Online Learning - The Basics

Whether you are taking online courses in combination with on-campus courses, while on co-op as a way to get ahead in your program, (ahem) make-up an unsuccessful course, or as part of the sheltering-in-place restrictions created by COVID-19, you now find yourself entering the world of online learning. What joy!

We know that some of you are groaning in dread at the thought of learning online. But, let’s face it, some folks were already groaning in dread at the idea of learning in a classroom as well! Many learners love the freedom and flexibility of online learning. For many people, being about to take the time to think through an instructor’s question and post a thoughtful answer in the course discussion board is less stressful than answering questions in a classroom setting. Others love that they can set their own schedule, or study at times that best suit them. Not to mention how wonderful it is to be able to pause a video and any point and grab a snack rather than having to wait until the end of the lecture!

There are many informative resources for how to learn effectively online, so to avoid reinventing the wheel as they say, we may direct you to some those resources instead of creating all the content ourselves (another advantage of online — it’s networked!) A great way to get started with online learning is to check-out the Centre for Extended Learning’s (CEL) webpages: Myths of Online Courses and Getting Ready to Learn Online! You might also be interested in take the online pre-assessment offered by Penn State: Penn State Online Learning Pre-Assessment. Are you ready to learn online? Let's dive in!

jenga blocks

Getting Started

When you are preparing to learn online, before you even log into your class and start learning the content, there are several things you need to consider. Yes, there are a lot of considerations below, but having some of them planned-out in advance will save you time and help you orient to your online course faster and easier! (We are all about studying faster and easier). You will want to begin by having a sense of the following:

  • The differences between classroom and online learning - they may not be what you think
  • Technology – this goes beyond ensuring your computer meets the required specifications, and covers things such as navigation time and keeping track of course requirements across multiple platforms.
  • The difference between reviewing the course content and “studying” – You may have heard by now that sitting in a classroom or reading notes is not the same as studying. This is true for online courses as well.
  • How are you going to stay motivated? – This can be tricky even in the classroom based course
  • How you are going to organize your time? – This includes when are your going to complete course content and when you are going to study/review content and complete assignments
  • How you are going to minimized distractions? – this includes distractions in our environment, as well as distractions that are built into the technology itself, such as email and social medial notifications
  • How are you going to make the online environment fit with your learning style? – Even in the classroom, content is not always delivered the way we prefer for our own learning style. We need to adjust our approach so we learn better,
  • Making sure your study area works for you – this includes ensuring the set-up minimizes neck and back issues, eye strain or other physical impacts, as well as important factors like proper lighting, minimal disruptions, and is designed in a way to help you focus
  • How will you stay connected virtually? – this includes participating in class discussions, as well as group work and getting to know your fellow classmates
  • How can you leverage the online environment in the best way possible? – The online environment has tools and opportunities not available in the classroom, how can you make the most of them to support your learning?

We are going to cover all of these considerations within these guides, and provide you with a few resources in each of the sections. 

Until we meet again, you may enjoy these online tips from Seo. Seo from tbhstudying, created the following video to support fellow post-secondary students with the transition to online learning brought about by the COVID-19 situation. However, her tips are helpful learning online in any situation. She also has a number of other helpful study tips on her YouTube channel. Check it out!

Remote video URL

Differences Between In-Person and Online Learning

You may be thinking that the difference between classroom and online learning is that one takes place on-campus, in a classroom, at a specific time. Online learning, for the most part, takes place on a computer, over the internet, at a location and time of your choice. You are right! However, those are not the only differences.

Online courses require us to navigate the platform(s) used to deliver the course in a way that is more complex than in a classroom based course. Course content might be delivered in written form, as well as through video recorded lectures, readings, websites, or other media. 

Online courses might require you to work and study differently to acquire information and knowledge than you did in the classroom. In online deliveries, you are in charge of navigating your way through the course content, and may be asked to synthesize your learning through posting board discussions or other online learning activities. Even if you used education management platforms such as, Learn in your classroom-based courses, you may find that online courses utilized different functions, or aspects of the platform that you have not previously used.

Below are some other differences you may not have considered.

Increased autonomy

Learners in online programs have more autonomy than classroom learners. By this we mean that online learners have more choice over when and how they learn. You set your own schedule and work through course materials in a way that works best for you. There are many advantages to the increases in autonomy, however the downside is that you set your own schedule and decide how you will work through course materials. Sometimes, our greatest strengths are also our greatest challenges. The increases in autonomy may also mean needed increases in self-regulation and self-motivation skills. With great freedom comes great responsibility. With online learning, learners have an increased responsibility to find all the needed resources, keep track of dates and requirements, and troubleshoot technology issues independently. What strategies can you use to help you manage the increased autonomy?

