Published on 2013/05/30
Five Mistakes Online Students Make (Part 2)
Earning a degree online is no easier than earning a degree via the traditional, in-class route. However, by taking some simple steps, adult learners can give themselves the best environment possible to attain their post-secondary credential.

In the first part of this series, O’Hara explained that, over the past decade, she has seen online students make a number of mistakes in their path to degree completion. However, she noted, students who successfully avoided five significant pitfalls were often those who earned their degrees. The last article reviewed the first two mistakes online students can make — underestimating the time it can take to earn a degree and mismanaging one’s time. In this conclusion to the series, O’Hara outlines the other three missteps students must seek to avoid.

Mistake Number 3: Family, Friends and Work

One suggestion I always made to my students was to get a signed contract from spouses, other family members and friends about their support.  It sounds silly, but coming to consensus about your time requirements with these individuals helps to avoid misunderstandings later. Your family should know they will always come first, but that short-term wants may have to give way to long-term goals. An upfront, honest discussion about expectations at your workplace while you’re taking classes is also useful.  If you don’t have your supervisor’s support in your endeavor, you are far less likely to complete your degree, as work will get in the way too often. When I worked on my MBA, I had financial support from my employer, but I knew that work always took precedence and I ended up with more Bs than I wanted due to missed classes. Consider the industry in which you are currently employed.  As an IT operations person, I had to respond to situations when they occurred, so I had little wiggle room for postponing a work-related task. On the other hand, if you work in a field where tasks do not always require immediate attention, your time is far more flexible.

Mistake Number 4: Finding Support

One comment we often hear from students is, “I didn’t know that” about items clearly indicated in the information provided to them. I would guess about 75 percent of  “surprises” were covered in orientation materials. Don’t come into your program thinking you know how everything will work. Read the support material you’ve been given to determine sources of support. Ask your advisor for a video / telephone conference or online chat. Often, issues requiring dozens of emails are settled in less than 15 minutes in a live encounter. Your professors are another support source. Most online instructors are aware of the issues you may face, and most will work with you. Avail yourself of the professor’s knowledge and help during virtual office hours. Don’t assume your professor will ignore a request for assistance or not bend on a due date. Bring up issues in advance of their occurrence rather than after, and always be armed with possible solutions. For example, “I can’t take the exam Friday due to work, but I can complete it Thursday” tends to be more effective than a flat-out refusal. Classmates are another support source. Most of them are balancing career, family and school, just like you. Reach out to them as virtual study partners. If your online class is not set up to support this, ask the professor to create a Q&A forum for students to exchange information.  You will be surprised at the strength of your relationships with other online classmates.

Mistake Number 5: Getting Discouraged

No matter how much you plan and how much support you have, something will likely go wrong. When it seems school must take a back seat to other obligations, first see if you can work out a solution with those involved. If you can’t, find out what the options are from your professor or advisor. As an advisor, I found many students simply dropped the class, when asking for a due date extension or even taking an “incomplete” was a viable alternative. As an instructor, I stressed to students that they should contact me before dropping a class to see if we could work things out. Most of the time, we did. Dropping a class greatly diminishes your likelihood of completing your degree, so view this as a last resort. Don’t waste a drop on a class in which you can earn a B or C by holding out for an A. Sometimes, taking the B or C is the right thing to do.  Traditional college students with little work experience may need a high GPA, but you undoubtedly have good work experience and references.

In Summary

To attain your degree goal, you really have to want it and you need to work hard at getting it. It won’t be as easy as those college face-to-face classes you took when you were 18, but your ability to plan, to identify and tap appropriate resources and your maturity will take you a long way. Be proactive, take charge of your learning and maintain open communications with all those concerned. Good luck on your journey!

To read the first part of this series, please click here.

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Readers Comments

Vera Matthews 2013/05/30 at 9:29 am

The biggest mistake adult students taking online courses make is not devoting enough time to the subject. O’Hara jokingly, but rightfully, writes about having students sign contracts with the people in their lives so that they avoid issues regarding conflicting priorities later on. It is incredibly important that these issues be settled before the student begins a course, so that the student isn’t forced to use the time needed for studying and homework for a different priority later on.

Jessica Prince 2013/05/31 at 4:59 am

I know of far too many adult students who, panicked, have dropped courses before speaking to the instructor about other options. Being new to the school system, I think many adult students have a false idea that the curriculum is set in stone and that instructors don’t have the flexibility to deal with their specific circumstances. It is up to instructors to correct this common misconception.

Anthony Birch 2013/06/17 at 7:20 pm

“Avail yourself of the professor’s knowledge and help during virtual office hours.”
– Good advice, but in my experience almost no one ever takes advantage of it.
“Don’t assume your professor will ignore a request for assistance or not bend on a due date.”
– There needs to be a little more said here. Your professor (actually usually just a Facilitator) is going to be REQUIRED to respond to requests for assistance. No school I know allows Facilitators to ignore requests for assistance. As far a due dates go, read the Syllabus. Here again, it may not even be the Facilitator’s choice about what to do with late assignments. Often grade reductions are required for late assignments. Taking a test early (the example in the article), on the other hand, may be an option.

John A MacDonald 2014/10/17 at 4:37 am

I like what you have to say here but there are two things that could use more attention-Communicating when there are issues and also time for themselves in completing coursework and also relaxing. There seems to be an issue that on-line courses are easy. I can say they are not-as a current student, curriculum developer and also facilitator for over 15 years there seems to be this idea but I take the time and communicate while also making myself available. It’s just not all the students but the facilitators as well. Everyone needs to change their approach in the on-line environment.

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