The Balancing Act: How to Succeed in Online and Traditional Classes

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  • It’s inevitable that as a college student, you will have the option to take online courses in addition to traditional lecture courses.

    With more universities providing online courses to increase their reach, you may be attracted to the prospect of a flexible schedule and potentially easy courses.

    What many students aren’t ready for, however, is the increased need for self-discipline and accountability that can make it easy to fall behind.

    So what are the key differences between online and traditional courses, and how can you use those differences to your advantage?

    Online vs. Traditional Classes

    Online courses, by their nature, will have all their information available on a web platform. Lectures may be posted in the form of a written transcript or recorded video. There is no scheduled class time, but online courses require disciplined study time for success.

    Attending lectures is typically replaced by having smaller, more frequent assignments. It’s not uncommon for online courses to have discussion forum requirements as well as quizzes and short writing pieces due once or twice week. You likely won’t be required to complete a group project, but that means any large project assigned is all your responsibility. The trade-off is the flexibility offered by online classes — you get to “attend class” whenever you want.

    Traditional courses provide a static schedule with times that you are required to attend lecture, lab, or recitation. The bulk of course material is usually presented during class time, and lecture materials may or may not be posted online, depending on the instructor. Often, traditional classes will have some sort of attendance or participation portion to the grade that can only be attained by attending classes. Supplemental work may be provided in the form of required reading, short assignments, or essays to be completed outside of class. You may also be required to complete larger group projects with your classmates.

    Familiarity vs. Flexibility

    Traditional courses can be incredibly beneficial to new college students. The structure helps to develop good study habits in a world of new distractions, and the classroom environment feels familiar to previous education experience. The in-class discussions offered can make material easier to grasp and provide instant responses to questions you may have. However, verbal lectures make you responsible for retaining any information that was provided or discussed during class time. Note-taking skills become increasingly important as courses rely less on written materials and not all instructors will post lecture information online. Instructors will also dole out project and exam parameters week by week, providing a structured pace for the class.

    Conversely, flexibility is one of the many benefits of online courses; it can make managing work schedules or childcare much easier. However, be aware that that online courses will require much more proactivity and self-discipline to stay on top of. This can make it easier to procrastinate as there is little physical accountability for putting the time and effort into your online courses, despite the constant availability of resources.

    The accessibility of information makes getting a head start on work much easier in online classes. All the materials are generally available to you immediately, and projects for the entire course are generally laid out in the first week. Most instructors are very responsive to email to answer any questions or clarify expectations.

    Tips for Balancing Multiple Course Types

    1. Don’t underestimate the time your online courses will require. You should set aside as much study time as you do for your traditional classes — plus the amount of time you’d spend in lecture.
    2. Have a dedicated study space or two. Mindset is important for successful schoolwork. Learn to love the library or find a local cafe to use as “classroom” for your online courses. Having a home base will help keep you focused.
    3. Know what makes you a successful student. Do you prefer listening to lectures or reading essays? Is it easier for you to stay on top of several small assignments or to focus on one big project for several weeks? Consider how you work best when signing up for courses, and adapt what works for you to the class.
    4. Use one platform to keep track of due dates. Whether you prefer a paper planner or an online calendar, put everything for all your classes in one place. When courses pick up and it can be easy to lose track of small assignments or reading; having mixed class styles makes this even more likely to happen. Work smart now so you don’t have to play catch up later.
    5. Get to know your instructor. Read the syllabus and understand the expectations. For traditional classes, take advantage of office hours or other opportunities to meet with your instructor. In online classes, email and discussion forums are the equivalent. Become comfortable using email to clarify assignments, communicate with your instructor, and ask for help with difficult topics.

    At the end of the day, remember that online and traditional courses are inherently different. Each takes unique preparations, and balancing the two can be tricky at first. But don’t worry! It gets easier. With a little extra planning and some self discipline, you can reap the benefits of both class styles!

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