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Is it Time to Panic in Your Online Course?

It never fails. Every time I teach an online course, I receive email messages from students that read something like this:

"I'm really freaking out here!"

Over the summer this happened more than usual as problems with the learning management system cut students off before finishing their online exams. In some cases the system submitted only partial responses, while in others students couldn't see whether their finished exam had been submitted at all. It was definitely stressful, and to each student it seemed like he or she was the only one this was happening to.

Several students contacted me about the problem, making it easier for me to quickly see a pattern, reassure everyone, and contact tech support for options. Rest assured that students were able to complete their exams after the settings were checked and permissions for second attempts were granted. It took some time to resolve the problem, but it was resolved, and no one failed the exam or the course due to this issue.

This kind of panic can be induced by a variety of problems, whether they are technical in nature, unexpected life events, or even self-inflicted (i.e., as a result of procrastination or lack of participation). The pressure of trying to complete coursework amid holiday and family events often only amplifies the stress of the situation.

My rule, as announced in the first synchronous meeting of a course, is: "Don't panic, until I tell you it's time to panic. Check with me first and I'll let you know if it's time."

I've applied this approach in work situations as well when coordinating team projects, and have never had to give the go-ahead, since many (often most) things can be worked through with a little effort and communication.

When you are feeling overwhelmed, the idea of contacting your instructor may seem like an added burden. But if you "adopt the attitude that your professor wants to help you," as advised by Western Oregon University [PDF], you may find the support you need. Here are a few dos and don'ts for reaching out:


  • Maintain a professional tone. It's okay to express your concern and frustration, but it's important to take a deep breath before you write that message and click "send." Take a look at a few tips from Ellen Bremen's guide for emailing instructors in "Say This, NOT That, to Your Professor." Keep in mind that if you want a courteous and helpful response, it helps to start with a professional request.
  • Provide context and options. What is the challenge blocking your success? Give your instructor the information he or she needs in order to assist you (avoiding, of course, excuses). Think through what you can do to support yourself, as well and suggest possible solutions moving forward.
  • Address concerns as soon as they arise. Don't let a problem stew an extra day or over the weekend. In an online course, you may rely primarily on email, which takes time to send, receive, and reply. Contact your professor as early as possible so that there is time to react and find a solution before the end of the term.


  • Assume you know what the response will be. This advice from the University of North Carolina means giving your instructor the opportunity to hear about the challenge you are facing and respond accordingly. If, for example, the syllabus states, "no late assignments accepted, no exceptions," you should plan for this. But extenuating circumstances do occur and there may be more flexibility than you realize.
  • Ask for favors. Every school has policies in place related to academic expectations, and every Instructor has an individual approach to managing course assignments and requirements. Know up front what the procedures and rules for your courses are, and do your part.
  • Rely on extensions and extra credit. Some professors will consider providing extensions on assignment due dates or extra credit, either on a case-by-case basis or as an option for the whole class. These options won't, however, always be available, so don't count on them as time management strategies.

It's not realistic to go through your online program without encountering problems. Even with the best-laid plans you'll run into unforeseen obstacles on the way to completion. Focus on developing good habits and skills along the way, related to stress management, communication, and problem solving. And remember that occasionally you just have to chalk things up as lessons learned, and change your approach in the next course by modifying your study schedule, etc. to keep up with the work.

Granted, there will be times when it seems like everything is going wrong and there's nothing that can be done to stop it, but this is rarely the case. In almost every situation, especially those that are beyond your control (like the technical problem I presented earlier) there are options. Reach out to your instructors. They may be more receptive than you think, and you won't know what is possible until you ask.

Image credit: star5112, Flickr, CC:BY-SA