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Staying the (Online) Course


I run with a local group that meets at 8:00am on Saturdays and when one of the regular runners didn’t show up on a recent cold morning, a friend of his said, “Oh, he’s at home writing a paper.” It wasn’t the weather keeping him away – it was the two online courses he’s taking this term. Does this sound familiar?

Students everywhere are faced with choices like these, having to forgo preferred activities or what might have been free time to get their coursework done. While online learning options offer scheduling convenience, this flexibility can also lead to the mistaken expectation that an online experience will be less demanding than an on-campus one. Adult learners who add school to their existing work and family obligations may be particularly susceptible to becoming overwhelmed and losing motivation.

If you find yourself in this position, you should certainly know that you are not alone. According to a 2012 report from The Sloan Consortium, “the number of students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 6.7 million.” And while online learning continues to increase in popularity, completion rates of these students are a concern. As reported by EducationSector.org last month, “generally, the retention rates for online courses are believed to be 10 to 20 percent lower than the retention rates for their face-to-face counterparts.”

Maintaining Motivation

You enrolled with the intent to finish, right? So, keeping your forward momentum going is critical. Here are just a few suggestions to get you moving in the right direction:

  • Write down your goals. Why did you decide to go to school? Whether your reasons were professional in nature (to further your career) or more personal (to further your interests), take the time to put your thoughts on paper. Keep your goals list handy and refer to it often to see how you are progressing and remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.
  • Keep practicing. Being an online student isn’t easy, and becoming a successful student takes practice. With each assignment or course completed, you get better at managing your time, learn more about technology, and become more skilled in your area of study. It doesn’t just happen overnight, or even over a semester, so be patient and take stock in your improvement along the way.
  • Find ways to connect your assignments to your work. If you are like many adult learners who choose online delivery, you are also employed. How can you tie projects you are completing for class to those you are assigned at work? Look at your syllabus each term and talk with your instructor and supervisor to see if there are any possibilities. The real-world application of your studies can be a motivator to stay on track.
  • Keep a steady pace. Procrastination is a stress factor for all of us at some point, but you can take active steps to keep it at bay. Develop a routine of finding out what is due each week and then starting on it early. Waiting to check your to-do list until Thursday or Friday, when everything is due on Sunday, for example, can be a set up for disaster, increasing the stress you’re already under and leaving little time to seek clarification or assistance if needed.
  • Meet with other students. You may find that you have online classmates in your local area; meeting face-to-face can be helpful to not only discuss coursework, but also commiserate and share common concerns. Online student study groups are also available. Check with your program for more information about formal clubs and talk to your classmates about creating your own virtual study group. You can also meet with online learners from other schools, who are studying the same subjects you are through sites like OpenStudy and create your own groups and study materials with tools like StudyBlue.
  • Find a mentor. It can be helpful to know someone who can answer questions about education and career decisions, but is not a part of your academic program. Explore your school’s alumni services to see if formal mentoring programs are available. You may already have a mentoring relationship in your workplace with someone who can provide advice and encouragement to continue your studies when times get tough. There are also organizations such as StudentMentor.org, which offers free services to college students who want to connect with professionals in their field.

Resources are Available

Your motivation to succeed with your online classes can also be affected by unforeseen events (e.g., family crises, changes in your employment situation) and the challenges related to complex course topics. What can you do if you want to continue your coursework, but need extra support or time? Communication is key to finding the support you need through these two important resources:

  • Student services: Your institution and online program should provide a variety of assistance, from personal and career counseling to tutoring and learning skills assessment. Whether you need more practice, extra feedback, or someone to discuss all of your options with, these services are in place for the express purpose of supporting you through to graduation. Reach out to let these offices know you have questions.
  • Your course instructors: When your instructor doesn’t “see” you every week it can be difficult to pick up on signs that something’s going on or that you are getting off track, until you turn in (or don’t turn in) your assignments. Speak up if there’s a situation your instructors should know about. There are likely more options available than you realize, and they won’t be able to help you with a solution until they know there’s a problem.

No matter your motive for entering an academic program, remember that while the coursework is temporary, the degree you earn will be yours forever. Stay focused on your goals and follow through with activities that will help you achieve them.

What are your biggest concerns about staying the online course? Share your tips for student motivation with us here.

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Inage credit: jayneandd, Flickr, CC:BY

February 12th, 2013 written by (learn more about our authors)

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