Navigating the Course Site
A student wearing headphones and a gray Rutgers shirt types on a laptop in the learning centers.

How to Succeed in Online Courses

By Academic Coaches

Whether you are an experienced online learner, have had coursework with online elements, or never have engaged with an online environment outside of course websites on Canvas or Sakai, these resources can help you.

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Plan for Success

Take your learning to the next level and meet with an academic coach at the Learning Centers to create a more personalized plan of success.

Navigating the Course Site

If this is your first time taking an online course, it can seem daunting. The first step is to explore your learning management system (LMS). The LMS is the platform that hosts a college’s course websites. Rutgers primarily uses Canvas and Sakai. In most courses you will find four items: Home, Announcements, Modules, and Grades. Become familiar with how often your professor will update these areas.

At the beginning of the course, go into the settings of the online learning platform you are using and enable your notifications for assignments, announcements, and discussion forum activities. It is easy to fall behind in or forget about an online course when you aren’t getting regular notifications. In most learning management software programs, you can receive notifications on your email and phone. If it makes readability easier, you can use the "dark mode" add-on on Google Chrome.

Course Websites on Your LMS are Your Primary Resources

Although course sites may have previously served as support to your in-person class meetings, for online classes they are your first and most important resource. These LMS sites will be where learning and interaction take place, in addition to their existing role as a source of assignment information, announcements, syllabus details, and other updates. Your professors will use these sites to communicate specifics about how their courses will be conducted. 

There is also a Canvas app that you can download on your smartphone or tablet from the app store. Accessing Canvas from your phone can help you regularly monitor your courses. Learn more about using the Canvas app in this tutorial.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Online Courses

Think about your coursework this semester: How your classes operate, both in person and on the LMS sites, can vary widely depending on the subject matter, the learning goals, and the professor’s style and choices. Online learning, or “e-learning,” is likewise variable, for all the same reasons. Specifically, online courses have two types of elements.

  • Synchronous course elements are tasks that require students and professor to interact in real time. Examples include a webcast that a professor schedules for a certain time for all to view live, a chat feature that students are asked to use during a particular time period, and quizzes or exams that students take online at a fixed date and time.
  • Asynchronous course elements are tasks that students can complete at any time they choose, so long as they are submitted by the date indicated by the professor. Examples include an assignment due on Sundays at 11:59 PM, a quiz that can be submitted at any time until the end of the month, and assigned readings for a given week of class.

Your courses may be primarily synchronous, mostly asynchronous, or a combination. How do you find out? The course website, again, is your best friend! It is crucial for you to pay close attention to information on each course’s LMS site and access it regularly to keep updated on announcements and changes.

Technical Information

In general, computers that are four years old or less will be sufficient for an online course. Additionally, it is recommended that you have broadband (Cable, FIOS, DSL, etc.) internet speeds to access your course since many online courses contain video and multimedia content that might not play well through a dial-up modem.

You should also update to the newest version of whatever browser you are using as well as the most up-to-date Flash plug-in. Most courses work well on the following browsers:

  • Chrome 75 or higher
  • Firefox 68 or higher
  • Safari 12 or higher

Be sure to check your browser version often as they are frequently updated and the above information may be out of date.

Benefits and Challenges of Online Learning

Below are some pros to consider along with the challenges, so that you can be aware of what to expect as you continue to adjust to an online learning environment. Make an appointment with an academic coach to make a plan for overcoming these and other challenges.



Increased schedule flexibility

Increased need for responsibility and time management

More universal participation, and increased student exposure to peer responses and questions, when all students are required to post on discussion boards

Potentially more time required to read and respond to student postings

More flexibility in times and modes of interaction

No opportunity for hands-on, in-person work

For many online courses, increased variety in learning modes (video, audio, text, etc.)

Need to adjust to potentially unfamiliar learning modes

More opportunity for self-paced work on course assignments

More need to self-motivate and schedule work sessions

More ways to connect with the professor and/or teaching assistant (TA), especially for large lectures

No opportunity to meet with professor and TA in person

Learning can happen whenever and wherever you have a device and an online connection

Learning demands the presence of functioning hardware and internet access

Good Communication Practices

Attending school online takes classroom correspondence to a whole new level. It’s important to follow the guidelines of proper online etiquette to ensure good communication between you, your classmates and your teachers.

