How to be a successful online student

I know what you’re thinking. You’ve already spent at least 12 years sitting in classrooms so how different can online learning be? The answer is – quite different. But don’t panic. The skills and knowledge you have mastered in the traditional classroom can be applied to the online environment.

The current generation of students are mostly digital natives. And with this expertise in using technology combined with support, planning, discipline and practice, you can become a successful online learner.

So, what makes a successful online student? Let’s look at 5 top tips to help you succeed.

  1. Establish a routine.

Routines help us stay focused on the tasks we need to complete.

Imagine it’s the same as in-person classes. Yes, your bed is very comfortable, but you wouldn’t study from it for an in-person class, so don’t do it for an online one. Try to maintain the same standards you would if it were in-person by making sure you logon on time and ready to learn.

Stay disciplined. Create a timetable by setting aside specific times to study each subject in your programme and stick to it. Similarly, get in the habit of taking the time to write up your notes – this will help you to remember the material better.

  1. Create a study space.

As you will be studying outside a traditional classroom, you need to pay special attention to your environment.

Choose a quiet, comfortable space. Make sure you have a quiet area, especially for live class. You need to be able to contribute to the class without excessive background noise.

You will spend a good amount of time sitting at your computer so make sure you have sufficient desk space and a chair with back support. Don’t forgot about the lighting and temperature. A space with natural light that isn’t cold is best. 

Keep it clutter-free. Several studies (Gaspar et al., 2016; McMains and Kastner, 2011) have linked a cluttered environment with the loss of focus and even reduced working memory ability. You are more likely to stay organized and stick to your routine if you know where everything is.

Eliminate distractions. Computer games, social media, mobile phone, TV, even your pets are all common distractions. Turn off your phone in class or even better – leave it in another room. Set aside time for gaming or TV in your timetable. Use website or app blockers. Share your study timetable with your roommates or family.  

  1. Identify required skills.

Build on your soft skills that can help you succeed not only online but in life.

Manage your time well. As well as creating a study timetable, you need to manage your time well to meet deadlines. Start by reviewing the syllabus for each course in your programme. Identify assignment due dates and make sure you have it displayed somewhere prominent to stay on track.

Work on your digital literacy. You probably know how to use your computer well. But it’s important to master the digital tools and online resources available to you. Proficiency in key applications such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are a good place to start.

Communicate more. Being able to communicate effectively online is essential as you don’t have the advantages of body language like you would in-person. Making sure you understand your teachers, the content, your classmates and the assignments means you need to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Ask questions in class, write emails to your teachers, create online study groups or chat threads.

Stay motivated. Establishing a routine and managing your time well will help you with this. You can also set goals for each course and break that down into smaller steps. Don’t forget to reward yourself for when you have achieved each goal!

  1. Participate in class.

Yes, it’s difficult and nerve-wracking. But with online learning, you can’t hide at the back of the classroom anymore.

Stay engaged while in class. Make an effort to actively participate. Not only will this make online learning more enjoyable but you’ll feel more accountable and motivated. Ask questions or just make comments. But remember, you’re on video – so your teachers and classmates can see and hear distractions in the background!

Stay engaged outside of class. Your online learning platform will have discussion groups or message boards where questions and comments are posted. Try to participate in these as well – you’ll often find another classmate has asked a question you had so it’s a good place to check your understanding of the material.

  1. Take care of your health.

Physical and mental health is commonly overlooked, especially when studying from home.

Practise self-care. Sitting in front of your computer for a few hours everyday is tiring. Stretch frequently and schedule screen breaks to avoid eye-strain. And be kind to yourself – it’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed at times. Reach out to your teachers and staff, there is always someone to support you. 

Take frequent breaks. There’s only so much concentration you can maintain in one sitting so plan short and long breaks in your timetable. Make yourself a cup of tea, take a nap, go for a walk or schedule some time for a workout at home or at the gym.

Get plenty of sleep. A regular sleep routine is essential for reducing stress and boosting productivity. It’s very easy not to stick to a regular bedtime when studying online from home. Watching TV for hours at night is a habit many of us fall into so minimize your screen time before bed.


Gaspar, J.M., Christie, G.J., Prime, D.J., Jolicœur, P. and McDonald, J.J., 2016. Inability to suppress

salient distractors predicts low visual working memory capacity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(13). Available at:

McMains, S. and Kastner, S., 2011. Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human

visual cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(2). Available at:

6 Responses
  1. David Lyons

    My daughters looking to study abroad next year. We delayed her study plans because of the current situation, which was very disappointing for her. However, your article is very insightful and we are now contemplating looking at the online options.

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