Top Characteristics of Successful Online Students

Online education can be a convenient way for students to earn degrees as they navigate their way through other responsibilities, such as caring for a family or working a full-time job. However, students who enroll in these programs should know that online learning is different from the traditional route. On this page, readers will learn the characteristics students need to be successful in online degree programs, as well as the traits that can cause students to do poorly and how to avoid them.

Who are the Students Studying Online

Just as students from all walks of life can be found on a college campus, online students are a diverse group of people working toward the common goal of getting an education to prepare for a career. The following facts paint a picture of what types of people choose to earn online degrees.

Who are online students?

Not surprisingly, the number of students who have opted to earn their degree online has grown exponentially in recent years. In fact, data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that in the 2007-2008 school year, only 3.8 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States were enrolled in entirely online degree programs, and that amount jumped to 6.5 percent in the 2011-2012 academic year.

According to the center, there were more women (7.7 percent) enrolled in online degree programs that academic year than men (4.9 percent). In addition, the majority of people enrolled in these programs were nontraditional students who were at least 30 years old (13 percent), compared to younger age groups (8 percent were 24 through 29 years old and 3.2 percent were 15 through 23).

Although there were significant differences when it came to the age and gender of students enrolled in online degree programs, the racial makeup was spread out more evenly:

What do online students study?

Just as the racial makeup of online students is diverse, the majors they gravitate toward are also varied. The Learning House Inc. conducted a survey of undergraduate students enrolled in online programs in 2018 and found the following:

In addition, the organization looked at the enrollments of graduate students in 2018, and found that:

Why do students attend online schools?

Just as with students at traditional schools, online students enroll in their programs for career purposes. According to The Learning House, 17 percent of students wanted to transition into a new career, 16 percent wanted to gain additional skills to use in their current job, 13 percent enrolled with a salary increase in mind, and 10 percent were required by their employer to get additional training.

What type of schools do online students attend?

The National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2011-2012, the majority of students enrolled in online degree programs attended private, for-profit colleges (21.6 percent). Additionally, 4 percent of these students attended public schools, and 4.5 percent enrolled in private, nonprofit colleges.

Why do online students choose the schools they attend?

The Learning House survey found the most important factor students considered when looking at schools was tuition and fees, with 34 percent of students stating it’s why they enrolled in the school they did. Other factors that influenced their decision included program reputation (13 percent), school location (11 percent) and faculty credentials (6 percent).

Are online students employed?

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 36.2 percent of online students had a job during the 2011-2012 school year and 24.9 percent did not.

What services are important to online students?

Just as online students pursued their degrees to help them in their careers, The Learning House reports they also used their school’s career services for this purpose. For example, 50 percent of students said they took advantage of their school’s career advising services; 48 percent used self-assessments; 47 percent had help with their resumes and 40 percent received job assistance from their school.

10 Traits & Habits of Successful Online Students

When deciding on whether to enroll in an online or traditional degree program, students should consider which format is the best fit for them. In order to thrive in an online learning environment, students must have certain traits and habits. The following are examples of the qualities that successful online students possess.

