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How to Succeed in an Online Course


How to Succeed in an Online Course

For online courses, the advice most likely to lead you to success is "Engage, Engage, Engage!"

What does this mean? Quite simply, it means being active in the course on a regular basis. It means keeping in sync with what's going on in the course, staying on top of deadlines and assignments, asking for help when necessary, and taking every opportunity to interact with the content and the instructors. It means making this course a regular part of your routine. Do this, and frankly, it will be difficult for you NOT to succeed in this course.

In online courses, the role of both the instructors AND the students tends to shift from the traditional classroom roles. The instructors' role is similar to that of good supervisors, and the students' role is closer to that of a good employee. The instructors define and set overall goals, outcomes, and timelines; make the information, resources, and experiences available to you to meet those goals; and, provide the support, guidance, communication channels, and feedback to help you succeed. The students' primary responsibilities are to stay on task; to manage their time and energy in order to get everything done on a weekly basis; to ask for guidance when in need of clarification; and, to take every opportunity available to improve their chances of success.

So, the very best advice we can offer you is to be engaged in this course at least nine hours each week, and log on 5-6 days of the week to spread out your study and thinking time. In the final analysis, completing multiple online sessions of quality study time is a tried-and-true recipe for success in this course.

Here are some quick tips to keep in mind when preparing to be successful in an online course:

  • Treat online learning as you would a face-to-face class. You should plan to devote at least the same amount of time to your online courses as you would to attending lectures on campus and completing assignments. Other good study habits, such as attending class (logging on) regularly and taking notes, are just as important in an online course as they are in a lecture hall!
  • Intentionally schedule your time. You should plan to devote 10-12 hours per week to completing lesson readings and assignments. Your learning will be most effective when you spread this participation out and engage with the course on a daily basis, if possible.
  • Engage, Engage, Engage! Take every opportunity to interact with the content, the instructor, and your classmates by completing assignments and participating in discussion forums and group activities!
  • Be organized. Keep in sync with what's going on in the course and stay on top of deadlines and upcoming assignments.
  • Ask for help! Ask for guidance when you are in need of clarification. You can also use the Discussion Forum to ask general questions about the course set-up or content.


It is a good idea to record any questions you might develop as you move through the content. Maintaining a digital course notebook is a great idea (you can use Microsoft OneNote, Evernote, etc.) to assist you. The process can be very easy with modern technology including your tablet, or computer. OneNote is often included with Microsoft Office software, and Evernote can be installed as a free app on tablets/iPad's. All software/apps work similarly and can be extremely useful once you get the hang of them, they are especially useful when you want to review content and prepare for assignment work.

  • Save all work routinely (at least every 10 minutes). We also recommend you save your work in multiple locations. For tech-savvy folks, you can set your computer to do this for you automatically. If you don't know how, we recommend that you look this up for your specific computer system.
  • With respect to content-related questions as you move through the material…hopefully some of them will be answered as you go, but some might not be. If your questions are not answered, then it is important for you to ask those questions as appropriate, either through discussion with other course participants, additional readings or during communications with the instructor.

And finally, in this course which has a lab component, it is critical that you read the lecture materials before you come to your lab.

Resources for Online Learning

The links below will connect you with other resources to help support your successful online learning experience. They are from Penn State but they apply to students from anywhere and are openly available.

The links below will connect you with other resources to help support your successful online learning experience:

Tips for Being a Successful World Campus Student

This website provides links to many resources on everything from taking notes online to managing your time effectively. Please note that you must be a World Campus student to receive some of the support services mentioned on this website.

Tutoring and Technology Resources

As a student, you have access to several resources to help you improve your understanding of the course material or better use technology needed for your courses. This website provides instructions and links for accessing online tutoring, writing help, and assistance with learning technology.

Penn State World Campus Blog

This blog features posts by Penn State staff and students on a wide variety of topics relevant to online learning. Learn from online students and alumni, as well as staff members dedicated to student success, how you can get the most out of your online course experience.

Penn State iStudy Online Learning Tutorials

The iStudy online learning tutorials are free and available to all Penn State students. They cover a broad range of topics including online learning readiness, time management, stress management, and statistics - among many others. Check out the extensive list of topics for yourself to see what topics may be of most use to you!

Linkedin Learning

This website provides access to an extensive free online training library, with tutorials on everything from creating presentations to using mobile apps for education. There is a wealth of information here - all provided free of charge to Penn State faculty, staff, and currently enrolled students.


Netiquette is the rules of etiquette when internet manners, online etiquette, and digital etiquette all rolled into one word.

  • Subject Lines. Whenever you post a message in a forum or send course mail, use a short yet descriptive subject line.
  • Limit your comments or questions to one subject per email or discussion post.
  • Stay on topic. When in a discussion forum, stay on topic. Start a new discussion when appropriate.
  • Proof-read. Email and discussion posts are written communication (not spoken) and should contain correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  • Never use all CAPS. Using all CAPS is equivalent to shouting.
  • Language. Use professional language.  Avoid slang and text acronyms and never use vulgar or inappropriate language.
  • Basic Courtesy. Be courteous and respectful in all of your course communications.
  • Consider your tone. A poorly worded note can easily be misunderstood or misconstrued. Remember that recipients can't see your body language or the expression on your face. Nor can they hear the intonation in your voice. If you have a suspicion that something you wrote might be taken the wrong way, it probably will.
  • Remember your audience. Your classmates come from all over the country and the world. Remember that language, humor, and idioms are not universal. Be especially careful with sarcasm.
  • When reacting to someone else's message, address the ideas, not the person.

Links to more resources on netiquette:

Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age: E-Mail Etiquette 

Netiquette, by Virginia Shea

Penn State Office of Student Conduct

Wikipedia: Etiquette in technology

Learn the Net