  • Respect: Whether the class is online or on-site, respect is essential. It allows all involved parties to focus on the objective and prevents distracting disagreements. Be sure to use a polite tone, read before responding and be constructive with your criticism. It’s important to treat all online interactions the same as face-to-face interactions.
  • Use proper formatting, punctuation and grammar: Though online communication is still new, the same rules of English apply in a classroom setting. Capitalize letters when necessary, use appropriate punctuation and avoid using slang and abbreviations. You’ll not only make your posts easier to read; you’ll demonstrate your professionalism and personal value.
  • Be honest: Because tone is difficult to convey online, sarcasm or humor can easily be misinterpreted. Though you may be tempted to joke around with your classmates, something written for a laugh may offend others. If you are unsure whether your message will be misconstrued, consider using an emoticon to lighten the tone.
  • Go to your teacher first: If you have a disagreement or issue with a fellow classmate, go to your teacher before the situation escalates. It’s best to make your teacher aware of the situation before it affects the classroom dynamics or the way you engage with your peers.
  • Stay on topic and keep it brief: Online classes often require a lot of reading, and when responding, it may be difficult to decide where to start. Focus your comments into short topics to keep the conversation flowing. Avoid being too wordy, and instead say what you need to say without veering off topic.

Although using a more formal tone online might seem unusual at first, by keeping your online conversations respectful and direct, you’ll clear the way for easy communication.

Participating in Discussion Forums

The difference between outstanding, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory discussion grades is getting into the Forums early and often, knowing what you’re talking about based on the reading/listening assignments, and interacting fully with peers. 

You should know the following information for discussion posts:

  • Word requirement for each post
  • Minimum comments required
  • Overall grade points for discussion forums

Common missteps when engaging in forums:

  • Offering opinions/experiences without drawing from the week's content
  • Posting in the discussion forums on the last days of the open period, when little back-and-forth discussion between peers can occur

Interactions Look Different

Learning in college is an experience that happens in a community – and this will not change if the community does not meet in person. Know that online learning will not necessarily reduce your interaction with your professors, teaching assistants (TAs), and classmates.

Interaction online can happen in many ways:

  • Video lectures, recorded or live, provided by professors for students to watch
  • Presentations that combine slides with in-time commentary from the professor via audio or video (such as Camtasia or Screen-Cast-o-Matic recordings)
  • Discussion boards on which students, and often TAs and professors as well, respond to questions and prompts as well as continue conversations
  • Chat functions which students can use to converse on course topics in real time
  • E-mail, whether Scarletmail or on the LMS sites, which continues to be a viable way to ask questions and communicate

Use any and all of these ways to connect and continue to learn from and with your course community.

If you've tried multiple methods of communication such as email, Canvas messages, chat/discussions, and you're having difficulty getting in touch with your instructor or TA , you can search for the department contacts on to find alternate contacts in the department. Please remember to give your instructors a reasonable amount of time to respond. For example, if you send an email on Friday evening, they may not be able to respond until the following week.

What to Ask Before an Exam

When it comes time for exams, don't forget to use the above methods of communication to reach out to your professor to ask some vital questions about the exam. Instructors, TAs and learning assistants are all there to help, so why not take advantage of it?

Here are some sample questions you might want to ask to help you prepare for your exams:

  1. How many questions will be on the exam? Will we be able to move back and forth between questions, or will we need to answer them in order?
  2. What types of questions will be on the exam? Will they come primarily from lecture notes or the textbook?
  3. What material will be covered and how much time will I have?
  4. Will the questions come primarily from notes or the text?
  5. What materials will we be able to use (open book, calculator, notes, etc.)?
  6. Will the exam be conducting using proctoring software, and if so, what do we need to be compliant?
  7. Will the exam occur at an exact time, or will we have a span of time to complete it?

If you encounter a problem during an exam, contact your instructor immediately and detail the exact problem that occurred. If you can screenshot anything as proof, that would be ideal. Don't wait until after the exam time to contact them.

Strategies for Success

Preparation and Planning

Determine how individual courses will proceed. Visit each course website regularly and carefully read the professor’s plan for how online instruction will be conducted. Keep a due date calendar to keep track of any assignments, their weighted value, and their due dates. You can make an appointment with an Academic Coach to help you.

Treat the Online Course Like a “Real” Course

These courses require self-discipline and dedication to follow through. The tricky part about participating in online course is that they are in some ways flexible but usually also have concrete and consistent deadlines. Consider blocking out time in your schedule just as you would for a traditional face-to-face class to work on online assignments, participate in discussions, and attend virtual conference calls.

