• Shyam Latorre

A Guide For Surviving Online College

Updated: Jul 12

Online education has been on the rise for the past decade, with more and more schools offering undergraduate and graduate degrees online. Additionally, private online learning sites like LinkedIn Learning and Coursera provide courses and degrees on a variety of subjects.

The medium has improved exponentially, to make classes more engaging in the confines of staring at a computer screen, although there is still plenty of room for improvement. As historians look back at the rise of online education, the watershed moment for its universal acceptance may be right now. The coronavirus has closed schools and transferred all classes online, and as we approach the fall semester it may be here to stay.

Now, this isn't an article on the broader ramifications online learning has on the college education system or the accessibility it offers to those who want to further their education. What I'm writing is a guide to those who will be forced to take online classes for the first time.

I'm assuming you're a little disappointed you won't be in a classroom setting, and probably confused on how to succeed in an online course. So, I've constructed a list of tips and tricks to best succeed in an online class.

Fair warning though, there are several Learning Management Systems(LMS), the software that allows educators to deliver and track the progress of their online courses, and all my experience revolves around Canvas. Canvas is a popular LMS, but certainly not the only one, and a lot of my tips involve the Canvas interface. However, most LMS offers the same functions, so these tips are great for other LMS platforms too.

Learn Time Management

The beauty of online classes is the freedom it allows you to juggle work, school, and personal time. But the caveat is that you must balance it. You will be surprised at how easy it is for everything to snowball into a situation where your weekend is spent awake for 48 hours finishing assignments.

The simplest solution is to allow a couple of hours per day to do classwork. I know that may not be possible for everyone, so find out what works for you and stick to your routine.

Don't Be Afraid to Contact Your Professors

Information is going to be lost in translation when converting an in-person class online. The syllabus may be confusing, instructions unclear, etc. Additionally, there may be errors in their grading, or they simply forget to post an upcoming assignment.

The professors are human and they will make mistakes, keep an eye out for anything that seems off, and don't be afraid to contact the professor through their desired mode of communication; it's usually email. All my professors have been good at responding to my questions quickly and courteously.

However, please read the next section before you send an email.

Write Emails Professionally

This is a big one, as mentioned above, you will be writing emails to your teachers quite frequently. DO NOT use emojis, lol, omg, or whatever new trend our generation has created to avoid boredom. When writing to someone who controls your GPA and your potential future, write professionally.

You wouldn't think I would have to write this, but I have seen enough horror stories to know that isn't the case.

Find Your Workspace

I've never been a "writer-at-Starbucks" guy before I started taking online classes. I had always been fine doing work from the comfort of my living room; however, online courses are a different beast. My mind begins to wander when I'm watching lectures or reading textbooks, and suddenly my house is a cavalcade of potential distractions.

A Starbucks or a less homogenous coffee shop works for me. Understand that a workspace for your creative outlet may not function the same for your education, and experiment with new places, or redesign your current living area. I may be able to work on the next great American novel from my couch, but I can't write a paper on feminist discourse in the field of public administration when SportsCenter is on.

Avoid Distractions

Sometimes I can't find a Starbucks, or maybe there is a worldwide pandemic that causes all coffee shops to close their doors. Either way, there will be times when you are forced to do school work in an unsuitable place.

At this point, the unthinkable must be done: Unplug everything. The television, the Xbox, the WiFi, if you don't need it, whatever must be done to avoid distractions in an unsuitable place.

You May Not Always Need a Textbook

If dropping over a hundred dollars on a textbook is a hurdle for you, the good news is that you may not have to. Some professors will outright tell you no textbook is required. Others may have an assigned textbook in the course information page that you may never end up using.

I encourage you not to buy any textbooks until you start classes. I've taken several courses where the assignments are made from lectures and assigned readings from online sources, and the book was never even opened.

Of course, this may put you in a precarious situation where you need a textbook urgently, and it's being delayed in the mail. If you are uncomfortable with that thought, buy the textbook in advance. Who knows, maybe it's a great read, or you can find another use for it. I'm using my Ethics In Media book to balance my coffee table.

Connect With Your Classmates - But Be Cautious

Online learning can be an isolating experience, and connecting with your classmates can significantly enhance your course. You can usually expect an email from one of your more driven classmates about joining a group chat, often through Whatsapp or GroupMe.

If you don't see an email in the first few days, it's time for you to take the initiative. If you are using Canvas, you can use the built-in email to send a mass message to all the students in a class.

