Here’s how to get the most out of a mostly online semester

August 10, 2020

Four UM-Dearborn faculty share their secrets for excelling in online classes.

 A collage graphic showing a young male student in front of a laptop, engaging in online learning.
A collage graphic showing a young male student in front of a laptop, engaging in online learning.

One of the things we hear again and again from faculty who teach a lot online is that they don’t just treat their courses like a remote version of an otherwise in-person class. That ethos, they say, is something students should adopt too. Remotely delivered classes often operate by subtly different rules and expectations, and if you are conscious of that up front, you’ll avoid some common mistakes. Whether you’re a first-year student starting your college experience with a mostly online semester, or a student who’s struggled with remote classes in the past, here are some tips from faculty that’ll help you have a satisfying experience this fall. Thanks to faculty Francine Banner, Camron Amin, David Hill and Rose Wellman for weighing in with their expert advice.

Take your syllabi and turn them into a calendar.

Online classes are definitely a little more self-directed when it comes to time management. To stay on top of everything, Associate Professor of Sociology Francine Banner suggests setting aside time during your first week to transfer all the important dates from each course syllabus into a big master calendar. Put everything in there, too — not just the big exam dates. This will allow you to anticipate when you might have big-deal assignments from multiple courses raining down on you in a single week. And it gives you the ability to peek ahead and see what’s about to come at you. Assistant Professor of Anthropology Rose Wellman even suggests assigning times and days of the week for work related to each class to help replace the built-in structure of weekly in-person class time. 

Don’t treat assignment due dates like start dates.

Both Banner and Professor of History Camron Amin say one of students’ biggest rookie mistakes is starting assignments on the day they’re due. This not only leaves you pressed for time. If you run into a problem, and you need to ask your professor a question, he or she literally may not have enough time to help you if you’re reaching out just a few hours before a deadline. To assist his students, Amin actually puts suggested assignment start dates in his course syllabi. If your professor hasn’t done that, put your own start dates on your calendar once you get a sense of how long it takes to complete typical assignments. 

Give software or educational technology a test run.

Associate Professor of Special Education David Hill says students often experience two learning curves when taking online courses. One is the course material itself; the other is the instructional technology used to deliver the course. It takes a little effort to know how to navigate all the nooks and crannies of course management software like Canvas, as well as the range of videoconferencing tools professors may be using this semester. Hill says your course will go more smoothly if you spend time getting comfortable with all the instructional technology during your first week or so. Similarly, Banner says recognize that your professors are often learning this technology right alongside you. So if you have questions that might get categorized as “tech support,” it’s probably better to reach out to the university ITS team than to submit a trouble ticket to your prof. ITS already has a number of helpful resources for you. 

Don’t be shy about communicating with your professors.

There are plenty of instances when you will need to reach out to your professors, and students shouldn’t feel like they’re putting a professor out when they need some help. Email is a great way to reach out if you have a question, though Amin says students should realize that instant replies aren’t the norm (his policy is one business day). It’s also a good idea to make sure your issue isn’t something that can be resolved by a quick glance at a course announcement board, an assignment description or the course syllabus. If you don’t get a reply within 48 hours, Banner and Amin say it’s totally reasonable to politely follow-up. All faculty are also required to have office hours, so if you need some virtual facetime with a professor, that’s usually a good bet. (Many are also happy to meet virtually by appointment.) In addition, although all the email and virtual interactions may make things feel more personal, it’s probably best to avoid sending your professor a friend request or asking if you can text them a question.

Be prepared to do a lot of writing.

Most online courses replace in-person class discussions with some form of discussion forum. Because of this, expect to do a lot of writing. If this is something you struggle with, Hill says pay close attention to your professor's comments on early assignments to see how you can improve your writing. Another great strategy: Before you submit an assignment, have a friend look it over and ask for feedback. That goes for big assignments like essays and smaller assignments like discussion posts. For the latter, Banner says it’s also important to make sure you’re following the specific parameters of the post prompt. If your professor asks you to respond to something specific in a reading, lecture or a classmate’s post, make sure you’re meeting those requirements. Remember too that discussion forums are interactive and designed for constructive disagreement, so always keep your tone professional and respectful.

Don’t ignore low-stakes assignments.

When you review your course syllabus, you’ll probably notice your grade is determined by a few higher-stakes exams and assignments and lots of lower-stakes quizzes and homework. Banner says don’t blow off the small stuff. Many times, students who bank on doing well on the high-stakes stuff and forgo a few easy five- or 10-point assignments end up regretting it late in the semester. Points from those smaller assignments quickly add up — and it could mean the difference between one letter grade and another. Plus, if you’re keeping up with the day-to-day work, you won’t need as much time to prepare for the big exams.

Don’t get behind in “asynchronous” classes.

One of the biggest differences between in-person and online classes is the latter tend to be more “asynchronous.” Instead of synchronous class-time, when you’re all meeting together for instruction at a certain time every week, you’ll likely be asked to watch lectures on your own time. This gives students freedom to complete work when it’s convenient for them, but it can also be a trap. “Because it can happen any time, the danger is it can also happen no time,” Amin says. If you know you’re prone to procrastination, follow Wellman’s tip and schedule a specific time every week for the instructional part of each course — as if it were in-person.

You’re not as invisible as you think.

Certain aspects of online courses lend an air of anonymity to the learning process. But when it comes to participation, David Hill says you’re actually way more visible in an online format. “In an in-person course, it might be easy for a student to sit in the back of the classroom, let their classmates carry the load of the discussion, and never say much of anything themselves.” In an online course, though, it's really obvious to your professor if you’re not turning in assignments or posting in the discussion forums. If your participation lags, don’t be surprised if your professor checks in with you. Amin says that’s standard practice for him if a student misses a few assignments in a row. In fact, one of his early assignments for students is to simply schedule two one-on-one meetings with him sometime during the semester. It’s his way of protecting students from going completely off the grid.