Hold Yourself Accountable

Since online courses are generally self-paced, you need to set weekly goals and reminders regarding important due dates. You may have difficulty keeping track of your course responsibilities without having a professor to regularly remind you of upcoming work in class. You can group together with other classmates to hold one another accountable or schedule an appointment at the Learning Centers to work with an academic coach to set and achieve your goals.

Practice Time Management

Create and follow a schedule for all of your classes to help you avoid cramming for exams, waiting until the deadline to answer discussion posts, and missing assignment due dates. Look at the syllabus or list of assignments your instructor provides and mark them on your calendar. Be sure to add in new assignments and due dates as they are assigned throughout the semester by your professor. Create a weekly schedule and designate specific times to complete readings, watch lectures, participate in discussion forums, and study. Update any time management tool you use, indicating relevant changes including adjustments in quiz, test, and assignment due dates, times you are required to be online for a webcast or discussion, and any other new schedule items.

Create a Distraction-Free Study Space

Working from home can be distracting especially if you aren’t used to doing so. Find a space in your home where you can avoid distractions such as technology and hunger so that you may complete your work in a timely manner. Double check that your WiFi is working well before any synchronous class sessions. Try to establish a do not disturb routine and communication system if you are living with other people so that they don’t distract you. You can tune out sounds with music or ambient noise machines, or you may want to turn your computer on airplane mode to avoid going on the Internet, if possible. You could also download a website blocker such as Cold Turkey or Freedom to limit the amount of websites you can access. Keep your course materials organized in your study space by using folders or specific desk drawers.

Actively Participate

Participating in online lectures and discussion forums will help you better understand the course materials and engage with your fellow classmates. Be sure to check the course website regularly so that you keep up with announcements and assignment due dates. Schedule check in times in your schedule and treat it as seriously as you would treat attending face-to-face classes. Stay connected with fellow students. Make plans to study and discuss coursework using LMS chat functions, group meeting apps, or videoconferencing software. When in doubt, don’t assume – ask questions. Contact your professor using e-mail or send a message on Canvas. Ask questions and post your insights in online discussions. Make meaningful comments on your classmates’ posts, not just "I agree" or "That's a good idea." Further the conversation. Online classes can be very passive, but you can make them more active through meaningful and energetic discussion.

Take Notes

When the lecture is just a PowerPoint, slow down and take your time! When slides only contain a few bullet points, it can be tempting to just read them and move on. Try reading them out loud and making comments to slow yourself down; force yourself to think about what's on the slide. When the lecture is a video conference, review your notes when you’re done. Summarize the material in your own words, but also try to explain the material in terms of the other concepts in the class. Question as you go: note things that aren't clear to you. Take your questions and look for answers in the textbook, ask a friend, post your question on the class discussion board, or email your professor.

Know Yourself and Adjust Accordingly

Individual learners react to different learning environments in unique ways, no matter the setting. Think about yourself as a learner and student. How comfortable are you with online interaction? How well do you manage distractions when using a computer? Where and when do you learn best – and what times and places are surefire study disasters for you? Think about your unique needs and make any useful adjustments. Consider specifically what will be missing from your experience right now without in-person meetings, and see what you can do to build in those missing pieces in other ways, or substitute other types of interaction for them.

Minimize Screen Fatigue

Having courses online requires a lot of screen time from live lectures to pre-recorded videos, and from peer collaborations to nearly all of your assignments. With all the screen time, finding ways to minimize screen time is important for your mind and body because excessive screen time causes us to feel tired and weak. When we feel tired and weak, we do not perform with our best effort. 

Review the strategies below and select the ones you would like to use to minimize screen fatigue:

During Video Conferences:

  • Hide self-view
  • Select “speaker view” to focus on one person at a time
  • Minimize virtual distractions (e.g., less tabs opened, phone on silent mode)
  • Take handwritten notes

General Screen Time: 

  • Schedule screen free time (e.g., read a book, exercise, spend time with others)
  • Say no when needed — suggest a phone call instead of a video call
  • Adjust brightness of screen
  • Use blue light-filtered glasses
  • Get exposure to sunlight

More Helpful Tips and Links

Canvas Support

Sakai Support

  • For help with Sakai sites, go to the portal and click on the “Help” tab at the bottom of the left-side list of tabs.

Zoom & WebEx Support