Should you study online and, if so, how can you do it effectively? Here, I’ll share some insights into how you can succeed at distance education. The tips are based on student feedback, research and personal observations.

Benefits of Studying Online

Studying online is incredibly convenient. That’s why we all do it for quick learning, such as when we Google a term we’re unfamiliar with or research a topic of interest. You can, for example, learn a tremendous amount about personal development from reading articles.

Online study / distance education is also popular for long courses of study, such as accredited degrees and diplomas. You can study whenever and wherever it’s convenient for you, avoiding the hassle of having to get to physical classes at specific times.

For many students, including full-time workers and people with disabilities, online study is the only practical way to earn a qualification. As an added bonus, you can choose the ideal course for you, even if the provider is located far away.

The Problem with Distance Education

As anyone who has tried it soon finds out, distance learning is not as easy as you might think. You can’t just lob into a classroom and have the instructor lead you along. Instead, you’re sitting alone at a computer with no-one to motivate you but yourself.

Dropout rates for online courses are high. The problem is worst for difficult, long, free courses where you don’t receive a valuable credential at the end. Massive, open online course (MOOC) completion rates have been estimated at 4 per cent. Many people find it just too hard to put in the hours required to finish the program.

Tips for Succeeding at Online Study

Despite the high dropout rates, many millions of people do succeed at online study. Broadly speaking, the way they do it is by having the right personal qualities, picking a suitable course, and implementing strategies to keep going until the end.

Here are my top five tips for online study success. They include the most popular study strategies identified by students as part of a scholarship competition.

1. Choose a course you really want to do

A basic ingredient for doing well as an online student is to study something you’re inspired to learn about. It may be that the topic fascinates you or you really want to earn the qualification because of the career benefits.

Remember, you need to be motivated enough to persist with the course, even during the boring stages when you might easily find something more interesting to do. If the course doesn’t inspire you on some level, you probably shouldn’t enroll in the first place.

2. Invest in completing the program

If you go into an online course in a half-hearted fashion, and keep the option of withdrawing open, you’re probably not going to complete it. Alternatively, if you invest in the program, you stand a much better chance of finishing.

Some ways to invest include: paying tuition fees, telling others you’re going to do the course, setting aside time and space for study, making a promise to yourself to study hard, and creating study goals.

3. Treat it like a paid job

Treating study like a paid job is a fairly sure way of guaranteeing success. But that’s provided you have good work habits. Most people do have good work practices, either because they want to do well in their careers or at least they’ve had close supervision in the past.

Treating online study as a job means doing things like: setting aside certain times when you do nothing but study, being mentally fresh and ready when you start a session, ignoring potential distractions, and insisting on being left alone while you’re studying.

You can also bet that many of your classmates are taking a professional approach. Online graduate degrees are just as popular as undergraduate ones, showing that most online students are mature age. Perhaps it's also no coincidence that business studies is the most popular graduate field.

4. Be mentally engaged

Learning happens when sparks are igniting in your brain. It’s important to remember that in approaching each and every study session. Passively watching a lecture, while you think about something else, doesn’t cut it. Neither does strolling through material without grasping the difficult points.

If you find you’re not mentally engaged while studying, stop and try a different approach. You can do things like jotting down notes, do some academic exercises or reading alternative material on the topic.

5. Connect to classmates online

Studying online can be tough if you’re a highly social person. But you can create a social experience by connecting to classmates online. A good online course will provide digital methods for contacting your classmates. And you can always set up your own study group via social media.

By connecting with fellow students, you can share notes and ideas to help you through the course. You can also act as coaches for each other and share experiences. Many students have told me how they’ve made online friends through study, which is able to bring together people from far and wide who share common interests.

Author's Bio: 

Dr Andrew Lancaster is the founder and director of

Andrew is an economist who develops study and career guides for university and college students.

In writing about education and careers, he is able to draw on more than 20 years of experience in policy advice and team leadership.