Controversies in the Earth Sciences

How to Succeed in EARTH 501


The three habits of successful learners

How you define and achieve success in an online course like this one? It depends on your goals and perspective. A 19-year-old undergraduate student who registers for an online course in the hope of earning an easy “A” is unlikely to be successful, no matter how adept he or she may be with information technology. However, Palloff and Pratt observe that “in general, distance education has been applied to and seen as most successful in the arena of adult and continuing education” (Palloff and Pratt 2001, p. 109).

“Much of the research done on successful students in distance education programs suggests that students who are attracted to this form of education share certain characteristics, including that they are voluntarily seeking further education, are motivated, have higher expectations, and are more self-disciplined. They tend to be older than the average student and to have a more serious attitude toward their courses, education, and learning. They are what most would consider to be nontraditional students.” (Palloff and Pratt 2001, p. 109)

This is not to say that younger students can’t succeed in online classes. Indeed, “most [undergraduate] students today are older, are working, and need more flexible schedules” (Palloff and Pratt 2001, p. 109). The question is, assuming that a student is motivated to get the most out of an online class, and that the class is well-designed and led by attentive instructors, which attitudes and behaviors increase the student’s chance of having a satisfactory experience?

Swan and colleagues (2000) surveyed approximately 3,800 students enrolled in 264 online courses through the SUNY Learning Network. Of the 1,406 responses received, the researchers analyzed data associated with 73 courses for which there was a 40 percent response rate or greater. Among their findings were statistically significant correlations between student satisfaction and (a) perceived learning gains; (b) interaction with instructors; and (c) interaction with fellow students. Additionally, respondents who rated their own level of activity in online classes as high also tended to report higher levels of satisfaction.

Research results like these, along with lessons learned in our more than ten years of experience in distance learning, leads us recommend the following three study habits that will maximize your chances for success in your online class:

  1. Devote sufficient time and effort. Time-on-task is a necessary--if insufficient--condition for learning (Gibbs 1999; Chickering and Gamson 1987; Bransford et al 2000). Schedule several blocks of time during each week to study the text, to work on project assignments, and to read and contribute to discussions.
  2. Communicate effectively. Post succinct, specific questions and comments with informative subject lines. Whenever appropriate, share questions and comments with the entire class (through text commenting or discussion forums) rather than using private email. Read others’ questions and comments and replies. Compose project reports with the same care and skill that you’d hope your instructor or employer would devote to a letter of recommendation on your behalf. Be civil. If frustrated or angry, wait until the next day to post a message.
  3. Approach learning reflectively. Be aware of your strengths and weakness as a learner. Students who develop strong “metacognitive” skills tend to be the most effective learners. Also, those who are able to relate what they learned to situations outside the classroom (real or virtual) are most likely to retain that knowledge (Bransford, J.D. et al 2000).


Bransford, J. D. et al (Eds.) (2000) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, and Experience. Washington, DC: National Research Council.

Chickering, A. W., and Gamson, Z. F. (1987) Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7) 3-7.

Gibbs, G. (1999) Planning Your Students’ Learning Activities. In McKeachie, W.J. (Ed.) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 10th Ed. Pp. 20-33. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Palloff, R. M. and Pratt, K. (2001) Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Swan, K. et al (2000) Course Design Factors Inflouencing the Success of ONline Learning. Proceedings, WebNet 2000 World Conference on the WWW and Internet. San Antonio TX, October 30-November 4.