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How to prepare your learners for online success

By Ryan Watkins
February 2, 2014
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It would be nice if all learners came to class armed with the study strategies and skills necessary to succeed, but the reality is that most students start online or hybrid courses with very few tools at their disposal.

It's not their fault. After all, they have likely succeeded in previous face-to-face courses and assume (as we instructors often do) that the same strategies will work in a digital environment.

As a result, few learners are equipped with systematic strategies for maximizing their online learning, and few e-courses systematically help learners develop the skills that will help them succeed. In online or hybrid courses, which represent a new type of classroom for many learners, helping students acquire these skills can make all the difference in how much they take away from the experience — and can even help improve course retention.

Essential skills for online learning

So what types of skills are we taking about? Most are basic study strategies that have to be adapted for online learning. For example:

  • How will students take notes while viewing online lectures — on paper, on a tablet or on the computer while they watch?
  • Will students apply traditional reading comprehension techniques (such as the SQ3R method or the Cornell Method) when reading an online article?
  • What roles will students play in online team projects?
  • What tools will students use to manage their time?

Study skills for online learning should, whenever possible, build on what learners have used successfully before. Linking traditional and online study skills is a recipe for success for most learners.

Incorporating study skills into the curriculum

It is up to us as instructors to encourage and guide learners in developing the skills that help them succeed. The most effective way to do this is to weave activities into the curriculum designed to help build the right study skills for the material.

For example, if your course involves team assignments or projects, take time at the beginning of the course to introduce learners to the numerous challenges and opportunities posed by online collaboration. You may want to assign students to specific team roles at first and then allow them choose their roles later on as they become more familiar with the process.

Likewise, if you are using online video lectures, do not assume learners will know how to get the most out of the experience. Consider offering an outline of each lecture with spaces for students to take notes as they watch. Or you could pause every five minutes throughout the lecture and ask learners to reflect on what they heard and jot down the main points before continuing. This type of interaction with the content can help encourage longer retention of the information.

There are many techniques like these that you can use to engage students in activity learning but most have to be purposely designed into the course or they will not take root.

In chapter five of Online and Hybrid Learning Design Fundamentals, we share a variety of tools, techniques and tips for helping learners succeed in your course. Some focus on things students can do, while others focus on things that you can do as the instructor.

In either case, neither you nor your learners should assume that all the strategies and skills for success are already in place before your course begins — rather, you should engage in an open dialogue about what it takes to be a successful online learner and how those skills can best be developed.

Ryan Watkins and Michael Corry are contributing authors for the ISTE book Online and Hybrid Learning Design Fundamentals. Order your copy today!