6 Things I Wish My Online Students Knew | From a Teacher

I’ve been teaching college students for well over a decade. In fact, part of my job has been to not only teach college students, but to advise instructors on good teaching methods, so I’ve done my fair share of research on best practices in college teaching.

With the many changes going on right now, there are a lot of college students who are going to have to take some or all of their courses online for the foreseeable future. So if you, or your college-aged child, are beginning online college courses soon, I’ve outlined my top six hints below. I’ve seen many success stories in online teaching, but also many failures, and here are a few things I wish my students knew before they started their online classes…

1. Make a calendar: Most traditional online classes have due dates. The strictness of those due dates may vary by the class, but more often than not, there will be some penalties for late work. Most platforms for online learning offer some sort of calendar tool. Students should make sure they know where it is and make sure they check it regularly.

I’d also strongly suggest that students make their own calendar that sets aside time that they can study and work on assignments (along with the due dates) for their online class each week. I know this always gets a big eye roll from students, but I can’t tell you how easy it is to procrastinate to the point of no return in online classes. Additionally, studies show that students are pretty poor estimators of how much time a new activity will take them.

2. We are people, too: Most instructors I know teach because they want to. They enjoy teaching and the interactions with students. The online environment can be difficult because it is more difficult to have our personalities show through in writing. Sometimes jokes are taken seriously and it can be difficult for us to interact in the same way that we would face to face. Still, it is great when students will interact and make connections in their discussion posts and emails. It is helpful when students introduce themselves and make those connections when the instructor is reaching out so that the instructor can get to know their students and the students can get to know their instructor.

3. Read the syllabus! Maybe print it out (if you have a printer). It is a running joke among professors that we all need “read the syllabus” shirts we can point to because we get so many questions from students that are clearly answered in the syllabus. I understand that we often times have a lot of information in the syllabus, and that we have a more detailed knowledge about what is in the syllabus than students, but that information is important.

I’d suggest that students read the syllabus at the start of the class. Look through the rest of the course and some of the assignments, then go back and read the syllabus a second time. Students are likely to catch some things that they didn’t catch the first time through once they have more knowledge about the course. Additionally, if a question comes up, students should read the syllabus again. If they can’t find the answer, they can message the instructor.

4. Don’t procrastinate: I have seen students glance over a course and assume that they could get the course done over one long weekend of intense work. I’ve yet to see a legitimate online course where this is the case.

When students look over the syllabus, take special note of projects or assignments that are due by the end of the semester. Students should break assignments apart and create due dates for specific parts on their own personal calendars (for example, have the research done by one date, an outlined done by a second date…). Students who rush to do it at the end of the semester often times score far lower because they miss important parts of the assignment or they do incomplete work.

On a side note: Students who procrastinate also tend to plagiarize at a higher rate. If students are even summarizing what others have said or written, they need to cite their sources (even the textbook). Nothing angers instructors more than having to deal with students who are plagiarizing.

5. Have fun and ask questions: Most instructors didn’t spend years and years studying one area out of obligation. They did it because they enjoyed the topic and found it interesting. Hopefully this comes through in the course, but even if it doesn’t, ask your instructor questions. They are likely to enjoy delving into a topic deeper, and they are likely to appreciate that students are interested in the discipline that they love.

6. Communicate: If something comes up, students need to communicate that to their instructor as soon as possible. As an instructor, sometimes students just disappear. I have no idea what happened to them, but then I hear later that something major happened in their personal life, and that was why they disappeared. I would much rather have students inform me of what is going on. Even if there is nothing I can do, at least it gives me the chance to tell the student what their academic options are.

While I can’t speak for all instructors, these are some general hints that I wish online students knew before starting class. If you or your older children are starting online courses this fall, these steps should help to start college courses on the right foot.

Jill is a born and raised Wisconsinite. She grew up just outside of Madison before heading to northern Michigan for college. Afterwards, she returned to Madison where she married her high school sweetheart, Micah, and earned her PhD in Educational Psychology. Micah and Jill live just outside of Madison with their two children, Levi (5 years old), and Alice (3 years old), and they all love sports and being outside. When Jill isn't enjoying the local Madison parks and activities with her family, she loves to play board games, and relax at home with family and friends. Jill is a busy mom, an active member in her church, and enjoys her job as an Associate Professor of Psychology for a small liberal arts college.


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