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10 Ways to Ensure Distance Learning Success

By Cynthia Wolfe / December 2009

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Distance learning students must take a far more active role in learning and accessing information than traditional students in face-to-face classrooms. Written messages or posts from the professor and classmates replace other means of direct communication, and course materials are posted online. Rather than simply sitting through a class and jotting notes, you must take the initiative to download and read lectures and course materials.

As a distance learning student, you will find that being pro-active and engaged in your personal learning experience will pay off in good grades and depth of learning.

1. Read the Syllabus and Use it as a Roadmap
The syllabus is your course guide. It contains not only information about the professor, grading requirements, and class and assignment schedules, but also instructions on how to access online forums and e-texts. You should download and save the syllabus as soon as you have access to it.

A good syllabus provides a kind of "roadmap" to success. Read it thoroughly and ask questions if any points are unclear. You may need to ask question via email, a forum post, or even through a phone call to the instructor. Don't discount all the means of communication that are available to you.

Never discard the syllabus as an irrelevant document. Print it, and know it top to bottom. This will help you schedule your time for completing assignments, as well as facilitate planning your personal life around your academic life.

2. Turn in All Assignments Complete and on Time
The instructor cannot grade your papers if you don't turn them in! Most professors impose a late penalty for overdue assignments, such as 10 percent or points off per day up to three days; after three days, the work is not accepted.

With online courses, students have fewer excuses. You can never say, "I slipped it under your door by the deadline. What do you mean you never received it?" because assignments turned in through the course page will have a digital timestamp that indicates when it was posted. This timestamp is the instructor's ironclad proof the assignment was turned in on time.

Make sure you can see your posted paper or attachment before you log out of the course site.

3. Follow Online Resources Carefully Week by Week
Most online courses use an online learning system, such as Blackboard, Moodle, or some other customized in-house course management software suite. Your instructor may post additional learning resources to the system along with graded assignments and grades.

The college may also post important enrollment or school information here.

Instructor reserves the right to update course requirements and often those changes are communicated via the online system. Course texts and downloadable assignments are likely to be posted here, too. Take a tour of the system and familiarize yourself with all its features as soon as you have access to it.

4. Search for One New Idea in Every Class Session, Assignment, and Reading
You are ultimately responsible for what you learn in the course. Every time you post a forum discussion response, read a text, work on an assignment, or interact with other students, you should come away with some new idea or thought about the subject.

If you are simply rushing through without thinking, you will not retain the information. However, if you are actively seeking knowledge, you will find it. I suggest writing down what you discover in a notebook and referring back to it each time you start a new learning session. Use what you learn today as a building block for what you learn tomorrow.

5. Support and Encourage Fellow Classmates
If you cultivate a positive atmosphere with your fellow students, you will build a constructive relationship that will help you as well as others—which is try in any class, but even more important in a virtual class.

You will get accustomed to asynchronous learning and will figure out how to best be supportive and encouraging through just the text on the screen. Make sure that your posts are constructively positive even if you are pointing out that a statement is incorrect or an idea is tenuous. Create an online learning space that reinforces respect and values others' ideas. Remember, everyone needs encouragement to achieve his or her goals.

6. Contribute to Discussions
One of the secrets to distance learning is engagement. Students who are engaged in discussions show that they are seeking knowledge and understanding.

Take an active role in your education by stepping into a discussion with informed comments. Instructors know who is contributing and who is not. They have access to every forum and post. Often, they can even see how many discussion threads each student has opened and read, even if the student has not written a response.

In an asynchronous environment, discussions can be very lively and active, and become great learning venues—make sure you make yourself a part of it.

7. Stay Organized
Organization is key to distance learning success! I recommend keeping a physical binder with sections such as syllabus, assignments, and texts and research; or divide the binder into Week 1, Week 2, and so forth. Having a physical binder supports students with flexible schedules (a strong reason many students opt for distance learning in the first place), as it allows them to pick up and go at any moment, despite whether they are in front of a computer or at a wi-fi hotspot.

8. Never Procrastinate
You must proactively work on assignments. Instructors can usually tell when an assignment was thrown together at the last minute! Start future assignments early and build them day by day. For example if you have to write a paper that is due one week from today, you should research the topic for the first two days, create a mindmap or outline on the third day, and write the paper on the fourth and fifth days. Use the sixth day to revise and to send the work through any required online grammar or plagiarism checkers. Once you get your reviewed paper back, make any cosmetic changes, and turn it in!

9. Consider How Your Experience Fits Into the Discussion
Education should be relevant and make a difference in your life. Discovering ways that your experience fits into the discussion makes the topic significant and applicable to your job or future education. Some courses naturally build on experience, such as business, sociology, or psychology.

Instructor want to see more than book learning. They want to see that you have synthesized the information and can use it effectively. You will find that because distance learning uses forum posts for discussion, you can take time to formulate a knowledgeable response before you reply. Online discussion questions are great avenues for creating relevance, and discovering the significance of a subject will help you internalize the information.