  1. Ability to work independently. All college students have to juggle deadlines, but in order to be successful in an online program, students must be able to keep up with all their work without the benefit of the professors, classmates or roommates they see daily reminding them. Online students may also be tasked with getting the answers to questions on their own because of the response delays that may occur after contacting a professor. People who need regular reminders and immediate feedback in order to get things done may not do well in a distance learning environment.
  2. Strong time management skills. “Students need to be able to prioritize and track their own progress in courses,” says Cherron Hoppes, chief academic officer and vice president at Helix Education. “This requires a realistic understanding of how long it might take to complete a task.”
  3. Ability to self-reflect. In order to be successful, it’s important for students to process the feedback they receive and incorporate it into their work, says Lacey Geiger, open course coordinator at Missouri State University. “It is essential that online students be willing to reflect on this feedback and proactively make changes to their own habits and strategies as needed,” she says. “While online instructors will often provide detailed feedback, a student needs to take the time to consider what they might need to adjust to be successful.”
  4. Being a thorough and comprehensive reader. “It’s crucial for online students to read with focus,” says Lynne Fleisher, director of Clarion Online at Clarion University. “Much of the coursework will involve reading materials that need to be retained and applied.”
  5. Commitment. Earning any degree is a big time commitment, but some students enroll in online programs mistakenly thinking they won’t have to dedicate as much time to their studies as they would when earning a traditional degree. However, the reality is students in online programs often invest more time into their studies than their on-campus counterparts.
  6. Knowing when to take breaks. Online students can spend long hours in front of their computer working, so in order to stay refreshed, it’s important for them to take regular breaks away from the screen. Successful online students arrange their day so they’re not spending long periods of time at the computer.
  7. Willingness to take advantage of available support services. Online schools offer amenities designed to support students’ success and those who are successful reap the benefits of using them. “Many institutions now have a number of support services for students enrolled in online programs,” Hoppes says. “By taking advantage of advising, student success, tutoring, mental health and other support services, students are taking full advantage of the community’s resources to ensure success.”
  8. Willingness to ask questions. “In an online classroom, an instructor can’t tell with a quick glance if their students are understanding the material. There is no look of confusion that will tell them if a student doesn’t comprehend either the content or the assignment,” Geiger says. “As such, students must be willing to approach their instructors with questions. Successful students will try to include as much detail in their question as possible, so that the instructor can provide a similarly detailed answer.”
  9. A self-motivated personality. Students who are successful in online programs are willing to take control of their education and be responsible for getting what they need. “A student should be their own best advocate and never settle for less,” Fleisher says. “Be proactive, ask lots of questions and don’t apologize for asking them.”
  10. Willingness to actively participate. In traditional degree programs, classroom discussions are often where students learn the most. Although online students aren’t having face-to-face discussions with their peers and professors, they can still reinforce reading material by taking an active part in each class. The more online students participate in class, the more they absorb the material and get the most out of the experience.

How to Make Yourself an Online Student Success

Just as there are qualities that contribute to the success of online students, there are also habits and traits that lead to being unsuccessful when working on an online degree. The following are examples of things online students should avoid.

Being unprepared for college
Some students who do poorly in online programs may not be fully prepared to attend college and may lack the fundamental skills needed to be successful. In these cases, students may be able to get tutoring services from their school to help them improve on their weaknesses or take fundamental courses to help them get up to speed.
Lack of experience with technology platforms
Online students don’t have to be technology experts, but they do have to know enough to navigate the learning environment. “Students who can only access the internet through public access (library, campus, etc.) will be at a grave disadvantage and lack of experience in simple software and practices — such as uploading, downloading, etc. — will be a barrier to learning,” Hoppes says. “Students need to take advantage of technology training if they don’t have these skills.
Having unrealistic expectations
“College courses require not only time to complete readings and assignments, but also time to consider what you’re learning and reflect,” Geiger says. “Some students see online learning as a ‘faster’ option, but while these courses can be done on a student’s own schedule, they do still require a significant time investment.”
Taking on too much
There are only so many hours in the day, so online students should assess how much school work they can complete in a semester. When students have too much on their plate, it can lead to failure. “The student needs to be honest with themselves regarding how many classes they take and actually succeed in — not how many classes will get them the most financial aid funding, and not how many classes they can take to graduate quicker,” Fleisher says.
Lack of self-confidence
In order to be successful in any degree program, students need confidence to get their work done. Since online students are required to do so much independently, this is especially important. People who don’t have self-confidence may develop poor habits, like handing in work late or avoiding certain tasks all together. To help build confidence, students should take their time when completing assignments and ensure they are prepared for tests. And when they have successes, they should celebrate so they’re reminded of why they’re actually good students.
Lack of willingness to make room for school
“Being an online student should not be an ‘also, and’ to the rest of life’s demands,” Hoppes says. “The decision to be a successful student means setting aside some other things to make room for the requirements of school work.”
Difficulty with written instructions
“While students of all learning styles can be successful in online courses, those who have difficulty following written instructions will find that online courses are more challenging,” Geiger says. “Even when course content is delivered in multiple ways, such as video or audio, most basic course instructions and guidelines will be in written format.”
Being afraid to ask for help
No student is perfect, so they should not let embarrassment or fear stop them from getting the help they need. If they do, their academic performance may suffer. “Students sometimes believe that if they ask questions in a course, they will be seen as incompetent. That could not be any further from the truth,” Fleisher says. “When a student has this attitude, they set themselves up for suffering in silence and asking for help at the last minute when it is just too late. The university (faculty/staff) needs to make clear to students their support options, such as tutoring, writing center, disability support, advising, career services. We need to be welcoming and nonthreatening.”
Unable to adapt to an online environment
Distance learning is different from traditional learning, so online students must be prepared to adjust to this kind of environment. Students have to get used to working at their own pace and developing the discipline necessary to work independently and manage their time.
Poor study skills
As with traditional degrees, students in online programs need to have strong study skills to succeed. This takes the planning to create a realistic study schedule and the discipline to stick to it.

