5 Study Skills Every Online Student Needs to Have for Beating Failure

Joshua Lockhart 07-08-2013

I recently chose to take on a few online classes. “Piece of cake,” I thought. What could be easier than a college course that I don’t even have to wear pants for? Nothing. Nothing at all.


I thought this until I decided to tell my girlfriend, who herself had recently gotten through a few online courses. Admittedly, throughout that semester, she had seemed a bit more stressed than usual. Personally, I just thought it was a difficult semester all around – we all get those every now and then. Of course, this wasn’t the case.

“You do know that you’ll have more responsibility with these classes, right?” she asked, and then she proceeded to explain just how hard online classes can be.

It’s not the content, the professors, or the assignments by any means. Actually, it’s the format. With online courses, everything relies on you. There’s no schedule to follow, no classes to sit through, no professors to face in person… Nothing like that.

That’s why we’ve put together five skills you should learn when taking on such a course for yourself.

Tame The Technology



If you’re like me, you may have some weird time-wasting habits whenever you sit down in front of the computer. What’s mine? I open Chrome, press Command+T to open a new tab aside from my home page, type in “R” which immediately sets the address bar up for Reddit, and boom, I’m looking at the Front Page of the Internet. It all happens very quickly, and no, I don’t even think about it as it happens anymore. Blah.

Laptops, phones, and tablets are all full of “automatic distractions” like these. We have conditioned ourselves to instantly be distracted as soon as we set ourselves down in front of them. As a student, you should view these devices for what they are: tools for the enhancement of your education.

Before you set down to work, study, or discuss using your online classroom, get rid of these distractions as well as you can. One tool that MakeUseOf recommends is Productivity Owl Productivity Owl Swoops In To Save You From Time Sinks [Chrome] Feeling distracted? Productivity Owl is an enchanted, judgmental creature who will swoop in to save you from yourself – just when you need it the most. He's not your friend – in fact, you will... Read More , a Chrome extension that gives you only so many seconds to browse certain websites before it closes the tab. Since you’re already working within your Internet browser for classes, this is an awesome solution, and there’s even the option to blacklist or whitelist certain sites during certain portions of the day.

As for smartphones and tablets, I recommend something a bit more practical: get rid of ’em. Put your other devices away somewhere – a different room even. You do not need them to conduct your studies, and in fact, I bet that you will finish your studies up faster without them.


Set A Timekeeping Goal


What I say here may seem ridiculous, but personally, I’ve found it to be rather effective. I used to be a full-time procrastinator, one who would spend hours waiting to do something important for no apparent reason. Today, I can proudly say that I am a part-time procrastinator who spends about an hour max waiting to doing something. (This still isn’t good.)

One useful method – and it could very well be the end of you — to stop procrastination is to try and complete your assignments as quickly and efficiently as possible. The key word here is “efficiently”, though. Anyone can write a thesis paper in two minutes, but trust me, that paper will most likely suck regardless of who is holding the pen.

With that said, be realistic and try to shave off minutes at a time. Consider just how much of the time you spend working is actually spent looking out a window, doodling on a notebook, or as mentioned above, browsing the Internet.


While normally reserved for freelancers trying to count honest billable hours, I recommend using time-tracking apps like WeWorked for this purpose. It may seem a bit silly, but you can actually submit how many hours you have spent working for the week. By doing this, you can look back and estimate how much you could potentially cut down by plugging the time leaks. Be realistic, though, and don’t let the quality of your work suffer for the sake of time.

Manage Your Time Efficiently


Besides going all out and trying to achieve tasks in as little time as possible, managing your time into proper slots is a must-do when preparing for online classes. Part of this is the lack of real-life structure to online classes. Despite the occasional midnight deadline here and there, you are working entirely on your own time. No one tells you where to be and what to bring at any time during the week, and this requires more responsibility on your part.

Since relatively rookie adults and already experienced ones use online classes alike, it’s a bit difficult to write this portion of the article. On one hand, we have a slew of students who are just now adjusting to the responsibility of college itself without even considering the difficulties of an online course. On the other, we have several students going back to school and already know the seriousness of high level education, but the online format may still be new to them.


Regardless of your status, time management battles two things: overworking and procrastination. New and old students alike must realize online courses make these challengers much more powerful. You have only yourself to rely on. Fortunately, we have a few tips to battle procrastination in this article: 6 Tips To Prevent Internet Procrastination 6 Tips Prevent Internet Procrastination I am a master of procrastination. Perhaps you are too. There are millions of people who suffer from crippling procrastination and it’s a real drain on productivity and efficiency. The weird thing is, many of... Read More . Despite the title, the tips here can help you take on overworking as well.

