What makes a successful online learner?

16. October 2018

Critical Success factors in online programs - by Mihaela Elsner

Erstellt von: Nick Lange

Online studies offer a wide range of advantages to students and tutors, but they pose their own challenges that are very different from those in traditional education. First and foremost, several obvious technology-related conditions have to be fulfilled, starting with a good computer and a good internet connection. Apart from these, we at SIBE have identified some student-related factors that were proven to support success in online programs. Our results are consistent to the results of several scientific studies and books on this topic:

1. Your mindset

In fact, emotional intelligence or the ability to identify and manage your own feelings as well as recognizing what others feel proved to be the most important predictor of study success (Grade Point Average) in a study conducted by Berenson, Boyles and Weaver (2008). Furthermore, it is essential to be open-minded about life and your potential to achieve success in an online program. It helps to have what Carol Dweck defines as a growth mindset: the belief that your abilities are not fixed and can be developed with time and hard work.

Adaptable and flexible students who display self-initiative benefit most from online resources to gain knowledge and to develop their abilities further. Also, to successfully participate in forum discussions, which are a great way of exchanging ideas and building study communities, you should be able to use criticism as feedback and not take it personally and feel offended by it.


2. Digital competencies

Some necessary digital competencies will seem obvious to you: the ability to use a computer, to do online research or create sharable content. But make sure not to stop here. Digital competencies, as defined by the European Commission in its Digital Competence Framework for Citizens, also include abilities such as the critical evaluation of data, managing your digital identity and so forth. Here at SIBE we are working with our own competency assessment methods, KODE® and SIBE Competency Assessment Center (SCA), which analyze a wide range of current competencies and their potential. Our students benefit from targeted development. Nevertheless it is essential to remember, that the process takes place in small incremental steps and therefore requires committed effort and patience.


3. Online communication skills

In online environments cues such as facial expression, tone of voice and body positions are partially or entirely missing, which calls forth a very unfamiliar range of skills for good communication. Included here are short, concise writing as well as assertively: the ability to express your feelings appropriately and to address problems when they arise, without personal offence.

It is especially important to contact the support team of your online program in case difficulties related to the technical aspects, scheduling or tasks appear. Chances are, you are not the only one having these problems and you might be able to help others as well by doing so. Regular participation keeps you connected to the discussions going on and provides others with necessary feedback that keeps them motivated as well.


4. Motivation

As determined by Washull (2005) motivation and self-discipline are some of the best predictors for success in online programs. Ivankova and Stick (2007) determined that the desire to attain goals (degree completion) works as a powerful intrinsic motivator when coupled with an appreciation of learning and personal responsibility. Here at SIBE we support students’ motivation by setting smaller milestones for them. Every learning unit is supposed to be completed in a week, including reading the materials and participating in the forums.


5. Self-discipline and self-organization

Self-organization encompasses the skills that allow you to be disciplined effortlessly by making the choices when planning your schedule in advance and not leaving much to daily moods. You will have to set fixed times for study and mark them in your calendar and not wait for the studying mood to strike. Download all necessary materials beforehand, make sure you will not be disturbed, plan your work and deadlines in advance, taking into account sick days or unexpected events. We have found that it is best to plan with 80% of your maximum effort capacity, as not all days will be equally successful.

Also, do not forget to plan in some time to relax and reward yourself for hard study. Like that you will feel more motivated next time your start a studying session. Doing a small amount of studying every day, even just 15 minutes, is better than ignoring your course for days in arrow and then studying for a whole afternoon, as material is best retained and integrated through repetition. Make sure to check your course a minimum of 4-5 days a week. Once you get into the online discussions, you will want to see who has commented on your postings and read the instructor’s feedback. If you let too many days go by, you will get behind and find it very difficult to catch up.

6. Critical Thinking

Here we refer to a set of skills that include critical thinking the ability to take instant decisions as well as reading with a purpose in mind. This last item is a part of the concept of “deep reading”, thoroughly explained by Wolf and Barzillai in their article “The Importance of Deep Reading” (2009) and by Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work” (2016).

Further on, good thinking skills do not only refer to processing information but also to guiding your behaviour afterwards. You will also have to test for yourself how you learn best. Proven ways of transferring things from short-term memory to long-term memory are reflective writing (which usually takes place through debating study topics in forums) or keeping a reflection journal. That can be done by creating a learning portfolio documenting your study process. The theory of constructivism holds that the best way to acquire lasting knowledge is to connect it to previous knowledge. So by reading an article, ask yourself what you already know about the topic, what is new and what might be different from your expectations.


You can find suggested readings here.

Mihaela Elsner, M.A.

Instructional Design