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Top 3 Principles to become a successful online student



Whilst taking an online course can be a great idea, becoming a successful online student may require a little more self-discipline and self-organisation than working as a student in a live, in-person learning environment. In this blog, we highlight the 3 primary principles and a range of important habits associated with successfully achieving within an online learning environment. 

Principle 1: Motive

The first and foremost principle for success on any course of study is to leverage a proper motive to learn. It is possible to find a true motive in a wide range of ideas and rationale, but when there is a key personal driver that underpins a choice to further your education this can really help. Try to find value in the current topic you are learning and why it matters and applies to you personally. Write down a clear ‘big-picture’ goal that creates a passion and determination to achieve each time it is viewed can help provide a real kick any time you find motivation waning. Chart your successes, no matter how small. Record each time you master a new concept or pass a short online quiz. It is important to see how far you have come as well as the remaining work required. Many online learning platforms may well provide clear tracking of completion and assessment successes to help you see your achievements. 4 motive-related habits to develop are:

  • Find personal value in what you are currently learning
  • Set your goal to mastering the content and skills
  • Take daily steps that create self-belief in your ability to learn
  • Feel the challenge of success, not the fear of failure

Principle 2: Opportunity

A big part of being successful in education is to ensure that you can carve out the necessary opportunity, to begin with. Being able to assess your own time availability, current commitments, stress levels, and willpower is an important part of being successful. You may well have the ability to learn and develop new skills, but if life is too busy, you have over-committed yourself, or you are under huge stress, no amount of inherent learning skill will make up for a lack of opportunity to actually invest in education in the first place. Understanding your own learning style and pace of learning is also helpful. An online module may recommend 50 hours of learning for a typical student, but if you know you from past experience that you take 10-20% more time to absorb the knowledge and master the skills, then it is important to account for this in your personal scheduling of time.

Prioritizing study time to be fixed at a time of day with minimal distraction is important. As online study is completed on a computer, tablet or phone, this can mean that you may be open to receive messages, emails, and social media notifications that can easily side-track your focus on a regular basis. Research has shown that for every distraction that pulls you away from a learning task, it takes even more time to then switch back and re-focus again on the learning material. Many modern computers/devices may have a ‘focus-assist’ setting which blocks notifications and messages to minimise unwanted distractions during a study period. Television should be off and mobile phones switched to ‘Do not disturb’ to allow better focus on coursework in order to be a successful online student.

Learning tends to be more successful when spread out over several shorter sessions, rather than one very long, intense session. Whilst some people feel they are highly focused and can get in the ‘zone’ for long study sessions, research has shown that up to 90% of the content from a very long study session can be dimmed from memory within the next 7 days. Shorter 20-40 minute topical sessions can be more effective at improving longer-term memory of the information learned.

Scientific research has also shown that stress is the thief of memory, so look to ensure that you are not feeling stressed or under pressure when trying to learn information. Perhaps a reason why last-minute ‘cramming’ is not always a very successful approach to learning. 4 habits to maximise the opportunity to learn are:

  • Create and plan for a clear time to learn
  • Space out study time across several shorter sessions
  • Protect your study time and take measures to avoid distractions
  • Clear your mind of stress and worry beforehand

Principle 3: Means

Once motivation is in place, and learning opportunities have been planned and created, it is then important to ensure you provide the means for learning to take place by understanding effective learning methods. A good online learning course should be structured in such a way as to already provide many of the varied means to support your learning preferences. Good online learning should include visual, auditory and kinesthetic methods, such as video, audio, reading, writing, software interaction, problem-solving, physical practice, self-testing, quizzing etc. However, the student can take many steps themselves to help improve their chances of learning and understanding course materials. The following 8 habits may really help to improve student actions to maximise online learning:

  • Re-watch or re-read material that needs clarification if not fully understood the first time
  • Highlight course notes or summarise the main points as a first step to learning the content
  • Create brief revision flashcards to self-test and review key concepts
  • Record key content in your own words to help translate information into more familiar language and terminology 
  • Create visual knowledge maps or drawings to help condense information and enhance visual memory recall
  • Explain freshly learned content to someone else and have them restate what you taught – check against notes/course content for accuracy
  • Record yourself explaining the learning content to camera or over audio then listen back for accuracy checked against notes or course materials
  • Where appropriate engage in practical, hands-on activities and tasks to improve learning through kinesthetic means. 

Conclusion: Being a successful online student

These 3 primary principles of learning can provide a solid foundation upon which to build effective learning processes and improve your educational journey. However, take note, that education is really a personal journey of self-development in line with a guided curriculum. You may discover your own preferred learning approaches that help you to become a highly successful online student. 

Happy studying online!


To read more on this subject and benefit from 20 learning habits you may wish to read the book How to be a Successful Student by Professor Richard E. Mayer. 

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