Prepare Your Game Plan


While it goes without saying, you should really prepare yourself for the upcoming semester. Online classes are tough, and one primary reason for this is the lack of accountability. You don’t walk into a classroom three times a week, discuss last night’s homework with your fellow student in person, or have a professor reminding you when the next assignment is due.

With that said, before classes even legitimately start, you should flip through the syllabus of each course and decide how you will approach everything. Web apps like Semester Planner let you manually enter each upcoming assignment (which may take some time), but it then reorganizes everything in a manner that lets you see which assignment is due the soonest.

Furthermore, if you have repetitive assignments (such as discussions or reflection papers), you should mentally organize the process of how this should be done. By coming up with a mechanical-like routine, you could potentially optimize your time for the best and set an educated goal for timekeeping purposes.

Embrace The Course


Imagine a course with the name like Modern Global Philosophy On Cheese Consumption And Elimination with a professor who has the voice of Ben Stein. Doesn’t seem like the most interesting class in the world, does it? No, no, it isn’t. Classes like this tend to be the hardest and cause the most procrastination, and when it’s based in the online world, it’s even worse. Why? No one wants to do it. (The only thing worse than a professor who speaks like Ben Stein is one who types in the same tone – eek.)

One solution to consider is the idea of making yourself love the course. Yes, it’s possible to make yourself happy about something even when you aren’t. Granted, this is a scary thought, and it’s also how cult brainwashing can occur… Don’t let yourself do that. Anyway.

There aren’t any apps for making yourself happy seeing that no one has been able to wrangle a proper SDK for the human brain. However, when studying a boring course, I recommend devoting yourself to it as much as possible. See what’s cool about it. Is there anything interesting about it whatsoever?

When you find some joy in the middle of something so drab, you’ll be able to fight through it with a much better attitude.


University studies aren’t anything to mess with, and when you take on the added responsibility of taking a course online, you’ll realize how much more difficult it can be. However, if you consider the above tips, you’ll make it out alive!


What other study skills do you have for beating failure? Have any of the above tips worked for you? Can you suggest anything better?

Image Credits: Graduation Cap Via Shutterstock, Woman with a laptop Via Shutterstock; Hatmanu Florin, Katie DaltonEarls37aLauren Rushing, UK Ministry of Defence

Related topics: Education Technology, Procrastination, Study Tips.

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  1. good
    September 3, 2013 at 7:41 am

    thanks a lot.

  2. Angela Alcorn
    August 10, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    This is all so true. I did my degree online and I only managed it by being seriously organised. Every assignment got entered into RememberTheMilk and Google Calendar (reminder to start it, reminders on when to have a first draft finished, reminder for a date a few days in advance), plus reminders to read the notes for each class each week. It was a pain to set up, but I always knew if I was up-to-date and what else I could work on if I had spare time.

  3. Denise
    August 8, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    I find that location helps me stay focused. I only allow myself to check websites, play games, and do other "distracty" things in several rooms of the house. When I'm sitting down to do serious work or do a course, that is done in the dining room. I will never allow myself to do serious work anywhere else, or ever play games in the dining room. So when I sit down in the dining room to log onto school (there's a new phrase!) I've conditioned myself that's the only thing I will be doing at that point. Fortunately just plain old discipline has helped me out so far. I fear someday I'm going to give into temptation and start checking Facebook in the dining room, which will ruin me! I'm wondering if there's any solutions where my wi-fi can figure out where I'm located, and block certain websites when my distance indicates I'm in the dining room!

  4. Lisa O
    August 8, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    Good tips! I kinda handwaved the responsibility part the first time I registered for online courses, thinking that I can easily fit everything in my schedule. You know what happened. Out of six courses I registered to, I only did four and passed two. Now I'm abit more selective in selecting courses (before, I registered for anything that caught my interest ever so slightly) since I know they'd add more loads on me. Besides, this allows me to take only courses I know I'll commit my time to,

  5. DW
    August 7, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Good article Joshua. Due to a medical condition, my son had quite a bit of catch-up work to do over the summer, much of it required him to be online. As a serial procrastinator myself, I've learned a number of coping mechanisms. I found myself having to have him surrender the iPhone, use the Pomodairo timer for breaking the various tasks into bite-sized chunks and keep an eye on his internet usage to make sure that he was on the correct sites and not wandering. Probably the biggest impediment was that he had a couple of Sports apps on his iPhone that would flash messages whenever something happened in the sports world (Manziel tweeted, ARod cheated, etc.) I've since turned those off because they are just a constant source of distraction for him.

