Student tips for online learning

Some of the key areas students should be mindful of when learning online

Anyone who is new to online learning is bound to have questions. How will my course be delivered? How will I submit coursework and assignments? How will I interact with my teachers and classmates? How will I ask a question in the classroom?

Most universities and colleges now have systems in place to facilitate remote working and distance learning. These systems, which are expected to feature more prominently in the coming years, have built-in tools that allow instructors to deliver lectures by video or audio, facilitate discussions, and track student performance.

Based on conversations with educational instructors and academics, the following list of tips touches on some of the key areas students should be mindful of when using a virtual learning environment.

1. How will my course be delivered?


"There are many communication tools within the virtual learning environment which enable lecturers to interact with their students and also to enable students to interact with each other" – Nuala McGuinn, director at NUI Galway's Centre for Adult Learning and Professional Development.

How each course will be delivered will depend on individual programme learning outcomes but it is likely in most cases to be a blend of remote delivery and on-campus activities involving some face-to-face engagement with academic staff.

Dedicated integrated virtual learning platforms such as Brightspace, Canvas and Blackboard provide instructors with the software tools to deliver lectures and track student performance. They also allow students to access their course curriculum as well as other course-related resources such as reading lists and assignment details.

Your college will provide guidance on how to use its remote teaching platform. Familiarise yourself with it and its capabilities. Don't be intimidated – you probably already use similar tech tools in your everyday life such as video chats via Zoom and Google Hangouts or connecting with friends on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Using the college's learning platform won't be so different.

In most courses, lectures are likely to be delivered by video for students to view ahead of class while class-time is more likely to be used to explore topics in greater depth.

On-campus activities, while subject to health restrictions, are likely to involve meeting instructors individually or in smaller groups.

2. What should I do to prepare?

Familiarise yourself with the course syllabus and understand what is expected of you. Read your course or module handbook. This should be available on the virtual learning platform. Take note of fixed lecture and tutorial times. Set aside time for study and research and integrate your course calendar with your own personal calendar. Plan to submit your assignments on time and participate in the virtual classroom if and when required.

While online learning is in many ways more convenient and flexible than in-class learning, don’t forget you will need the discipline to dedicate a significant amount of time to your course. Familiarise yourself with each module and make a list of what is required of you.

To engage in online learning you will obviously need good online access. Check your internet access. Is it reliable? Will it allow you to follow online lectures at designated times? Do you live in an area with limited access to broadband? Notify your tutor if this is the case.

Of course, not everyone has the same access to technology. If you don’t have your own computer or laptop or if you live in a setting where the computer in your home is in use at key times by a parent or others, attending online classes at set times might not always be possible. Inform your course organiser or tutor of any difficulties you may have and perhaps suggest the times that you can be present.

If you do have a computer or laptop, is it less than three-years old? If it is older than that it may have difficulties handling your college’s chosen online platform. The college should have a list of computer specifications you can check your device against. If you do not have access to a suitable laptop or desktop computer can you follow proceedings on your phone? If you do not have access to a computer, contact your course administrator as many colleges have schemes to assist students get access to the appropriate technology.

Consider using a second monitor if you have access to one. It can make it easier to manage multiple programmes simultaneously and studies show that a second monitor can improve productivity. Not only that but you could use Zoom or other communications tools while still maintaining access to course material.

3. How will I submit coursework and assignments?

Your college’s virtual learning environment is likely to be where you will view most of your lectures and access course material. Depending on the course, it will be delivered through an assortment of tools from videos and quizzes to downloadable documents and simulations. You will interact with your lecturer and fellow students through discussion forums, assignment platforms, group work collaboration options and video conferencing tools.

Assessing student knowledge is an integral part of third-level education. Analysing performance over time gives instructors the information they need to understand a student’s strengths and weaknesses and hopefully maximise their chances of improving over the course of the programme.

While assessments have traditionally had a focus on end-of-year examinations, the virtual learning environment offers multiple tools that are specifically designed to measure ability and knowledge.

Students can be assessed through a variety of means; you may sit some tests in a live setting at specified times, while other assignments and tests could be downloaded to your computer for you to work on in your own time. For some assignments you might be required to upload a prepared essay or record and upload a piece of video or audio. For some group assignments you will engage with your fellow classmates in forum discussions. Try to co-ordinate group chats with your classmates to discuss ideas and the task in hand.

Stay up to date with your assignments and make sure you back up your work. Take note of delivery dates for projects and assignments and use a study planner.