From the Experts

Prospective online students often have many questions before taking the plunge and enrolling in a degree program. In order to provide the answers to some of these questions, we asked the following experts for their advice:

  • Cherron Hoppes, Chief Academic Officer and Vice President at Helix Education
  • Lacey Geiger, Open Course Coordinator at Missouri State University
  • Lynne Fleisher, Director of Clarion Online at Clarion University
What are some common mistakes online students make and how can they be avoided?

Hoppes

Thinking online learning is somehow easier than in-person instruction. It is not. Students must engage with the content found in the online class, with their peers, and with their faculty to ensure success. That takes time and effort. Often more so than just sitting in a lecture a couple of times a week.

Another mistake is not reading the syllabus or communications from the instructor. A well-prepared syllabus establishes expectations for the course, timelines for assignments and resources for support. Also, ignoring the criteria for evaluation found in grading rubrics is a mistake students make. For those who have them in their courses, the rubric spells out exactly what is expected for evaluation. When rubrics are provided there should never be a question of, “Why didn’t I get an ‘A?’”

Geiger

Online students commonly neglect to ask for help until it’s too late. I think because it is harder to build a rapport between students and instructors, they feel like they’ll be causing trouble, when often faculty are willing to work with students just as they would in any course.

Often, especially in their first classes, students underestimate how long assignments will take and struggle as a result. It’s important to plan for things well in advance of when they will be due, just in case trouble arises. When students leave tasks until the last minute, that’s when their computer will crash or their internet will be down. While instructors will often be willing to work with students, it’s important to plan ahead so that minor inconveniences don’t create large issues.

Fleisher

Procrastination is a big mistake. Having a scheduled time to devote to your online studies is key. That may be 10:30 p.m. or 3:30 a.m., but you must carve out that learning space in your own home and stick to it.

Another mistake is not reading or reviewing the material fully. A student must review all the information and ask questions of the instructor to fully understand what are “must” reads and what are “optional” reads.

Using bad “netiquette” is also a mistake. Emails, discussion areas, blogs, etc. in the context of a course are professional areas, not social areas, and should be regarded as such. Students need to use their best grammar, spelling and writing style. Constructive criticism is key, not bashing individuals for their opinions. Respect for instructors and likewise respect for all students is also key. Faculty members need to exhibit and model the professionalism they expect from their students. Set a good example. It is always a good practice to have simple guidelines set out clearly for students to review via the syllabus.

How can online students combat the isolation they may feel?

Hoppes

Connect to advisers or success coaches available to support them. Take advantage of resources, such as career services, library research support and other related services. Create an ad hoc cohort of students by finding like interests, personal or professional goals. The “Getting to Know You” introduction used in most courses is a great way to find others to connect with. Use that as an inroad to develop a network of support and opportunity.

Geiger

Participating fully in group activities can be of great help to combat isolation. Most courses include components where students discuss and interact with other students and it’s important to take these opportunities, even when they are optional. In addition, students can form groups, particularly with those in their programs, on the social forum of their choice.

Fleisher

One way I personally help our online degree seeking students at Clarion feel less isolated is by the online orientation I provide. One of the first assignments they have is a blog posting. I ask them to tell three things about themselves and why they chose to learn online. I group similar majors together so they get to know each other before they take classes. Faculty in their own courses use similar strategies to get the group co-mingling so when group work and discussion area posts start up, they hopefully have come to an understanding of the group’s dynamic. Some use a “water cooler” area for students to co-mingle in classes to answer questions and share common interests.

Students seek out online courses and programs for myriad reasons, and one is that they want to remain anonymous. They can in fact do so in some online courses dependent upon the nature of the course content. But, the majority of their classes will be constructed with “regular and substantive interaction” functions so students are being serviced in a timely manner.

Faculty utilize video and video conferencing to “humanize” the course. Even though classes are “asynchronous,” optional “synchronous” activities may be built in to provide the human touch. They will be captured for on-demand viewing, too.

How can online students juggle their education with other responsibilities, like jobs and family?

Hoppes

Create a support system and let people know you are doing this. You’ll find those who fully support your effort in surprising places — a boss who also attended an online program, a neighbor who is rooting for you and who helps encourage you along the way, and your trusted circle of friends and family who will guide you back to your academic goal when you are most frustrated (because it will happen, maybe more than once).