Take the time to understand how the course is structured

Just like classroom based courses, every online course is structured differently. Instructors put things in different places and utilize different functions. It takes time to understand the structure of your online course and learn how to find content quickly. For best success, take a few days at the beginning of your course to understand the design of your course, and how to find everything. Reading your course outline as early as you can, will help you get a sense of how the course is designed, as well as the course expectations. How can you account for this as you begin the term?

Increased mind wandering and attention lapses

It can be difficult to maintain attention and focus for long periods of time. Many of us have experienced our minds wandering off during classroom-based lectures, or had the experience of reading the same paragraph 3 times and still not knowing what we read. Some research has shown that our minds are even more likely to wander during online or recorded lectures. You may have to work harder to stay focused in online classes. (See the study tips section below for suggestions on how to improve your focus). What techniques can you utilize to help you stay focused?


Scrolling down a screen can disrupt the brain’s ability to process information into short-term memory. It also forces the reader’s eye to search for a new starting point each time.  Not only can scrolling disrupt the brain’s processing, but the constant searching for a new starting point adds time to the reading process. The reduction in regular blinking that often occurs with screen usage can also contribute to eyestrain. How can you account for the impact of scrolling on your mental processing?

More multitasking

Research on multitasking and academic performance shows that multitasking during lectures, as well as while studying can result in lower GPA. Online courses may require context switching between sections of the course in order to find all the relevant information related to a topic or assignment. The ease of switching to non-course related software, such as social media and emails or other messaging systems also creates challenges. Finding ways to minimize context shifting, by printing some documents or using multiple devices so you can have multiple components open at a time, can help reduce multitasking. (Not to mention turning off social media and email while working on your course. We’ll talk more about that in the dealing with distractions section.) What strategies will help you reduce multitasking so you can focus?

Dangers of “skimming”

The online environment leads itself to skimming more than it does to deep reading. Skimming has a value and purpose when it is applied intentionally and at the correct place in the learning process. Skimming also makes it easier to misread, misunderstand and make mistakes while learning.

While the video below is specifically referring to preparing for the “critical reading section” of the SAT, the tips also apply to times when we need to read to LEARN. Reading to learn requires deep reading. How are you going to ensure you apply skimming in the appropriate places, and fight the urge to skim when deep reading is needed?

Digital eye strain, mental fatigue, and other physiological impacts

All the extra time spent on a computer during online courses can lead to computer vision syndrome, or digital eye strain. Seriously! It’s an actual syndrome! There are many ways to prevent eye strain from digital devices.

Some easy options are:

  • Adjust the brightness of your monitor to help reduce eyestrain
  • Ensure proper lighting in your study area
  • Distance from your screen
  • Blink every few seconds (we tend to blink less on the computer)
  • Every 20 mins look up and out your window. Preferable, look at something green like the trees and look as far into the distance as you can.
  • Saline eye drops can help – check with your pharmacist for recommendations. Drops that constrict the blood vessels in the eye can cause additional issues. You want to ensure you have the correct type of drops. 

How are you going to support your eyes during your online work?

Getting Your Technology Right

Technology is both the gift and the greatest source of frustration in an online course. Below are some tips and resources to help you manage your technology.

  • Ensure that you understand the technological specifications/requirements for your course well in advance of the class and ensure your computer can manage the requirements.
  • Ensure your internet connection is reliable and has appropriate bandwidth.
  • Test all the different platforms long before you need them. Many help desks have scheduled hours and may not be able to support you at 3AM. Similarly, there maybe a queue of other folks who need help, resulting in waiting time and delays.
  • Know how to find, and bookmark for easy access, all the help resources related to your course (see below for UWaterloo related resources).
  • Take time to familiarize yourself with the various platforms (Learn, Teams, WebEx, Zoom, etc.) that are being used in your course. Make sure you know how to use the various features well in advance.
  • Test video cameras, speakers and microphones prior to live sessions. Make sure everything is working, or that your settings are correct before you start. You don’t want to be stressed, miss content, or delay the start of your class while you struggle to get cameras and mics working.
  • Ensure that you have decent system security (antivirus, antimalware) and security features on your computer to keep your information safe. Windows Defender may need a friend!
  • Make sure that you are comfortable with the following:
    • Setting up and using the internet/accessing and navigating websites.
    • Sending and receiving emails.
    • Accessing the UWaterloo library.
    • Watching videos and using online resources.
    • Using/creating/saving the following types of documents: Word, Excel, PDFs, any course specific document types.
    • Setting up and using your webcam, microphone, and speakers.
    • Using video conferencing software.
    • Accessing your course through the education management system.
    • Setting up and accessing your printer as needed.

UW Resources:

Now that you've familiarized yourself with the basics, you may want to check out our Online Learning - Effective Habits page! If you need any more tips for learning online, connect with us at: