What Makes a Good Online Student? 5 Qualities That Lead to Success

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Online learning is no longer the novelty it may have seemed to be ten or so years ago. In fact, one study found that over one in four students in higher education will take an online class in order to complete their degree.1 Online learning gives students a unique path to achieve both their educational and professional goals. Not only do online classes give students essential knowledge in their fields, the processes of learning online fine-tunes skills that create hirable, driven and effective professionals.

“Online learners discover how to self-motivate and provide their own structure,” says Anthony Babbit, president of the Babbit Family Foundation. “Given a choice of two equally qualified candidates, I always recommend the online learner. They can intrinsically motivate themselves and accomplish a goal with minimal supervision.”

One of the biggest positives to online learning is the additional flexibility it provides. Traditional in-classroom learning can pose challenges for students balancing family, work and education. The flexibility of an online learning environment allows students more control over their schedules and in some programs—like those using competency-based education models—allow more control over the pace of their learning.

How do you know if online learning will work for you? We asked educators and students about the qualities students need to thrive in an online learning environment.

5 Qualities needed for online student success

Do you have what it takes to excel in an online learning environment? Read on to learn five essential qualities of a successful online student.

1. Commitment

Having the flexibility to learn on your own schedule is great but it can be a double-edged sword. While you may be able to cut down on childcare costs and avoid class times that conflict with work obligations, classwork can sometimes slip between the cracks without a rigid personal schedule.

Being a successful online student requires commitment. Successful online students universally say they put aside specific time every week to complete their online coursework.

“While the freedom of going to class online sounds enticing, it still very much requires structure and diligence to stay on top of the work required to get a degree,” says Riley Adams, CPA and author of the personal finance blog Young and the Invested.

Like other successful online students, Adams says he found the best way to accomplish all of his work was to set aside a predetermined amount of time like you would for attending a regular class. Some students even used egg timers to make sure they put in a constant twenty-five minutes per day on their classwork—no matter your method, staying committed to keeping on top of your work is essential.

These are the same skills you may already be using to tackle long term projects at home or at work. The same commitment you have to going to the gym or walking your dog when you get home each evening can be applied to creating a regular study schedule. If you feel ready to commit to independently putting time aside for your education, you may have what it takes to succeed in online classes.

2. Excellent planning ability

How do you maintain this commitment to your online classes with an already full schedule? Successful online students utilize planning tools like calendars and smart phone alerts to track assignments.

 “I recommend students be proactive when they first receive their course schedule,” says Kristine Cameron, online college student and author at Content Cucumber. “Go through each syllabus carefully, write down assignment due dates in a planner and remember to participate in class forum discussions regularly.”

Unlike a traditional classroom setting, there will not be a reminder on the white board that your final paper is due next week. Integrating your existing calendar with a reminder of class deadlines will allow you to keep up, and even stay ahead of, your online instructor’s expectations. Time management apps and online calendars can be a great resource to an online student, but good old-fashioned calendars, sticky notes and planners can get the job done just as well. If you already use these tools, you are prepared to take on the organizational requirements of online learning.

3. Communication skills

Many people assume online learning is an isolated activity. However, we found successful online students take the initiative to frequently engage with their professors and fellow classmates.

Sandra Mohr, dean of academic resources and administration at the New England College of Optometry, views the relationships between online classmates as a unique strength to online learning. “You may have people from across the world in your cohort to learn with and gain their ideas and perspectives.”

Without the face-to-face interaction of a traditional class, students need existing communication skills to succeed in online classes. Where you might easily raise your hand to ask a question in a classroom, an online student needs to take the initiative to contact their instructor independently. In many ways, instructors are actually more available to their online students as questions can come via email, phone or video call—students aren’t limited to emails and the time instructors have designated for “office hours.” A strong online student has the communication skills and initiative necessary to take advantage of that availability.

4. Focus

It’s easy enough to check social media or do a little online shopping while “taking notes” in a classroom, but studying online takes away even your professor’s side eye and leaves you totally to your own devices. When classes take place in your own home, the opportunities for distractions are numerous. Both students and instructors listed focus as an essential quality in a successful online student.

We’ve all been there. You sit down to work on something specific and before you know it you’re down a Wikipedia rabbit hole or endlessly scrolling through social media updates. Former online student Essence Hayes says keeping focused can be a challenge.

“Sometimes things would pop up in my head and I’d need to Google it,” Hayes says.

If you’re the type to easily find your mind wandering, Hayes recommends looking into apps and browser add-ons that block the websites you commonly get distracted by. Additionally, consider your study space—are there things around you that might take you off course? If so, adjust! Being a focused student does not necessarily mean that you were born with an innate ability to keep a laser beam of attention on your work—it means that you utilize available tools and make a conscious effort to avoid distractions in order to stay on task.

5. Determination

Being an online student gives you a lot of freedom, and a lot of responsibility. The most important quality to succeed is the degree to which you take yourself seriously as a student. Watching lectures from your kitchen table after putting your kids to bed does not make you any less of a dedicated student than a classmate making the commute to campus for an early morning statistics class.

You might find that studying online allows you to become even more empowered in your education.

“As an online student, I took my education more seriously than I did in the traditional classroom,” says Brian Whitfield, executive director of the Life After Project. Whitfield says he completed his MBA primarily online and found that his online courses gave him a unique opportunity as a student.

Though he did not know it at the time, Whitfield was later diagnosed with ADHD. He struggled with the structure of a classroom environment. “Even if I loved the topic, which I did 99% of the time, I just couldn’t sit still for the lectures or stay focused more than a few minutes at a time,” he says. “Online, I could take a break as often as I needed. I knew it was up to me to gain the most out of my experience.”

Is online learning right for you?

If you feel ready to spearhead your own educational efforts, online learning might offer a unique opportunity to grow as a self-determined worker and learn what techniques truly help you succeed as a student.

For more information on how online learning actually works, visit our article, “8 Myths About Online Learning: The Truth Behind the Screen.”

1Online Learning Consortium, Online Report Card – Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2015, [accessed September, 2019] https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/online-report-card-tracking-online-education-united-states-2015/

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Anjali Stenquist

Anjali Stenquist is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about helping students of all backgrounds navigate higher education.

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