secret.

If you’re organized, you can basically become a pro in succeeding in online learning.

We mean this with the utmost sincerity. Now is the time to get serious about your organization skills, and it all starts with you sitting down to review your course documents at the beginning of your class. While these documents vary from virtual class to virtual class, you can typically expect to find a syllabus, a calendar, your teacher’s expectations, and ideally, an assignment list available to you early-on.

Turn off the distractions and dig deep into all of these documents. Skim assignment briefs and take note of any projects that feel like a particularly “heavy lift.” Don’t make my mistake:

One time, I knew I had a paper due on a Sunday. On Friday, I opened the assignment to start jotting down my initial ideas and outline. Lo and behold, not only was a paper due, but an interview with a faculty member was due, as well as photos of a university campus.

D’oh!

If I had been organized from the beginning, I could have avoided the last-minute panic attack and instead, started working on the paper weeks in advance.

We really think we can elevate online student tips like “get organized” to lifehack status. It can make a world of difference!

Track deadlines with an internal system or calendar

After you’ve sat down to review all of the course items a la tip #2, it’s time to create an internal tracking system to manage your deadlines. Most online students opt to use digital solutions like iCal, Google Calendar, or OmniFocus, but you can kick it old school with a physical planner if that works better for you.

As you set out your assignments, project expectations, and exam schedule, be sure to cross reference your online course commitments with your real life commitments. In this way, you’ll be able to…

Predict heavier workloads and make a plan to accommodate them

Your course load will likely vary week to week, but it is helpful to know as early as possible which weeks will be more demanding, especially if you have an active life outside of your virtual classroom. Take a birds-eye view of the commitments you are juggling and make a plan to fit in your class projects around your social calendar (or for star students, fit your social calendar around your homework). 

Got an exam the week after a holiday with your family? You might want to start reviewing the course contents a few weeks earlier than your normal study style. Is there a huge paper due on your birthday? Womp. Give yourself a personal deadline a few days earlier.

Succeeding in online learning requires making your learning a priority, even when (especially when?) you’re a busy bee.

Actually do the homework, reading, etc.

We’d be remiss to cobble together a list of study tips for online students without reminding students to actually study. One of the biggest hang ups for virtual learning is the follow-through on course projects, homework, discussions, papers, etc. etc. etc. 

If you want to get the most out of your class (which we think is safe to presume), you need to keep up with the workload.

Create a dedicated study space (that’s quiet!)

It’s hard to get your best work done when your focus is compromised. It’s up to you, future best-student-in-the-class, to create a dedicated, distraction-free study space.

You can really lean into this and make a great study space, or just make-do with your current environment. We know it can be hard to focus and block distractions, but without doing so, you end up wasting your time and needing to study even more. Yuck. Just study hard and stay focused instead.

Introduce yourself directly to your teacher

Your online course instructor probably has a lot of students, and among those students, they can probably name less than 10 of them. Be one of the ones they can name! Get on their radar by reaching directly out to your instructor and introducing yourself. You will probably get bonus points if you can tell the teacher what you are most excited to learn in their course or what made you sign up to study under their expertise and guidance in the first place.

It’s not sucking up if you mean it, right? Put some thought into your message before you hit that “send” button.

Don’t wait til the last minute

Time and again, procrastination is one of the worst study strategies. If you fail to stay on top of your assignments and commitments (*cough* online student tips 2 & 3 *cough*), you will be scrambling to finalize homework right before that impending deadline.

Some thrive with this kind of stress, and maybe that is you. But many of us need more time and space to do our best work. Rather than relying on these terrible studying techniques, make a point to review your deliverables 48-72 hours ahead of schedule. In this way, you can carve out enough time to not only get your work done, but to get it done well.

Find an accountability buddy, ideally a classmate

Let’s face it. Sometimes we are really, really bad at holding ourselves accountable to our commitments. Be it how we spend our time, what we eat, who we hang out with, or how we approach our studying online. 

One of the best ways to study online courses is to not do it alone. Find yourself a “study buddy,” friend, partner, or classmate and hold each other accountable to getting your sh*t done.