4. How do I ask a question in class and who do I contact if I need help?

"I can take each group into a private breakout room which is not recorded and have a personal meeting with them while the others are working on something else" – Kathleen Hughes, lecturer in marketing communications and social media marketing at TU Dublin.

The software used to create virtual online classrooms is very sophisticated. A lecturer can deliver a class, set a task during the class, and create a separate chatroom with a student in the event that they have a question or need assistance or advice.

Make sure to familiarise yourself with the functionality of the learning environment as most modern virtual learning systems will also offer students the digital equivalent of raising their hand in class and asking a question.

Don’t hesitate to email a lecturer if you have a question about your course or if you need access to reading lists or lecture slides. Make a point of connecting with the key people related to your course and institution.

Making a list of the contact details of tutors, student union representatives and course organisers is particularly useful when it comes to finding out who can answer any questions you may have.

Find out who to contact if you have queries about supportive resources, course administration, finance, student health or if you want to find out about student activities.

If you miss a class or an assignment or feel that you are falling behind, don’t worry – contact your tutor or class representative. They are there to help you. Keep an eye out for class announcements and be cognisant of your deadlines.

5. Where and how will I study?

"Students can benefit from self-paced learning and revisit lectures to listen again to complex ideas in a way that isn't possible in traditional teaching environments" Trinity College Dublin spokeswoman.

Blended learning is set to become the new norm for many courses this year as social restrictions disrupt traditional teaching models. Much of your learning and studying is likely to happen at home over the coming academic year. So it is important to create a dedicated home-study space – this will help you establish a learning routine. Make sure you have good ventilation and light, a desk with enough space and a decent chair. Have all the materials you need to hand and make sure your power connection is nearby. Keep your desk tidy and as distraction-free as possible. Use organisers, boxes and shelves to store your materials and don’t forget to turn off your phone when studying!

Time management can be a challenge at the best of times but the pay-off will be worth it. Create a routine by setting aside time each day for study.

Build a study plan by first considering your own learning style. Is it more effective for you to learn in the morning or in the evening? Work out your study needs, for example, think how much do you need to do for each class? Highlight upcoming classes and study sessions on your calendar. Draw up a plan for each subject. Allow for revision and take breaks.

6. How will I stay engaged?

"Our flexible blended model of teaching will require students to carry out small activities each week and engage with both the lecturer and their fellow students. This will be an encouragement to students to keep up and will allow individual lecturers to monitor their engagement and provide individual support," – Prof Jacqueline McCormack, vice president (online development) IT Sligo.

While many course activities are likely to be conducted off-campus in the coming months, the software available to colleges is designed to enhance student engagement. Course co-ordinators can monitor the progress of students and identify those who may have disengaged or who may be struggling with the course content. Not all activities will be online and some face-to-face teaching will take place in the form of tutorials, seminars and lab work. It is important to attend as many of these as is possible as they offer students a valuable opportunity to engage directly with teachers and instructors.

7. How will we collaborate?

"Technology can enable new opportunities for groupwork and collaborative learning and can generate new opportunities for conducting assessment and providing feedback, for example audio and video feedback. If utilised well, technology can improve access and support more inclusive participation for students with disabilities" - Dr Alison Hood, dean of teaching and learning at Maynooth University.

Being able to share notes and discuss coursework with fellow students and help each other with questions has always been a great help for students and there are so many tech tools that can enhance communication between you and your teachers as well as with your classmates.

Teachers can work individually with students to make sure the student’s needs are met while networking and video-conferencing tools make it possible for you to collaborate with fellow students no matter where they are located.

Talk to your classmates and work out what method works best for you to stay in touch with each other. Some will use services such college discussion forums while others will already be in touch on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

8. Ask!

"Don't give up. Reach out for support if things don't always go as well as you expect. It's normal to feel anxious, have setbacks and from time to time struggle for motivation, but remember even the very best students take advantage of the wider supports available to them" – Prof Mark Brown of the National Institute for Digital Learning at DCU.

If in doubt, seek it out!

You will need to stay organised and motivated if you are to keep on top of your workload but if you are struggling with coursework don’t suffer in silence. Get in touch with your tutor even if it is just something that you’re not sure about. While your college’s integrated virtual learning platform will provide tutors with all sorts of analytics about student performance they won’t necessarily realise that you are experiencing difficulties with a subject unless you let them know. Don’t be shy – get in touch, they are there to help.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.