Preparing students for SUCCESSFUL online learning

04/01/2012  |  CHEREE H. CAUSEY, Ed.D.
virtual classrooms

As more students engage in online learning, many colleges and universities are exploring ways to ensure student success. Online learning may provide the freedom to study on one’s schedule and engage a student in active technology, yet hurdles may develop if the student procrastinates or ignores course deadlines. Students may also experience a technological glitch that interferes with interactive technology and group discussions. Whether a student is 15 or 60 years old, educators can provide a variety of mechanisms to prepare students for success in an online learning community.

Peer Coaches

Many first-time online learners experience general anxiety over the use of new technology, new course management system, and/or unfamiliar processes and procedures. Students may long for someone to reach out to them for a general check-up on how their online course is proceeding. Educators can provide a team of former online students to motivate, encourage, and mentor students. As part of the UA Early College program at The University of Alabama, peer coaches engage students in conversation by email or phone to determine how well they are doing in their online courses. They offer general study advice, point out academic resources available (e.g. the Writing Center, the Center for Academic Success, library reference helpdesk), and/or encourage students to contact their professors with specific curriculum questions. If a peer coach feels that a student is getting behind or that a life event has interfered with good study habits, they notify the student’s academic advisor for a more thorough follow-up. The goal is to keep students “on track” for successful online learning, as well as learning about the university online business systems. Peer coaches often serve as the most vital link between the student and their first experience with online learning. UA Early College students will call the office asking to speak with a peer coach because they feel a strong connection to someone who is experiencing similar life events. Online students are comforted to know that peer coaches are taking mid-terms and finals too!

Call, Email or Text?

Online students often have lives that do not follow the typical college schedule. High school students are on different school calendars, just as an older student may be a single parent. A simple text, email or phone call reminding students that “today is the first day of class” seems simple, but is a supportive gesture when the student is studying from anywhere in the world and on a life calendar that differs from that of a traditional on-campus student.

Student-Centered Instruction

How many times have you heard a faculty member indicate that they would love to teach an online class because they imagine it is easier? As online educators, we recognize that teaching an online course requires a special person who wants to engage students actively in a vibrant online learning community. To ensure student online success, select instructors who have experience teaching online courses, are motivated to stay abreast of engaging online technologies, are student-centered, and willing to foster a rich and interactive online learning experience. Students who engage with their faculty through chat rooms, discussion boards, study groups, and online group projects are more likely to succeed in their online curriculum. UA Early College faculty members provide course content created specifically for highly engaging online learning, and conduct online office hours. Instructors can engage students with each other in a vibrant learning community and provide frequent and helpful feedback to students as they complete learning objectives.

Start with a Gateway

Because online learning may be new to students, consider offering a “Gateway course” that can help students navigate the course management system, learn business processes and systems, as well as practice successful study skills for online courses. Completing a Gateway course, similar to a freshman study skills course, is an entrée to student success in future online study. Students engage in lively online discussion, and learn to distinguish between a worthwhile discussion response versus a mere “I agree” to other students. Gateway can teach appropriate online professional communication, the mechanics of sending an email using appropriate “netiquette” and professional language, can introduce students to the broad network of academic student resources available, how to manage their time, and how to use critical thinking skills to solve problems. It is amazing what students learn when they have to photograph and describe their dedicated study areas, and why these may or may not foster successful completion of online course work! Most educators who see the Gateway curriculum agree that it could be a successful tool for ALL college students, whether on campus or online! At the completion of the course, students meet with an academic advisor (online, of course, using face-to-face web conferencing) and discuss their next steps. Are they ready to take additional college courses? Did they learn how to be a good independent learning, and do they know how to reach out and use the strong support system available to them? These are all questions we explore with UA Early College students.

The Six “E” Curriculum

In addition to academic rigor, online courses should be designed with specific teaching mechanisms to engage students. Online students have a variety of learning styles, so course curriculum should accommodate a broad variety of styles. In addition to studying learning modules, and/or reading a book, articles, and journals, identify vibrant ways to excite students about online curriculum -- podcasts, video, wiki, web conferencing, chat rooms, interactive learning games, study sessions and discussion boards. Even if a course is developed asynchronously so that students can study from anywhere in the world 24 hours a day/seven days a week, evaluate the content on how well it encourages students to Explore, Engage, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. A “five-E” course can ensure the sixth “E,” Excite!

Online Study Resources

When students have access to course curriculum 24/7, questions may pop into their heads any time of the day or night. Where can they go to find to find assistance? At The University of Alabama, UA Early College students can access an online repository that links them directly to campus resources. If a student cannot remember how to register for a class, how to pay for classes, or how to drop a class, there are PDF instructions and/or step-by-step video instructions. Students sign up for advising sessions, link to a wealth of academic study tips, and review the list of upcoming courses all from within the repository. Although the instructions and information are available to students by searching the vast campus website, “first-time online learners” appreciate having a special place to link to important information. Additionally, an online technical support team is available more than 12 hours per day to help students troubleshoot computer technical issues.

Students, whether 15 or 60, appreciate a program that prepares them for successful online learning. Use this article to brainstorm your own ideas that can further ensure student success in a vibrant online learning community.


Cheree Causey, Ed.D. is the Director of UA Early College at The University of Alabama. UA Early College is designed for high school students who are motivated to earn college credit while living at home and attending high school. Students enroll in online courses during the school year, and have the option to live on campus during the summer. To watch videos and learn more, visit

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