10. Set Long-Term Goals
Your educational experience should help you achieve your goals. As a distance learning student, you understand how the flexibility of learning can be integrated into your lifestyle and career path. Setting both short- and long-term goals gives you the impetus to create the life that you want and the career that you will enjoy.


  • Tue, 03 Jan 2023
    Post by The Home Store

    Technology has come a long way from the time it was first created. It has evolved in many different ways and it is continuing to grow at an exponential rate. Technology is not just for the rich and famous anymore, but for everyone who wants to explore their own creativity.

  • Sun, 23 Sep 2018
    Post by Ketan

    Nice post for our niche.

    Really useful and informative.

    Will recommend this to all my Students.


  • Sun, 02 Jul 2017
    Post by Roy Benjamin

    With the technology and tools that have emerged in the internet era, distance education has become a preferred way of learning for working professionals. It is not the same as it used to be 5 years ago.

    We at MBAFrog are witness of this transformation. We have seen distance education becoming what it is now.

  • Fri, 20 Aug 2010
    Post by Frederico

    As someone who did distance learning classes, it's really important to make sure you're getting valuable social interaction.

  • Sun, 13 Jun 2010
    Post by Fiza Aga

    This is a good way to make a student realize his duty towards his professor. Thank you for this informative article.

  • Sun, 24 Jan 2010
    Post by Chip Donohue

    In the fourth week of our new online MS program, I'm sharing your tips with our new online learners to affirm their own best practices and what they have learned so far, and to nudge them toward other ways to become an effective and successful online learner.

  • Wed, 13 Jan 2010
    Post by Katrina

    Hi, Cindy! I work for DigitalChalk. We are an online learning system as well! Just wanted to let you know that I think you posted some excellent tips for online learners! I will make sure to share this article!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Katrina DigitalChalk

  • Fri, 08 Jan 2010
    Post by Michelle Everson

    I couldn't agree more with what you've written here, Cindy. As an online instructor, I often include many of these things in a "tips for success" handout that I give to students during the first week of classes. One problem I often note is that several students DO NOT take the time to read carefully through the syllabus or other materials I share with them, and this can be frustrating. I sometimes find students who end up feeling very unhappy with the structure and workload of the course, and it troubles me that they make such statements on end-of-semester course evaluations when we try to carefully lay out the structure of the course and our expectations of students in the syllabus. I know this results in a rather long, detailed syllabus, but I feel you have to have such a syllabus in the online course. I guess I need to start getting creative in order to make sure my students are reading that document (and that they know in advance what they are getting themselves into).

  • Tue, 29 Dec 2009
    Post by Alfredo Calderon

    Great information for students and adult learners. I also, linked the article in my blog (

  • Tue, 22 Dec 2009
    Post by Jim Taylor

    I though your article had some very good advice. I put a link to in my site front page, under "How to be a successful on-line student". Thank you.


  • Tue, 27 Jan 2009
    Post by Jeff B. mrz

    Yes it is a good idea to actually pay attention to such standards. So, that the relationship between colleagues and professors doesn''t diminish. Thank you for the refreshing advice....

  • Sun, 25 Jan 2009
    Post by Regine Claudia

    Very interesting article. I think that we students have to respect ceryain rules when writing to our instructors or any members of the school board.we tend to forget that, ann it is really sad.

  • Mon, 24 Nov 2008
    Post by Timothy J. Haskell

    I am encountering a lot of issues with some of my students and the email messages they send me. As a new professor, I am happy to read these tips that you both have offered. I miss Cortland, but you all really helped me get where I am today Professionally! It''s nice to be a Professor, and I am finding my job very fulfilling. Of course, I had some good role-models from SUNY! Nice work.

  • Sat, 18 Oct 2008
    Post by Ellen

    The comments I''ve read here reflect how deeply the email habits intended to be addressed by the article are ingrained, and that students seem unable to grasp the points made. Most of the comments include mispellings and tortured grammar. And almost all include excuses intended to explain why such conduct should be permitted or reiterations that students are consumers. We seem as a culture to have forgotten that students have a responsibility to learn, meaning they are expected to do the work, whether that means reading a syllabus or other materials outlining requirements for their classes. It is very sad to see this kind of response. I can''t imagine what it must be like on college campuses these days. But I can see that the expectation that you should be spoon-fed all information does not begin outside the classroom; it begins within the classroom. No wonder my customer/students feel they should not have to find information on our websites or within help.

  • Mon, 13 Oct 2008
    Post by F. Gatlin

    First, this was a very informative article, thank you. The thought that students are consumers of the Universities amazes me. We are not in higher learning as consumers, we are students. We as students do not pay for an education, but rather an opportunity to learn. There is nothing "old fashioned" about treating others in authority with respect. As a Professional, they have earned that right. I applaud your article, and I intend on sharing it with my classmates as well as my Professor.

  • Wed, 18 Jun 2008
    Post by Starr Linhard


  • Wed, 18 Jun 2008
    Post by Dean Bush

    Thank you for writing this exemplification of e-mail messages that students send us. I thought I was the only professor who ever received such messages. I hope this article was distributed in a format that reached every student in America. What is sadly worse than students writing such e-mail messages as these is professors themselves writing such messages. Yes, I have a folder of my own of saved message similar to these student-written messages which professors have sent me with no punctuation, incorrect use of ellipses, and disrespectful language. Professors also need to be aware that their writing is a model for students to follow. Take a look even at the About the Authors section of this article: "Noralyn Masselink is a professor of english . . ." Yes, english with a lower-case "e!" I give up.