Know that short-term sacrificing is worth the long-time gain. Most programs will take between two and four years to complete. Once over, however, the professional and economic trajectory of the student and her life will be significantly changed. Putting some things on hold or saying “no” in the moment to prioritize completing the degree will be the best decision made!

Geiger

The best advice for balancing responsibilities is to think about your total time available — your work as a student is just one part of how you spend your time and it has to be considered as part of the whole picture. We often see students with full-time jobs and a family at home that want to take on a full-time courseload. While that is an admirable goal, it’s important to be realistic about what can be accomplished in the time that a student has available for school in his/her life as a whole. In those cases, we suggest that students start off slow and see how many courses they can take each semester and be successful.

Fleisher

It is all about time management and being honest with oneself. Knowing what your budget is and what is your expectation of time to degree completion is key. But on the other side, students should be building escape planning for unexpected events (deployment, lay-offs, death, more children, divorce, etc.) and working with their academic adviser so they can build those two plans. I always am very transparent about drop/add, withdrawal periods and incomplete options. In this way, if they need to step away for a moment it is not truly detrimental to their degree completion plan.

The student also needs to choose courses well. If they know they will be exceptionally busy during a given semester, then back off, only take two classes and choose the subject matter that best fits their needs. Take advantage of summer classes that are shorter in length.

What can online students do to become more disciplined?

Hoppes

Be willing to experiment with tools and systems that help track due dates and key dates such as registration, add/drop and financial aid deadlines. It may take more than one try to find the right system for tracking everything, but once you do, you’ll be set.

Geiger

It’s important for students to reflect each semester: What went well? Where can I improve? Just as faculty have evaluations, students should take some time to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, and writing out a plan of action for the next semester can help a lot. Keeping a note in your study area of the top three things you want to focus on will help keep you on track to do better with each subsequent course.

Fleisher

Planning is incredibly important. Ensure you review the syllabi of all classes you are enrolled in. Use a planner, whether a binder paper version, or a digital one on your computer or phone, to be the best reminder of due dates, deadlines, reminders, etc. Seek out another online student to bounce ideas off of and share thoughts. Carve out a time each day to devote to just your studies. Ensure you have a reliable computer available.

What are the most important things online students should know about being successful in their coursework?

Hoppes

Follow the instructions, pay attention to the grading criteria and never be afraid to ask questions of your peers and of your faculty.

It should also be noted that not all of this is on the student. Institutions should be making design and structural decisions that allow the student to focus on learning and not on navigating the bureaucracy of higher education. Using a standardized template where things can be consistently located, having a calendar of due dates for discussions and assignments and being consistent in how the online week of learning is outlined will go a long way to keep the student focused on learning and not on navigating systems within the institution.

Geiger

The most essential thing students in online courses can do is to use their resources. Students should always contact their faculty members and advisers when they need help. Whether it’s that they’re not understanding a concept or assignment, or that life issues are getting in the way, there are people ready to support them. There may also be additional help that can be provided, such as research assistance or tutoring. However, especially when students are at a distance, we might not know what they need if they don’t speak up until it’s too late to be of help. I know it can be intimidating to reach out when things aren’t going well — but we all want to help students succeed.

Fleisher

Trust your instincts — you know you better than anyone. Choose courses wisely with the help of your academic adviser and take into consideration what you have going on at work, home, etc. Carve out that time in your own home space for your coursework. Above all, never be afraid to ask questions.

Additional Online Student Success Resources

5 Tips for Better Online Learning: Note-Taking
This article is designed to help online students improve their note-taking skills.

6 Time Management Tips for Online Students
Students get time management advice from Northeastern University on this page.

8 Study Aids to Help With Online Classes
Ashworth College shares study strategies for online students.

Are Online Classes for You?
This article outlines the realities of being an online student.

Communication Skills for Online Learning
In this video, students get advice on how to communicate as an online student.

Develop Self-Motivation Skills Before Starting Online Courses
This article from U.S. News & World Report provides advice on how to develop and maintain motivation.

Navigate an Online Course's Learning Management System
In this article, students learn how to use the technology that online programs offer.

So You Think You Want to Take Online Classes?
Students who are considering online education can get an idea of what it’s like from this Psych Central article.

Student Success Stories Podcast
This podcast from Baylor University presents the stories of successful students.

Study Tips for Online Learning Success
In this article, Grantham University provides pointers to help online students effectively study for their exams.