However, you must set up ground rules on what participants are allowed to post. Helping fellow students out on what chapters to read, or reminding people of an upcoming due date is fine. But there is a line between assisting and cheating, and I urge you not to cross it and warn your classmates of this line.

This is not some moralistic sermon about the virtues of honest education. It is a warning. If the contents of that group chat leak to the brass, everyone connected is subject to a disciplinary review, regardless if it assisted you, and I'm telling you it is a nightmare.

If someone starts posting screenshots of the test or any other action that violates the schools cheating policy, either kick them out or leave.

Discussion Boards are Annoying, But Don't Get Discouraged

If you've already taken an online class, you know this, and you probably groaned when reading the header. For those new, be warned you will get discussion assignments, and you will hate them.

In a discussion post, the professor will ask an open-ended question related to the current lesson. The assignment is to review the related course materials and post a 200-300 word response on the discussion board and then reply to two of your classmate's responses.

Theoretically, this is a great way to boost engagement in a class. There are no right or wrong answers to a discussion post, and with the bevy of course-material at your disposal, you would expect a lively discussion to take place on the boards. However, it has never failed to disappoint. They are always dull.

Two variables make this statement true. One, every textbook or lesson is biased to the authors or professor's beliefs, whether they know it or not. And two, students will almost always take the path of least resistance, meaning they will agree with the professor or author. So instead of a discussion that boosts the discourse, we have a hundred students all saying the same thing, and then finding a way to stretch, "I agree" into 200 hundred words.

It is inevitable, and I'm sorry you have to go through with it, but I urge you not to lose interest. Around the time you're writing your seventh, "I agree with Katie," post you will be tempted to skip the response portion of the assignment and receive partial credit. It will be a moment of sweet relief.

However, once you take that path, it becomes a slippery slope where you are collecting partial credit every week. Which I know from experience may be the difference between a letter grade.

Double-Check and Update Your Calendar

Canvas and other learning management software come with a calendar that will automatically update when teachers add assignments. In fact, in Canvas, a weekly calendar is the first thing you see when you log on to the site and checking it will become a morning routine. The calendar will dictate your schedule, your mood, your life, and you will follow the calendar blindly.

Okay, I may be overemphasizing its importance, but the software is fantastic. It's intuitive and easy to use, and therein lies the danger, it's easy to become over-reliant on it. As the saying goes, a tool is only as good as its user, and if your professor doesn't use Canvas correctly, assignments may not appear on the calendar, and it's your responsibility to take care of it.

Double-check the syllabus and modules to make sure all upcoming assignments are in your calendar, if not add a new due date. I've found that assignments that have multiple due dates, for example, part one is due on Tuesday, and part two is due a few days later, may not always be represented as such. Only the final due date is on the calendar, meaning if you follow it blindly, you can miss the first part of an assignment.

Some Online Resources

Here are three online resources that I strongly encourage you to utilize.


Google is your best friend, and don't you ever forget. The ability of a textbook to make an exciting topic dry is genuinely astounding and depressing. Google the subject, and I'm sure you'll find dozens of better-written articles on the matter, maybe even some YouTube videos. The internet gets a bad rap these days, but its original intention was to make the sharing of information easier, and it's still pretty good at it.


Another online resource and the greatest study guide available, Quizlet, offers user-created flashcards often made by previous students in your class. Search for your class or subject, and you'll find flashcards and definitions related to the course or even a specific test.

Custom Calculators

I've only taken one math class online, statistics, and it was one of the most time-consuming ordeals I've ever undertaken. Usually, I would tell you to avoid online math classes like the plague, but with an actual plague mucking everything up, that may not be an option. In statistics, you're given large amounts of data and told to organize and graph it. Doing it by hand or through a graphing calculator is torture.

Thankfully, there are custom calculators that do the tedious work for you, just insert the data, and it will graph and organize it for you. You still have to know what to conclude from the data, and you can't use it on quizzes and exams, but it shortens the homework time by a couple of hours.

It’s Going To Be A Strange Fall Semester

There’s no way to sugar coat this; depending on the state you live in, your school may be online only, or the classes will be drastically smaller to accommodate social distancing. It seems likely many of you will be doing remote learning either by force or choice.

However, don’t fret too much. Online learning can still be rewarding and offer quality education, but like everything, you have to make an effort, and I hope this list gives you a leg up through these strange times.

The social experience of college will undoubtedly be different, but this is a chance to spread your wings and learn to have fun outside of the college environment. I wish you good luck!

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