Supporting successful online learners

Studying online can be convenient and rewarding, but we recognise that it also presents many challenges:

  • Online learners may be unsure about what is expected of them in an online course.  They may expect lots of lectures and can then surprised that they must actively contribute. 
  • Online learners may not have studied formally for many years.  Often they are returning to education after a long break, and they have a range of different academic backgrounds and experiences.
  • Online learners are busy; they may be in full time employment or have caring responsibilities.

To be successful, online learners need very specific support as they begin studying online.  They need a clear outline of what is expected of them and support to help develop the skills they will need engage and succeed academically.  In this post we will focus on three ways we support our online learners.

3 tips for supporting successful learners

1. Provide an orientation

To be successful learners, students need to understand exactly what is expected of them, and to be aware of their own responsibilities (Palloff and Pratt, 2003).

We help students to transition successfully into online learning with clear orientation guidelines. Our students begin their studies with a tailored orientation module which provides an overview of the essential information needed to succeed academically and pastorally: a programme overview, essential university policy, information about the various online platforms they will use, mental health support and guidance on planning their studies effectively.

Orientation course available to all our online students

2. Foster independent learning

We set high expectations and build a strong foundation for learning through study skills development, right from the start.  We know that some students find it difficult to adjust to the independence required in campus-based degree programmes, and the demands of online learning adds to this challenge.  Our orientation module is supported by a separate study skills module which introduces students to the core study skills they will need including time management, academic writing, referencing and revision techniques.

Excerpt from the study skills module
Study skills module complements the Orientation module and can be used as a reference throughout the course

Developing good habits takes practice so we embed study skills throughout the academic activities in our modules.  For example, at the beginning of our Biological Psychology module, students practise different note taking techniques and are given some external guidance to help. 

Image of instructions for a note taking activity
BSc Psychology students develop their note taking skills at level 4.  This is the third activity in the Biological Psychology module, placed right before students read their first text.

We also embed information literacy skills support at the point where students need it.  In our Developmental Psychology module, this investigative activity points students to a guided information literacy skills tutorial on finding and critically evaluating information.

Image of instrucions for an investigative activity
Students are supported in this investigative activity with information skills support right at the point where they need it.

By scaffolding learning in this way, the ongoing development of study skills is an integral part of our programmes allowing learners to develop skills and apply them to real academic content.

3. Tell students what they will learn, how they will learn it and how they will be assessed

Busy students need motivation to take part in learning activities so we provide a clear rationale for each activity: we demonstrate the relationship between learning outcomes, assessment and activities by providing:

  • A clear description of the assessment plan and marking scheme
  • The learning outcomes at the beginning of each module and each two-week chunk of learning
  • Activities to engage students with the assessment criteria before assessment time.  For example in our Psychology Research Skills module, students use the assessment criteria to provide feedback in a peer review activity,
Image of instructions for an activity to enagge with assessment criteria
Students engage with the assessment criteria in a formative peer review activity

By being upfront and clear about what is required of students and by supporting them to achieve this throughout their studies, we hope that all our students from varied international educational backgrounds will thrive and be successful on our programmes.

Further reading/links

Advance HE (2019) Independent learning

Jisc (2016) Supporting online students

Lieberman, M. (2017) Techniques for preparing new learners for success in online courses and programs Inside Higher Ed

Roddy, C. A., et al. (2017) Applying best practice online learning, teaching, and support to intensive online environments: an integrative review. Frontiers in Education, 2

Palloff, R. M., and Pratt, K (2003) The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners San Francisco: Jossey-Bass