More than likely, you spend a LOT of time scrolling on your phone and looking at your computer. Unfortunately for learners, internet use affects your memory and can make it hard to truly digest all of the information being thrown your way. In fact, your brain doesn’t even absorb the information you’re skimming online (hence the crop of articles out there that aim to help you remember more of what you read).

When you can, print your course materials instead. Power down your devices and look at the physical papers in front of you. Take notes in the margins and highlight essential pieces of information. If you’re a superstar, you’ll collate the most important notes from your readings into a notebook or a digital document to refer to in the future.

Watch course lectures at 2x speed

One of my personal favorite e-learning tips and tricks is to download extensions that allow you to watch or listen to lectures at faster than normal speeds. I use Video Speed Controller with Google Chrome and it makes it so easy to speed up multimedia.

It might sound a little wonky at first, but you can build up to 2x or even 3x speed, turning your 60 minute online lectures into 30 minute delightful seminars. 

Your time is valuable, paying attention can be hard, and this little trick can help improve focus without sacrificing learning.

Participate in the discussions (yes—actually participate)

“Wow Katie, I really like the way you said that.” 

“Thanks Bob, I appreciate the way you phrased your point.”

“I am surprised by how eloquent you are, Carl.”

In short: 👎👎👎.

Discussion boards are actually useful learning tools, but only if you take them seriously and actually contribute.

Rather than sticking with re-digested and up-cycled concepts from your classmates, make a promise to yourself that you will contribute new and thought providing ideas to the group. That’s where the real learning (and magic) happens.

Invest in a good internet connection

Sitting down to focus on your online learning takes drive and self-discipline. You want to minimize any friction or barriers to accomplishing this important first step (much like laying out your exercise clothes the night before so you are more likely to actually go to the gym the next morning). 

Setting up—or having access to—a good internet connection is key to online learning success. You don’t want to waste your precious time reconnecting or waiting for a video to buffer. You want to sit down, press play, and engage your mind immediately. Having bad internet access is going to make that a whole lot more annoying, and a lot less likely that you will follow through.

Set time limits for your studies

We think it’s smart to be mindful of how much time you’re spending studying overall. This can sustain your motivation for learning over time, plus can help challenge you to use the time you have set aside more effectively. 

You might even consider trying out the Pomodoro Technique: 25 minutes of “on time” / “study time” followed by a 5 minute break. This strategy gives you a decent chunk of time to get something done without the existential dread of a four hour study sesh.

Reflect, revise, repeat as needed

Figuring out how to study for online classes is a highly personal endeavor. What works for Brittney’s online studies might not help YOU in succeeding in online learning. One of the best ways to learn online is to constantly tweak your strategies. This requires thoughtful reflection and intentionality, but the results can be the difference between you being top of the class or you getting a big fat F.

Remember: Learning is fun

I wish someone had told me earlier in life that learning is fun. 

Your job is to absorb new ideas, challenge your pre-existing ideas, make sense of the world, find your place in it. That is a much nobler mission than most jobs throughout life.

Learning is a privilege, and with the right mindset, you will approach your online learning as a gift rather than a chore. This, my friends, is the ultimate hack, and the final note of our e-learning tips and tricks.

FAQs

How do I do well in online classes?

The key to succeeding and doing well in online classes is to be organized. In-person courses have built-in accountability structures for your learning, but you take on that responsibility as a virtual student. From the get-go, create systems to help you stay on top of your studies, assignments, exam-prep, etc. Pair your awesome organization systems with follow-through and you’ll be well on your way to doing well in online classes.

Why do students fail online classes?

Many students fail online courses because of lack of discipline. Succeeding in online learning requires a great deal of organization, follow-through, and self-discipline that is often built-into in-person learning environments. These new responsibilities are no small feat. Many students fail online classes if they are unable to recognize these new “soft tasks” and actively incorporate them into their study plans.

Is it difficult to take online classes?

It is not difficult to take online classes. Virtual learning might take some adjustment on behalf of the student, but succeeding in online learning is achievable for committed learners. You can find online classes for personal development, skill, or knowledge gain, not to mention hundreds of online courses for school, college, or business purposes.