    Again, nice work on the article. DW

  6. dragonmouth
    August 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    While today's technology makes online learning possible, paradoxically it also is the biggest obstacle to successful online learning. It provides too many ways for students to distract themselves. Classroom courses provide structure and eliminate distractions, forcing the students to concentrate on the subject matter being taught. In online courses there is none of that so the student must structure their own time. To a generation that prides itself on being able to listen to an mp3 player while texting while watching TV while making and receiving phone calls while surfing the 'Net, "discipline" is just a 10 letter word in the dictionary.

    "As for smartphones and tablets, I recommend something a bit more practical: get rid of ‘em. "
    Do you seriously expect people who MUST be connected 24/7/365 and who get a major panic attack if they do not get a phone call every couple of minutes to do that?! Do you seriously expect people who are using Bluetooth phones to not only take them out of their ears but to actually put them in another room?!

    • Joshua Lockhart
      August 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm


      • Lisa O
        August 8, 2013 at 8:09 pm

        You're committing indirect slaughter that way!

  7. Tarek R
    August 7, 2013 at 4:40 am

    nice one

  8. Scapeborgologist
    August 7, 2013 at 3:26 am

    As some who teaches online college classes, I would add the following:

    1. Communicate. If the format does befuddle, or the meaning of assignments isn't clear, use email, request an online text chat or a video chat (via Google Chat or Skype). I can't tell you how many times I've heard a variant of "I didn't understand (or I'm confused) but I didn't ask." "Why did you wait so long?" "I Dunno." Likewise, if a verifiable life situation comes up, make that clear, but be prepared that I will ask for some verification;

    2. Participate fully in interactive assignments. For example, part of my grading mix (which includes emailed essays and timed multiple choice exams) includeds Forum participation. I link to some (hopefully interesting and provocative) reading, and then ask for some feedback, over the course of a week. The feedback is meant to be mutual and ongoing. Students respond to my post, I to theirs, and they to each other. Sometimes the spirit of this assignment, which is meant to foster focused conversation that promotes learning isn't accepted or even understood;

    3. Cut-and-paste plagiarism remains as an issue, unfortunately. If anything, it's even more obvious and likely when online interaction is the exclusive mode of give-and-take. It's been astonishing at time to see the boldness of such cutting-and-pasting. Usually, those that do this should have been more active vis a vie Points 1 and 2;

    4. Often time-management issues also include accurately gauging the time and energy employers required. Many students work between 20-40 hours a week. The balance between assignments and employment is something that students find, at times, difficult to successfully traverse. Sometimes that's due to the number of courses taken. Other times it's due to inflexible employers, or seasonal adjustments. That's a limiting factor, as well.

    All of this is meant to supplement the article above, which has done a good job with the basic time-management and self-discipline issues at the heart of successful learning and productive outcomes.

    • Joshua Lockhart
      August 7, 2013 at 5:10 am

      I really, really appreciate your comment. Thank you so much.

      It's nice to see a professor who understands students have lives outside of class, but it's also understandable that students must take the initiative.

    • jasray
      August 7, 2013 at 5:47 pm

      vis a vie ?

      Are you sure? The women's shoe brand?

      Or . . .

      vis a vis (could be a marker)

    • Lisa O
      August 8, 2013 at 8:07 pm

      Plagiarism is a big concern over online courses. In one course I attended, we were required to write essays. After the first week accusations were flying left and right, more than one hearts were broken, and the following weeks the riot caused so much disturbance at the discussion forum. Some decided to leave, others trying to convince everyone to use turnitin and similar services which caused even more trouble as not everyone know how to read the results (There were students posting their assignments on their blogs as well, so they were accussed of plagiarizing their own works). Some others wrote about the uglier side of turnitin (it'd save your whatever writings submitted) and declared that they didn't want their writing submitted to such sites. Add this to ad hominem hurling from one side to another. Chaos in its finest form.

  9. 632477889f0f5423b07446560fea00
    August 7, 2013 at 2:43 am

    Excellent points. I am taking online courses and these are the "problem" areas.
    I would only mention that the internet is your friend, there is a lot of info in many areas... free! Part of Embracing A Course to me is finding all relevant data and incorporating it.