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The Secrets to Success in Online Learning

Student writing at a desk with a laptop computer.
Rebecca A. Eckland

It’s not news that most colleges and universities—including TMCC—will be holding mostly online classes in the Fall. And while we all got a little better at Zoom meetings in the spring (learning the power of ye olde mute button and making sure the camera is facing, well, your face and not the ceiling), according to our survey data, only 11% of TMCC students were taking only online classes before the shift to remote learning in the spring. It’s no surprise that we all experienced some challenges as we learned to navigate this “new normal.” 

Specifically, over 40% of TMCC students in Spring 2020 felt that communication with their instructors was an issue. To take a deeper dive into this, and to work through some possible solutions, we caught up with TMCC Communications Professor Rick Bullis. “[Last semester, many students] didn’t feel like they could communicate with their instructor. These were almost entirely students who were used to being able to have a quick chat with their professor face-to-face [before or after class.] What’s interesting, is that the opportunity was still there—all they have to do is type their instructor an email or call them—but this reveals something about communication as it relates to different generations,” he said. 

So, if you’re a Gen 2020 student, buckle up, because this article is intended to help you to feel connected and engaged with your online classes. We guarantee that if you follow our advice, you might be surprised at what happens next. (Pssst… your GPA will thank you.) 

Check your email. 

Right. We know. We sound like your mom. How many times have you heard this piece of advice? Probably since you were about five years old. Here’s the deal, though: having email bankruptcy isn’t doing you any favors. What’s email bankruptcy?  That means your inbox has pages—or, literally thousands—of unread emails and it’s impossible to find anything. (Do yourself a favor: before the semester begins, go to your inbox and click “select all” and mark the messages as read. This will enable you to start off with a fresh slate.)

No matter why you don’t read your email—maybe the sheer volume of them is overwhelming, or maybe you don’t “like” TMCC’s email —overcoming this fear or dislike will be paramount to your success as a college student. 

Think about it: all official communications are sent to your TMCC email address, so checking this on a regular basis will definitely “keep you in the know.” It’s also a handy way to reach out to your instructors who, chances are, also have a TMCC email address that they check on a regular basis. That’s a win-win, right? 

Every once in a while, use your cell phone like a phone. 

According to Bullis, students are able to do amazing things with their phones. They can type English 101 and 102 essays on them, create videos, instant message friends-- but one task they probably don’t use their cell phones for is… well, to use it like a phone. 

“Any job that students are going to have by the time they reach the age of 30, will require them to use a phone as a communication method in professional environments,” he said. Bullis relates how he gives his cell phone number to students and encourages those with questions to contact him that way. He is surprised that he’s often met with resistance. “I can’t even tell you how hard it is to get my students to call me. I literally told my advanced students in a 200-level communications class to call me. There were 17 students and two of them called. The reason is that they dislike talking on the phone.” 

Dealing with older generations—who are likely to be your future bosses and managers—means become adept in multiple lines of communication… which includes phone lines.  If you’re feeling especially awkward, maybe try talking to someone you know—a sibling or a parent—first before trying to use a phone with someone who might make you nervous already, like a professor. 

Some simple phone etiquette tips? When you answer, say “hello.” It also helps to smile when you’re speaking—not because the other person can see you, but smiling makes you sound more cheerful. Also, speak clearly and when you’re on the phone, try not to focus on the conversation itself, not other distractions.  

Pace yourself.

We’re sure you probably noticed, but online learning is not like learning in a classroom. In fact, did you know students retain up to 30% less information when they read information from a screen as compared to information that they read in an actual book? Given that most classes are offered remotely this semester, we are also guessing that a fair amount of class material is also being offered digitally. This means that the study methods you may have used before might not be as effective in this “new normal.” 

“It’s not typically a good idea for students to do all their studying in a single, six-hour block. So, they shouldn’t try to read a whole chapter of physics homework, and then immediately start working on their math homework,” said Bullis. “Also, maybe just reading a textbook isn’t going to help students to retain the information. Students really have to work with what sort of learning style they have.” 

Students dealing with digital material might want to schedule shorter study sessions, with breaks in between to give your brain the space and time to absorb the new material. Bullis recommends that students who are visual learners who have to memorize lots of information—say, all the bones in the human body—use study techniques like flashcards that focus on the important terms and eliminate extraneous information. 

Verbal learners might find re-copying their notes useful. Or, if you enjoy creative projects, you could create a narrative story that incorporates the concept that you’re trying to learn. Tactile or hands-on learners might assign certain rooms in their house to different subjects: when they are in the living room, they study anatomy, and the material for their English class outside. “The key is to find a physical, hands-on activity to help students to remember that information,” said Bullis. 

The other thing to keep in mind? If you’re engaged with the class and the subject—if you can connect with your instructor and the material—your chances of succeeding are greater. This poses a big challenge for your instructors: finding creative ways to deliver the information students need to pass the class. But it’s also a challenge for students, too: how can you become more engaged? 

Maybe it’s adhering to a strict study schedule that also includes breaks and rewards for meeting certain goals and deadlines. Maybe it’s taking notes during lectures. Whatever method you choose, recognize that you’re taking a step in the right direction—by engaging with the class material, you’re more likely to remember it. 

Bottom line? Don’t be afraid to communicate with your instructor and to be engaged in your classes. In the end, it will pay off, and you’ll watch your grades—and your enjoyment of your classes—begin to rise.