Originally Posted: Apr 5, 2016
Last Updated: May 8, 2020
You’d be hard-pressed to have a conversation about grad school these days without mentioning online education. And that’s great, especially if you’re one of the many people juggling graduate school with other work and life responsibilities. It’s actually becoming increasingly less common for grad students to dedicate themselves to full-time studies, instead opting for the life experience that often complements grad school programs well. But taking a class in part or entirely online isn’t necessarily like the in-person course work you’re accustomed to, just unfolding on your computer screen. There are several best practices to be aware of, so you can get the most out of your online grad school experience...besides being able to wear sweatpants. Here are six tips to get you excelling in your online classes while still reaping the benefits of an online, distant education.
1. Have an up-to-date computer and fast internet
Never underestimate the importance of a reliable, up-to-date computer and Internet connection. Fortunately, you will likely be informed of—or be required to have—the necessary operating speed, operating system, internet connection, and software criteria for any online class. Make sure you know those tech recommendations and meet them. If you have questions, don't be afraid to reach out to your grad school's IT department. It also helps to have a Web browser you’re comfortable with. If your online courses jibe with multiple browsers, check them all out to see if there are any advantages to using one over the other. Plus, browsers do way more than open websites these days; plugins and applications might make your life easier too.
Finally, set yourself up for success by organizing your digital workspace. Start by creating a filing system for your class work locally on your computer, as well as in your e-mail client, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc. Save backup copies of all your work and correspondence. Make sure you can easily access files in the midst of a live class if you have to.
2. Get to know your digital terrain
Make sure you’re comfortable with your grad school’s online course management system too. Log in before classes start to familiarize yourself with the digital landscape. Where are the discussion boards? Private messages? Syllabi? Assignment pages? How do they work? Get to know these things so going into each class and assignment you know how best to use all the technology’s features to your advantage. And don’t forget to explore the online portal for your grad school's library as well.
Make sure you’re even familiar with any video chatting applications just in case your online class ever has webinars you can attend or has you doing a group project in which verbally communicating with your team may be necessary. The world of online classes is constantly changing and adapting as new technologies are developed, so it’s always good to stay on top of at least your basic tech.
3. Have the right attitude
As anyone who works from home can tell you, self-discipline is the name of the game. When you have the freedom to work through your online grad school classes at your leisure, it can be tempting to procrastinate, especially when you already have your hands full with your day-to-day responsibilities. Of course, waiting until the weekend to watch a week’s worth of lectures might work for you and your schedule—it might’ve been the allure of online classes in the first place. But this isn’t the same as binge watching a season of Orange is the New Black; you need be actively engaged in the material, and it can be a lot to absorb. Assignments can sneak up on you too, just like they did in undergrad. But unlike those carefree years, you probably have more responsibilities now and less time to waste. So find a grad school time-management system that works for you and stick to it.
4. Think before you speak
Depending on the extent of the online component of your class, you may only interact with your professors and classmates a handful of times in person, if at all. You will be judged primarily on your writing abilities, so put forth your best work and be aware of the limitations of the medium. Know upfront what is expected from you in terms of class participation too, as it may count toward your grade.
Craft thoughtful responses free of spelling and grammar errors. Take the time to reread your correspondence to make sure you’re being clear and answering any questions asked of you. Err on the side of too much detail. And remember that tone—especially humor, sarcasm, and the like—can be easily misinterpreted. Be professional, positive, and polite in all of your interactions, even when simply coordinating amongst your peers.
All this being said, remember that this may be a relatively new undertaking for your peers and perhaps even your professor, so be patient with them if your online-only interactions are not quite as fast/helpful/friendly/easy to understand as you would like. Don’t be shy about asking for clarification either.
Related: How to Write a Professional Email
5. Develop relationships
Yes, you can make friends in an online class! You may have group projects that facilitate connections, or you can reach out to the group via discussion boards or private messages. You clearly share interests with this group of people, so be friendly—and remember it’s a networking opportunity as well. It may seem odd to develop a deep bond with people you’ve never met in person—but aren’t people doing that on the internet every day? Sharing knowledge and learning with a group of humans is really an experience like no other, so don’t let the fact that you’re all behind computer screens get in the way of a great learning experience.
And just because you can’t drop in to visit your professors during office hours doesn’t mean you can’t develop mentoring relationships either. Your professor will be virtually available to you just as any professor would be on campus. Ask questions, share your insights, be respectful of their time, and you may find a meaningful relationship emerges.
6. Establish your home “classroom”
Even when taking online grad school courses at home, it’s still helpful to treat that time and space as a dedicated learning environment. Go to all your classes and treat them as though you were there in person, focused and ready to engage. Even in your sweatpants. Here are a few tips for doing just that:
- Set up a clean, uncluttered workspace.
- Stick to a designated time and schedule for watching lectures and completing classwork.
- Eliminate distractions, from music and television to blocking your e-mail and favorite time-wasting sites.
- Let any roommates or family members know that if the door to your workspace is closed, you are not to be disturbed.
- Try to conduct your classwork during quiet hours at home.
Online classes don’t have to feel isolating and strange despite how different they are from traditional in-person courses. With a little self-motivation and a good internet connection, you can be successful in your online class while also feeling like you got the best possible experience and learning out of the situation. Good luck with your online classes!
For more grad school advice and program opportunities, check out our Grad Program Search and graduate school articles section!