7 Tips for Crushing It in the Online Classroom

Nursing students studying for their degrees online have some advice for excelling in a virtual program.

Written and reported by:

Chelsea Lin

Contributing Writer

students in online study group
students in online study group

More than 90% of college students are now taking at least some of their classes online, an increase of nearly 200% over 2017, according to EducationData.org. It’s a trend that’s expected to continue, but not all students are prepared for how different online learning can be from attending classes on campus.

“The greatest challenge for students taking online courses is self-regulation,” says Chris Drew, who is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and teaches remotely at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. “[Students] need to remember to put in the same time, dedication, and effort as if you were studying on campus.”

We asked nursing students who are pursuing degrees online to share their advice for learning outside of the traditional classroom. Here are their top tips for success.

Tip No. 1: Form a Study Group

sherryl perez

This sounds like obvious college 101 advice, but for remote students, study groups can not only help you learn course material but also build community with peers who could be mere miles away, or in another state.

Sherryl Perez (pictured), who’s pursuing a master’s entry-level nursing program at the University of California, San Francisco, says the ideal study group is composed of students who have “similar learning habits and include some people who can challenge you to think about the material at a higher level of thinking.”

She recommends finding an online platform that works for your cohort to post days and times for study sessions and ask questions about assignments. Slack, a Facebook group, and WhatsApp are just some examples of your options.

You’ll also need to choose an online platform to meet. Zoom and Microsoft Teams are two of the most popular, but there are many to choose from.

Study groups for remote classes can help you build community with peers who could be mere miles away, or in another state.

Julissa Haya credits study groups for her survival in the pediatric nurse practitioner program at UCSF. “Study groups are a great way to learn from each other, especially if you are an auditory learner,” she says. “It’s also a great way to divide those long study guides, come together, and go over them as a group.”

Drew, author of the Helpful Professor blog, adds that there’s also a social component to these small groups. “A study group is not only about studying,” he says. “It’s also about feeling less isolated. It’s about getting that sense of community that so many online students sorely miss.”

Tip No. 2: Leverage Those Lectures

If your memories of in-person learning are punctuated by missed alarms and midclass daydreams, you’re not alone. Online students can face the same pitfalls, but recorded lectures can fill in the blanks.  

Ferlyn Mabanglo, who is pursuing an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) at Cypress College in California, says planning which days she’ll review lectures is crucial to staying organized.

“Depending on your school, online lectures may be prerecorded and you can review them on your own time (asynchronous), or lectures are recorded in live time while students watch (synchronous),” she says. “Reviewing asynchronous material on [specific days] will help divide your attention effectively rather than reviewing asynchronous lectures every day.

“For synchronous lectures, these are discussed in the beginning of the term where you know which set days you need to be online for a live recording.”

Tip No. 3: Organize Your School Space

estela guevara

Getting a good night’s sleep may be critical to learning, but that doesn’t mean you should be studying in bed. In fact, you’ll learn best if you have a clean, organized study space that’s not where you like to nap.

Estela Guevara (pictured), who is pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) online at UCSF, says she’s learned to organize her workspace at night. She sets out her planner, pens, notebooks, glasses, and a cup of water, so when her alarm goes off for those 8 a.m. classes, she’s ready to go.

“I’m a Type A personality,” Guevara says, “and it definitely relieves a lot of anxiety.”

You’ll learn best if you create a designated study space—and, no, your bed doesn’t qualify.

Tip No. 4: Embrace Apps

Sure, technology can be a distraction while you’re trying to study. But it can also be a key to success if you take advantage of apps and programs designed specifically to help you learn and stay organized.

Here are some favorites of our online student experts:

  • Study apps:
    Stephania Ulett, a nursing student at Chamberlain University in Florida, says YouTube, and the apps Simple Nursing, Level Up RN, and Picmonic, provide lectures, learning tools, study guides, and test prep to help you master material. Apps like these “will be your best friends while in nursing school,” Ulett says.
  • Transcription apps:
    Perez recommends transcription apps such as Otter if you want to transcribe live lectures into text. She says apps like these can be a great learning tool if it’s more effective for you to read notes than to listen to a lecture the second time around.
  • Time management apps:
    Guevara relies on Flora, a gamified productivity app that challenges you and your friends to grow trees—virtually and in real life—based on how productive you are. This app can help you get through to-do lists and stay off your phone and away from the rabbit hole of endless social media scrolling.

Tip No. 5: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

As a teacher, Drew says he’s surprised by how few online students reach out for help or clarification regarding assignments, but sometimes it’s the best thing you can do.

“Anxiety and stress levels peak when you’re unsure of what to do,” Drew says. “We’re here to help you—so make use of that! Asking for clarification can help you feel like you’re on steady footing and proceed in your work with confidence.”

Mabanglo recommends asking for an extension on deadlines “when life happens” to help balance your workload.

“Professors will sometimes remind students of this option,” she says. “However, even if they don’t, it doesn’t mean you can’t ask. Professors want you to succeed, and my advice is to always ask and explain your situation.”

Tap Your Family for Help

  • Drew offers this advice for students with children: “Ask your partner or family to look after the kids for a dedicated few hours per week so you can study without distractions.”

Tip No. 6: Create a Schedule and Stick to It

Good study habits are the key to success, says Drew, and when you’re learning from home, that means creating a schedule. Think of it “like having shift hours at work,” he says, and stick to it.

“Online students often work full-time jobs and squeeze school into the evening hours,” Drew says. “While this is a big benefit of online studies, also remember to give your studies the time and dedication they deserve.”

No Coasting Allowed

  • Remote learning can put more responsibility on students to stay on top of classes, Drew says, so you need to pay special attention to following through on your work.

“It can be very easy for an online student to delay a task until the end of the week or ignore an email,” Drew says. “This seems to be a much bigger problem for online classes because you can coast under the radar more easily. No one’s going to be leaning over your shoulder each week in class checking up on you.”

If you have a hard time focusing for long chunks of time, Mabanglo and Guevara recommend the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management method that uses a timer to break work into 25-minute blocks followed by a five-minute break. There are several time-management apps based on this technique.

Good study habits are the key to success, says Drew, and when you’re learning from home, that means creating a schedule and sticking to it.

In terms of completing assignments, Drew advises getting into the habit of writing papers early so you have breathing room in case something unexpected pops up in your work or home life.

Finish them early, but don’t necessarily turn them in early: Drew says you’ll want to revisit those drafts and edit them with fresh eyes a few days before you submit them.

Tip No. 7: Don’t Forget Self-Care

stopwatch graphic

When you’re juggling work, school, and family obligations—any of which can be a full-time job on its own—putting yourself first at times can feel selfish. But taking care of your mental and physical health can help you be prepared for class and whatever else life may throw at you.

Guevara says her self-care is feeding her body well. “I love to cook, so I just make sure that I’m cooking more than I’m eating out,” she says. “I believe nutritious eating is going to benefit me.”

Sometimes, the first thing that goes when we stress is self-care, but Guevara says to fight this counterproductive urge.

“I’ve heard from students that maybe they were so stressed they stopped running,” she says. “And making time to run on their lunch breaks gives them the energy they need to get homework done later.”

Sleeping well, practicing mindfulness, and checking in with friends can all help you succeed.

Joseph Mingo III, who is pursuing a BSN at Galen College of Nursing, says it so simply: “Reward yourself!”

Now, who wants a cookie?

Think we missed a crucial tip? Send yours to our Facebook or Instagram account!


chris drew

With professional insight from:

Chris Drew

Professor, Swinburne University

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