How students can maximize their online learning experience

Close up of student typing on laptop

There is no denying that the pandemic has changed the way people are engaging with and receiving education. Online learning is not a new phenomenon but this is now the primary means of providing education. With this mode of learning chosen to deliver most higher education programmes, how can students get the most out of the learning experience? How can they continue to grow academically, have their thinking challenged and expanded, explore new ways of synthesising information and investigating, and continue to achieve their personal academic goals?

1. Take a moment to remember your love of learning.

It is the pursuit of knowledge and natural curiosity that leads many people to pursue higher education, so hone in on why you chose this subject area or particular degree. Never lose sight of what energizes you about a topic or field of study because that passion is what powers engaged learning. This is what brings one back to ask more probing questions and delve deeper in individual research. This is as present in online learning as in traditional face-to-face classes. Reconnecting with why education matters to you personally will not only motivate you throughout the duration of your studies, but will provide an optimistic slant when revision, writing, and research is strenuous.

2. Access to technology.

Online learning is dependent on having access to technology. If you do not have your own computer, software, or have issues with internet connection, get in touch with your academic advisor or course leader and your school’s student support team. Many schemes have been established around the world and these faculty and staff members will be best placed to assist and inform you of what support is available in your area.

3. Create a schedule.

When students were on campus and living nearby, library time, classroom or lecture theatre time, events and socialising, and studying at home would have been largely planned out. Do the same thing now that classes have moved online. Schedule when assignments and papers are due, set aside ample reading and class preparation time, and schedule revision and research time at the start of the semester. Not only will this help you feel more in control (and more like it is a regular year at university), but it will ease those pinch points that can leave you feeling overwhelmed. Attending social and networking elements being hosted online are important aspects of a degree programme. Forward planning can ensure you are able to participate fully in the student experience aspects of your course without neglecting coursework.

Desk calendar and laptop on desk

4. Take notes and practice collaborative learning.

Taking out pen and paper and summarizing what you are hearing in live lectures or what you are reading helps to embed that knowledge (Gonzalez 2018; Piolet et al., 2015; Schmidt, 2019). Instead of transcribing what is being heard or read, putting things in your own words help synthesise what you are learning (Bohay et al., 2011). Another useful thing to do is test yourself along the way; perhaps once a week, ask yourself to write a paragraph detailing the key points for each course session (Luo et al., 2015). This will let you refer back and see if you’ve captured and retained the overarching themes of the class as your knowledge grows.

Collaborative learning is extremely beneficial (Laal & Ghodsi, 2012; Wenger 1998). To mimic the paired or group study sessions you previously would have, try setting up a call with classmates to discuss coursework and readings. Each member of the call could take turns explaining a topic or starting a discussion. If you’ve had plenty of screentime, it might be nice to have this as a telephone call or a FaceTime/WhatsApp audio call to cut down on computer time.

Another collaborative option is to host a library study session with friends. This has the advantage of being as useful to have with friends at different universities as with classmates on your current course, which is beneficial for people who might not have established friendships at university or on a course yet. One can do this by either setting up a video call where you and your friends keep the video on while studying or you can check in periodically with one another to offer encouragement, chat breaks, and parse out thorny issues. 

Talking things over helps clarify ideas and offer perspective. The latter option has been a favourite of this author’s well before the pandemic. During my doctorate, myself and my close friend, also earning a doctorate but in a different historical period and different institution, would check in with each other on daily goals and progress but also to bounce around ideas and work through the ways of best framing ideas and contextualising material. 

Student working on laptop

5. Keep multitasking to a minimum.

Try as much as possible not to check social media or the news while attending live lectures or when you’ve allocated time to get your coursework and assignments done. It can be tempting to quickly check newsfeeds, but this is a surefire way to find time has flown by when self-studying or to discover that the class lecture has moved to a different topic while you’ve been scrolling. 

Stop doing coursework and dealing with life admin tasks at the same time. If you have to handle life tasks urgently, set aside the time and complete those items, and then turn your full attention to your studies. 

For those who find tech applications to keep focused useful, there are numerous options to help manage those proactive procrastination temptations.  Some features within these apps cost extra or are an add on feature, so keep that in mind before downloading them. A few popular productivity apps are: Freedom, which can block distractions from websites and apps across devices; RescueTime, which tracks time spent on various websites and, as a premium feature, allows designated websites to function but blocks distracting ones; Forest, which incentivises productivity by having a tree planted during a chosen work period and terminating a session kills the plant; and Self Control, an app for Mac users that lets you block access to websites for a selected period of time to avoid distractions and, crucially, stymies web surfing while that timer is set, even if the computer is restarted or the app is deleted.

6. Talk in class.

Participating in class is an important part of the learning process (Lai, 2012; Weimer, 2011; Leonard, n.d.) It is not just a feature of face-to-face classes to get participation points for a final grade (Bean & Paterson, 1998). Engaging with your professor and classmates helps to clarify material, expand your own knowledge and understanding, share and debate points of view, and make connections.

Raise your hand while on live classes or use either the reactions or chat functions on your platform or video call to let your professor or course moderator know that you want to contribute or join in a discussion. Even if you might be nervous the first few times, something that might be especially true if you’ve never met classmates in person, give it a try. Likely, other people were hesitating for the same reasons and this will break the ice.

Another way to engage in class is to use the discussion forums. This provides an opportunity to talk during live classes and while you’re working on the asynchronous elements of the online course. However you choose to talk and participate in class, keep in mind that connecting with your classmates will also help with your social and interpersonal growth while boosting engagement. You might notice that you enjoy and look forward to class more too.

Student working on laptop

7. Stay active.

So much of our lives is happening in front of a screen, making it more important than ever to remember to spend time away from the computer. Try and incorporate some exercise into your daily routine to keep your body strong and resilient. If you can, get outside to exercise and clear your head. It is amazing what even a short walk can do for one’s mindset and physical well-being. 

8. Ask for help.

Reach out to your academic or pastoral advisor and your university or college’s student support teams if you need guidance and help. If you need assistance or have questions on how to use your online learning platform, click the ‘ask a question’ or ‘help’ buttons. Online platforms have in-built support to help you navigate and use the technology, and any bugs or glitches should be flagged with the course coordinator or faculty, so they can inform the platform’s second line of support.


Dr. Carin Peller-Semmens

About the author

Dr. Carin Peller-Semmens is Academic Engagement and Partnerships Manager at insendi. Educated on both sides of the Atlantic, she holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College, an MA from Rutgers University, and a PhD from the University of Sussex. Her work as a historian focuses on 19th century American History, investigating racial violence and white supremacy. Carin’s first book is forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press.

Carin’s academic training is bolstered by years of corporate experience in communications, business development, and fundraising. As part of insendi’s Academic Engagement team, Carin manages and strengthens current partner relationships to support their successful strategic development and growth. She engages in multi-stakeholder user community building, including the award-winning FOME alliance. Additionally, Carin leverages her research background for thought leadership and insendi research projects to showcase edtech’s capabilities and potential. A devotee of the Oxford comma, Carin is passionate about diversifying higher education and the inherent ability of new innovations to widen accessibility and enrich learning.