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6 Ways to Be Successful as an Online Learner

Tina Kruse headshot outside.

Tina Kruse is an educational psychologist who both teaches undergrads and also coaches students of all ages to reach their learning goals. With academic expertise on student learning and youth development, she blends decades of college experience with the latest research to guide growth and design courses for school success. From topics like procrastination and goal setting to school motivation and personal leadership skills, Tina supports students and the people who love them.

Visit to find out how Tina can help you make the most of school…because every student deserves to love their learning experience!

What a Forest and a Classroom Have in Common

In my part of the world, the upper midwest of the US, summers mean lush green foliage everywhere. I am enamored with trees and am fortunate enough to have many in my backyard. As a college professor who doesn’t teach from June-August, I spend plenty of time watching these deep green marvels glisten in the sun and sway in the wind. I especially love hearing the subtle creaking sound they make on a windy day, bending but not breaking with each gust. 

Recently I’ve been thinking about how much the trees’ reactions to the various weather mimics my students’. 

Most thrive with the basics of rain and sun and are able to withstand fierce winds because their healthy roots are grabbing deep into the earth. Similarly, many students bend and adapt to changes in their environment, moving slightly–maybe “creaking” a little!–but ultimately staying upright and strong. Others, though, struggle to manage the whipping winds of a July thunderstorm. They lose branches, leaves, and some even break.

The coming academic year of 2020-2021 promises many “windy” days and possibly even some fierce storms, as class schedules and delivery formats change dramatically. 

Higher education has already seen daily news of institutions altering their modes–some who promised in-person have already switched to remote instruction, while others will begin hybrid but be prepared to go virtual anytime. Elementary through highschool students brace for what’s next , knowing that even the strongest plans can be changed in a moment. 

All the while, students will be expected to keep up in their coursework, continue their studies, plug away at their degrees or other academic goals. It seems to me that, like the trees, the need to bend and not break in school is more necessary than ever.

 Defining Resilience

In psychology, which is the field of my PhD and academic research, we call this ability “resilience.” What is resilience? Psychology Today defines it as “psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before.”

The global health crisis has asked for more resilience than usual. The sudden shift to remote learning during the months of lockdown beginning in March 2020 asked students to exhibit resilience. Some responded well, and some did not. Those who did not or could not–due to learning needs or life circumstances–“bend” with the winds of that change found themselves highly stressed, disengaged, overwhelmed, and in some cases, failing coursework.

I know because I saw these students in my own teaching and in my academic life coaching. I continue to hear so many parents say, “My student didn’t do well once school went remote.” While the style and quality of the online teaching caused problems for lots of those students, it’s equally true that students vary in their capacity to recover and bounce back. Some have a natural tendency to be resilient, while others must learn and practice skills of resilience. Some have access to more resources to support their resilience, while others have significant limitations due to minimal technology, economic hardship, and societal oppression, especially systemic racism. The reality is: the deck is not evenly stacked when we ask students to handle hard times.

Furthermore, traditional schooling is not designed to produce highly resilient people! Instead, the education system typically shapes students to be highly structured, predictable, and repetitive. A quick shift to remote schooling asked us to be far less structured, less predictable and self-driven. It’s no wonder so many students struggled!

Learning from the Past 

We can all help the young people in our lives– our kids, our students, our mentees, etc.  become more resilient to meet the challenges of the coming academic year. Let’s start by considering the most common obstacles students said affected their learning:

  1. Distraction: Many students and parents alike report that it’s harder to focus during online courses. The result is low engagement and motivation. You might see this play out at procrastination, missing work, or even total avoidance of the schoolwork.
  1. Disconnection: Some students say that online school feels isolated, and they miss not only their friends but classmates they can interact with. This is no surprise since many people are all “social learners,” thriving in proximity to other learners. 
  1. Overwhelm: Many students find they can’t keep up in online school. They look at their learning management system and have no idea where to start or what to do. Their experience of low control over demands coming in results in anxiety, procrastination, and inability to complete assignments, let alone learn from them. 

Becoming More Resilient In Online Classes

Teachers of all levels are building better virtual learning environments for the coming school year. Students too can build better skills to thrive within these improved settings, despite the  rapid change. The following action steps are ideas that you can share with the young people in your life as they prepare to navigate the challenges of the coming year:    

6 Practical Suggestions for Doing Well in Online School

  1. Create your own structure; for example, do schoolwork around the same time each day and from the same place. Research in embodied cognitive science points out that  what we do physically can help what we do cognitively.
  1. Prioritize communication with teachers. Email or meet virtually with each teacher at least once in the first few weeks to start the relationship. It’ll help to have a low-level conversation early so when a high-need problem arises, you’ve established how to reach out. (Yes I know it feels awkward, and I know many students hate to do this. Trust me, it pays to take this step. Don’t skip it. Plus, teachers like to hear from you).
  1. Use paper and pencils/pens even in online courses. Take notes by hand instead of electronically. Write each assignment in your planner or whiteboard instead of just looking at what is posted by the teacher. 
  1. Reduce distractions by scheduling work time, AND taking much-needed breaks. Why? Without proper breaks, some students scroll their phones during an online lecture and then lose focus on the material. Scroll away, I say, but do it at a scheduled time…after the class. Plan for breaks as much as you plan for assignments.
  1. Connect with peers. Alot. Don’t underestimate how much learning is affected by other people around you. If your online class doesn’t already put you into collaboration, you’ll need to proactively seek it out. Message a friend or classmate with class questions or just say hello to stay connected.  
  1. Be patient with online formats and with yourself as you get familiar. Some learning tools are new to most students–and teachers! After years of the same format (walk into a classroom, find a seat and look at the board), you’re being asked to do very different actions (open a screen, look for a link or assignment list, plan your approach independently). You may feel uncomfortable, but that is normal–you’re outside of your comfort zone. But it’s worth it because that zone is where the real growth happens.

As a parent or supporter of young people, it’s important to consistently keep the conversation open. Remind your kids or students about these tools and support them in building the academic routines that work best for them. They can bend in the forceful winds, rather than break. No one knows for sure how the year will play out, but the challenges it holds can result in deeper and stronger roots for students if we stay committed to resilience.

Want More?

I’ve made a free pdf of Tips for Online Learning for everyone who wants it. I hope it helps you and your family! 

Worried that following these steps on your own won’t be enough? Enrollment is open for my small-group program: The Resilient Student: Support for Online & Hybrid Learning. Together we can handle whatever wind storms may be coming our way.

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