  • Wed, 11 Jun 2008
    Post by Don H

    I am now 51 years old. I have been a child of the 60''s, the rebel in the 70''s, a college student, a techie in the workplace, and now a parent of two girls, who are of the next generation to enter a college or university. E-mail, text-messages, chat-rooms, cell-phones, etc. have all made communication faster, but have still not changed the concept of respect or lack of respect to each other or persons in any form of authority. In my youth, we rebelled against authority, the establishment, and the war, and many had the same approach to teachers and professors as they do today. It is the very essence of being a teenager and a young adult that is the question and not the tools we give them to express it. A teacher, a proffesor, or school system must also earn the respect of the student and their parents. In doing so, you have taught them the same - to respect themselves and others. My best memories of my school days were of my best teachers who taught me to respect myself and them too. If anything, this article teaches me that many parents have forgotten these things and are not helping their children do the same. People have lost respect for the world around them. Students will emulate their parents at some level and strike out on their own at other levels. We did the same. The students in this article are our children so the question I ask is: To who is this addressing and who should help resolve it? It is the student, parent, and teacher and not the technology.

  • Mon, 09 Jun 2008
    Post by Barry Bretz

    This is my first online class, I have 4 classes this summer. Two are compressed. You never know what you dont know .

  • Sun, 08 Jun 2008
    Post by Erin Tucker

    I am glad this article was posted for our class. Though I fall in the generation of Instant Messaging, etc, I feel our writing skills via email are lacking as a whole. At my company it is commone to receive very short, informal emails. And now being enrolled in online courses for grad school I feel it important to complete assignments how we would in undergrad; formal, professional, and eloquent. I can''t imagine students asking their professors to proof read their rough drafts, what is this online generation coming to?

  • Sat, 07 Jun 2008
    Post by Jennifer

    Thanks for this article. I often find it quite hard to email my professors, mainly not knowing how to address them. Most of them ask you to call them by their first name in class, but it seems so rude in a letter. Then there are professors who prefer email and others do not. I think it is best to find out what your professor does and does not like, then go from there. But no matter if they want a face-to-face meeting, or prefer email, respect should always be given!

  • Mon, 02 Jun 2008
    Post by Kayla

    excellent, A student who I tutored asked me, why his professor didn''t answer his email - when I saw the email I told him because it was written with disrespect - Students pay for learning how to function in the real working world, not for personal assistance - a primer is well worth it.

  • Fri, 30 May 2008
    Post by Kelli Bush

    Many of the facts within this article are obvious, but you just don''t think about it. So, it was great reading reminders on some tips that will help during this class. -Kelli Bush

  • Fri, 30 May 2008
    Post by Kelli Bush

    Many of the facts within this article are obvious, but you just don''t think about it. So, it was great reading reminders on some tips that will help during this class. -Kelli Bush

  • Wed, 28 May 2008
    Post by Douglas Williams

    I am out of academia these days, though I recognize almost all of these situations in different contexts. It warmed my heart with a little twinge of nostalgia, combined with a flood of gratitude that I am doing something else these days. What I conclude from this article is that there is less new under the sun than it seems. Email doesn''t produce a qualitatively different relation between teachers and students, though perhaps it does enable more easily an expression of the underlying strains in pedagogy in our society. I am reminded of Toqueville''s comments about the leveling tendencies of democratic republics, and surely here is an instance of it, even in response comments: The outrage against the aristocracy of titles (even if earned rather than inherited), the desire to assert commonality of values and knowledge even in the scenario of learning the nature of values and of knowledge itself. The response I would make to the "consumers" who object to following rules of courtesy and consideration in communication with their professors today, is that they will be themselves in the position of "producers" for their own consumers, in the private, public, or educational spheres. If abusing professors is counterproductive, then how much less productive will it be for the student of today to abuse their manager tomorrow, or a coworker from whom he or she needs project data, or a subordinate on whose performance one''s own performance evaluation will be based. And professors who forget courtesy and professionalism are not likely to survive the attacks of outraged consumer-scholars. Netiquette is not merely the petulant assertion of an unjustly privileged class of titled prima donnas, but a valuable lesson itself. The harm a student suffers by learning courtesy with a professor will be much less than the harm done to one''s career, if this lesson is not learned.

  • Sat, 24 May 2008
    Post by Brent Hoitenga

    Great work Profesor Knight and Porfessor Masselink. In the business world things are moving so fast that time is just not taken to write professionally especially as you move down the age time line. I thank you for the reminder that you are "viewed" as you email. Keep trying to help others have some sense of professionlism. No spell check on this so please excuse any mispelled words. Noralyn( I may call her that as my sister) may understand. Sincerely, Brent Hoitenga CRS Keller Williams Realty Holland, MI 49423