Student’s Guide to Online Lectures

As the number of remote professional positions increases, enrollment in online classes has also grown. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly seven million students participated in at least one distance education course in fall 2018, compared to fewer than three million learners in fall 2012.

To meet the demand for distance education, colleges continue to add remote learning opportunities. In fact, some colleges require students to enroll in some online classes. Virtual courses often require students to view online lectures, either live or recorded. This guide provides tips for getting the most out of online lectures. The following sections explore the differences between live and recorded lectures and include tips for taking notes and asking questions.

Live vs. Recorded Sessions

Before enrolling in an online course, learners should note whether the class includes live or recorded lectures. Typically, asynchronous programs feature recorded lectures that learners can view at their own convenience during a certain time period. Students in synchronous online courses attend class at set times and watch their instructor deliver live lectures.

The best learning format depends on personal preference. For example, students who value freedom and flexibility often prefer asynchronous programs with recorded lectures. Asynchronous programs are ideal for learners with busy work schedules that vary each week, and students in these programs connect with peers through discussion boards.

Alternatively, students who prefer more structure and guidance usually thrive in synchronous courses. Students in synchronous classes typically network with peers through live chats. The type of communication between learners and instructors also depends on the class format.

How to Ask Questions in an Online Lecture



The protocol for asking questions while attending online lectures is similar to that in seated courses. Some professors and instructors prefer that students save their questions for the end of a live lecture, while others accept questions mid-session. Some virtual courses provide a chat box through which students can submit questions, while learners in other classes may need to leave their cameras on and raise their hands.

An online instructor should set clear classroom expectations in the course syllabus. The syllabus typically includes the instructor’s preferred method of communication, which is usually email. When viewing a recorded online lecture, students can write down questions to ask later.

Taking Notes in an Online Class

Like on-campus students, distance learners should take notes during lectures. Typing notes while viewing the lecture on the same device can be challenging. To remedy this, individuals can use a tablet as an additional screen or take handwritten notes. Online students can research various note-taking formats, such as brain maps and the Cornell-style method, to choose the best strategy for them.

Many online professors record live lectures to send to students who miss the session. However, even learners who were present for the live session can usually request this recording for studying and note-taking purposes.

Tips for Attending Online Lectures



Students who have spent more than 13 years attending in-person courses at a public or private school often need to adjust to the online learning format. The tips below can help students adjust to the new learning format. The following strategies can help students retain information while viewing lectures online. Learners can research additional methods to ensure they get the most out of their online program.


  • Understand the Goals of the Class

    While listening to lectures, pay special attention to statements that align with the course goals. Most course syllabi list 3-4 course objectives, which often directly relate to exam topics. Although professors usually aim to stay on topic during lectures, they occasionally provide supplemental material that may only relate to a few students. Understanding the course goals can help learners effectively prioritize study topics.


  • Prep Beforehand

    Completing the necessary prep work before an online lecture can help learners succeed. For example, students who complete required reading before class often retain more information from the lecture. Students who attend lectures with thoughtful questions and knowledge from the textbook often stand out to professors. Individuals should also prepare their work area beforehand.


  • Do Not Panic if Your Internet Lags or Cuts Out

    Technical difficulties happen. Online instructors experience occasional internet issues themselves, so they usually understand when students encounter difficulties. However, learners should make sure technical issues do not become a pattern. Online students should make sure they have reliable internet access and technology prior to the class start date.

    Learners who miss a live online lecture due to connectivity issues should email their professor immediately to explain their absence. They can request the recorded lecture or contact a classmate to borrow notes.


  • Understand Which Chats Are Public

    Most online classrooms include a chat feature, which usually displays messages to the entire class. This chat box allows learners to ask questions in real time, especially those that could benefit other learners. Students should follow the university’s policies for appropriate language and communication topics when using this public chat feature. To send private messages to a professor or classmate, learners can send an email or, in some cases, change their chat settings.


  • Reduce Distractions

    Viewing online lectures in a clean space with limited distractions can help virtual learners succeed. Learners can prepare a dedicated classroom space in a spare bedroom or in the corner of a room to foster an academic mindset. Online students should also consider placing their phone in a different room or turning off banner notifications during lectures. Learners should communicate their virtual class schedule to roommates to ensure they have a quiet work environment.


  • Remember to Participate

    Similar to seated courses, many online classes include a participation grade. Actively engaging in discussions and attending online classes also prepares students to succeed in their chosen field. Distance learners should enhance their participation by actively focusing on the online lecture, without multitasking. By asking questions, maintaining a good attendance rate, and participating in online discussion boards, students can benefit as much from online courses as in-person classes.


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