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So You Think You Want to Take Online Classes?

So You Think You Want to Take Online Classes? If you are a college student or if you are an adult who simply wants to become better educated, it’s a good time to take stock and to think about what you may need to do to be ready to jump into the virtual world of online learning.

Online opportunities for learning and for earning college degrees have become pervasive in the last 10 years. Most two- and four-year colleges now offer online options. For-profit colleges that exist solely online now offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Consortiums such as Coursera, a tech company that partners with universities worldwide, offer non-degree oriented, free classes for people who simply want to learn new things. This is a sea change in education.

And yet… Only 50 percent of students who register for online classes succeed. (This is compared to an average of 70 percent of students in traditional campus classes.) It’s not because those who fail aren’t smart. It’s not because they don’t have good intentions. Research has identified factors that have more to do with a student’s psychology than intelligence. My own experience as a teacher of online classes leads me to the same conclusion.

If you are considering taking online courses and want to be in the 50 percent who make it through (and with good grades), here are at least some of the variables that make a difference:

Be realistic about what you are taking on.

There seems to be a myth among at least some students that online classes are easier than campus classes. Generally they aren’t. You are signing on to wrestle with new material, to master new skills, or to increase your own knowledge base. A good online class will be as challenging as any course you’ve taken in a brick building.

Be realistic about your reality.

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Most online students are adults with adult lives. That means families, jobs, and complicated schedules. Be sure you really have the time and energy to put eight to 10 hours a week into reading, researching and responding. Often the students who have had to drop my class have found it overwhelming to fit class work into already over-stressed lives. One man who did very well for the first few weeks found to his dismay that he had underestimated the effect of a new baby in the house. The needs of the baby and his need for sleep overwhelmed his ability to focus on the class.

Whatever your good intentions and optimism, there are only so many hours in a day and you only have so much energy. Before writing the check to take a class, be sure you can fit it into your schedule.

Be realistic about your own motivation and maturity.

Online learning requires that you “show up” and show up regularly. Often you will be responsible for making submissions that other students need in order to keep a discussion going. Since there is no set time to participate in class, it’s easy to let a day or two or four go by because of other obligations. That’s a setup for failure.

More than a few of my students have fallen by the wayside due to major issues with procrastination. If you procrastinate and get behind, it becomes harder and harder to get caught up. If you are irresponsible about doing your share of group work or getting assignments done on time, you risk alienating your classmates and annoying your teacher, who doesn’t have the time or the responsibility to chase you.

Be realistic about your time management skills.

Succeeding online means logging in every day or at least 5 days a week. It means doing the reading so you can do the assessments and assignments. It means taking the time to participate in the class discussions. Students in my classes who succeed treat the online course very much like a part-time job. They set aside regular, predictable time to do the work. They keep a calendar to make sure they meet deadlines and immediately do makeup work if they had to be “absent” for a day.

Be realistic about your willingness to engage with others.

Ironically, your professor and classmates will get to know you online at least as well, and often better, than if you were sitting together in class. Campus students can be virtually invisible by not volunteering in class. Online learning requires that you be out there, visible and engaged. Success comes to those who post regularly, who show that they have thought hard about the readings, and who contribute novel and interesting ideas to discussions.

Success also comes from encouraging others, from asking good questions, and from being willing to be challenged. When people engage in discussions without attacking others and without being defensive about their own contributions, discussions can be very rich and meaningful. One of my classes only requires three posts a week. The students who do best in terms of mastering the material are often showing up 10 – 12 times, sometimes with just a word or two of encouragement for a classmate, sometimes with a new insight into the material, sometimes with an anecdote from their own life that highlights something we’re talking about. These are the students who breathe life into the class. Often they are also the students who truly master the course.

Be realistic about your skill with words.

For now, at least, online learning generally requires communicating well in writing. “Discussions” are all by posts. Group work is through written chats within the class. Your words represent you. Poor grammar, spelling mistakes, rambling prose, or confusing paragraphs will get in the way of success, no matter how good your ideas may be. Teachers and peers don’t have the energy and patience to decipher your meaning. If you aren’t confident about your ability to communicate well in writing, it would be wise to get a tutor to help you hone your skills before tackling a course online. Another option is to first take an online course in expository writing.

Be realistic about your skill on a computer.

If you aren’t a reasonably competent typist, if you don’t know your way around Word or have difficulty learning how to navigate a platform, you’ll quickly become frustrated with the whole enterprise. Frustrated people tend to get anxious and annoyed. Often they fall behind and then get so discouraged they drop out. And please: Don’t do as one of my students did and ask your mother to do your typing. He often lost points because she didn’t have time to be his typist when he had deadlines. More to the point, it made me question who was really writing the responses.


It’s a new world. I fully expect that the boundaries between campus and online learning will continue to blur as an inevitable outcome of technological advances. The best online students are those who find it exciting to be on the cutting edge of change and who engage in class with curiosity and enthusiasm. As for me, I thoroughly enjoy getting to know my online students and watching them stretch and grow through their interactions with the materials and with the class.

So You Think You Want to Take Online Classes?

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). So You Think You Want to Take Online Classes?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.