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The Art of Online Course Selection

As an online student one of the first things you will need to do is plan your course schedule. Do you know which courses you should take? There are several steps in the decision-making process and your Academic Advisor will be able to provide the support you need to move forward. Let's take a closer look at the steps of course selection.

Which courses do you need to take?

There are three primary types of courses you should be familiar with. Each program will require some combination of Core, Specialization, and Elective courses.

  • Core – Core courses mandatory for your program and all students must complete them. They often occur at the beginning of a program, early in the course sequence, to provide you with a foundation of skills and knowledge in preparation for the more advanced courses later in your program.
  • Specialization Courses – Specialization or "major" courses are also required courses that build on the foundation provided in your core courses. They address more specific topics directly related to your major or area of specialization. These courses tend to be more in-depth, providing you with additional skill-building opportunities and sometimes, practical experience in your field.
  • Electives – Many academic programs will allow you to choose a certain number of courses on your own. Programs do vary about how much choice you will have. You may be able to choose any course of interest, but it's more likely that you will have to select from a group of possible electives, specific topic areas, or courses at a predetermined level. Dalhousie University provides a nice list of things to consider when choosing electives.

Work with Your Academic Advisor

In many online schools it is the Academic Advisor who finalizes course enrollment. It's so important for you to understand the requirements of your academic program before enrollment takes place. Work one-on-one with your Academic Advisor to develop an outline (Plan of Study) that lists all of the courses you will take and in which terms they will occur. (See sample Plans of Study provided by Illinois State.)

Like many plans, you may encounter the need to change your Plan of Study at some point along the way. If this is the case, coordinate with your Academic Advisor before making any changes. Your Advisor will be able to walk through the options you have and any ramifications that may result from making a change.

Which sections of courses should you take?

Now that you have a plan to work with, how do you know which sections to take? In any given semester or academic term, you may find that there are multiple sections of each course being offered. Traditional students often get to choose among time slots and instructors. For online students, however, these choices are not always available. The number of courses and course sections offered in any given term is often an issue of supply and demand – how many students need to take the course and how many instructors are available.

If you are given the option to enroll in specific course sections, there are several considerations to keep in mind.

  • Timing – Your online course may have a synchronous component requiring you to be available for online meetings at specific times. If you know in advance that this component exists, make sure that the time required fits your schedule given your other work and personal time commitments.
  • Instructor information – Do you know any of the instructors? You may have had previous courses with these instructors (we all have favorite teachers and professors!) You may have heard about instructors from your classmates. You may also choose to research your instructors online. There are a number of websites where students can provide reviews of instructors. The jury is still out on the validity of these sites, but they can be considered along with the other information you are gathering.
  • Course information – Do you know anything about the course? Again, word-of-mouth information from your classmates may be available here. You should also review the information your school provides. Check out the course catalog for a description of the course and information about prerequisites and credit hours. You may also be able to review a copy of the course syllabus. If syllabi for your program are not readily available online or through your student portal, ask your Academic Advisor if you can have access.

What if you want to change your course or course section after it has started?

Check your institution's catalog for details related to dropping courses from, and adding courses to, your schedule. Review the policies carefully and consult with your Academic Advisor. There is usually a specific time frame in which you can decide to remove a course from your schedule, switch sections, or add something new with no penalty. After that time has passed you may forfeit tuition. These policies may have other implications, such as Financial Aid, so make sure you know the rules before making any decisions.

Help Other Students

You become more and more familiar with your school, program, and courses with each term you complete. Share your knowledge with your classmates as part of student groups and discussions. Also consider completing the end-of-course surveys you will receive. This process can be tedious, but your thoughtful feedback on your experience with each course is a critical part of any curriculum review process. You will help those who are teaching, revising and developing courses to do so with your perspective in mind.

Choose Wisely

When you do have a choice of courses or course sections, choose wisely. Ask any questions you may have before you enroll and review all of the information that is available to you. Set up a time to meet and discuss the options with your Academic Advisor!