Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

7 Tips for Online Learning: How to Excel as an Online Student

An illustration of a woman sleeping, a woman working on a laptop, and a man climbing a stack of books toward a trophy with a graduation cap on top.
November 17, 2020

Do you know a student juggling the challenges of online learning? Are you enrolled in an online course? Have you decided to continue your education?

The Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning has supported Yale’s remote learning model since March 2020 and has supported Yale’s online learning initiatives on Coursera since 2014. The Center has developed a list of seven strategies any learner can use to succeed in an online classroom.

“Although our world has changed over the last eight months, we can rely on the lessons we have learned from Yale’s online courses and programs,” said Lucas Swineford, executive director of digital education at Yale University. “We know that learners of all ages thrive when they focus on organization and learning goals. We also know that combating social isolation improves mental health and learning outcomes.”

According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, more than 76 million students attended an elementary school, middle school, high school, college, or university during the fall 2020 semester.1 Many of these students have experienced some form of remote or online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Education relies on the well-being of learners and instructors,” said Dr. Anees Chagpar, professor of surgery at Yale’s School of Medicine, instructor of Introduction to Breast Cancer on Coursera.org, and host of ChagparMD on YouTube. “Sleep improves productivity. Exercise improves cognition and leads to fewer days in the doctor’s office. A balanced diet provides essential energy to tackle challenges. There is clear data that taking care of our health is critical not only to preventing disease, but also for improving our quality of life and learning ability.”

Students can focus on the following seven strategies to improve their online learning:

1) Communicate with Instructors:

When students build a relationship with their teacher or instructor, they have the opportunity to ask for help and provide meaningful feedback to the instructor. Asking for help and support is a common desire among online students. According to an Online Learning Journal article, “online learners want instructors who support, listen to, and communicate with them.”2 Don’t fear raising a virtual hand!

2) Engage with Classmates:

Staring into a camera or at a Zoom screen instead of sitting next to classmates does not feel the same. However, peer-to-peer engagement remains important in online classrooms. Researchers have found that a sociable learning environment results in increased learning satisfaction.3 When fellow students ask a question or share content in a discussion board, try to engage and create a dialogue. Working alone can lead to social isolation. It is important to check in with fellow students and spend time sharing personal news. Consider setting up online study groups outside of class or a group chat with friends.

3) Stay Focused During Class:

During this time of unwelcomed change, people may feel more distracted and less focused on learning. If the mind wanders, students miss essential content. Research indicates that “students do believe that mind wandering can undermine their learning.”4 If students understand that distractions can lead to negative learning outcomes, they have an opportunity to increase their attentiveness by following a schedule with well-timed breaks. Students might also consider extension browsers to block distracting content or leaving their phones in another room.

4) Set Clear Goals:

Students may feel overwhelmed by online learning. It is vital to set clear goals to stay motivated. The Poorvu Center’s Academic Strategies Program recommends that students “take major assignments and break them into manageable pieces you can address step by step. At the beginning of each week, set clear, measurable goals for what you need to get done each day.”5 Students might opt to write down what they must do, should do, and could do each day.

5) Practice Using Technology:

Learners of all ages can struggle when they need to use a new tool or software for the first time. Researchers recommend that students and instructors familiarize themselves with online teaching tools and platforms by completing low stakes activities before moving on to more critical work.6 If a course requires the use of a new software or technology, spend time using the tool to practice on a low-stakes assignment or a personal task with fewer learning consequences. Remember, asking for help is normal!

6) Avoid Fatigue and Burn Out:

Zoom fatigue is real; the term describes “the tiredness, anxiety, or worry resulting from overusing virtual platforms.”7 If students feel tired, overwhelmed, or anxious, taking a break can improve focus and task completion.8 Students can try to schedule breaks between classes and consider changing their settings to get fresh air, sunlight, or a drink of water. As Dr. Chagpar said, rest is critical to everyone’s health and learning ability.

7) Reward Yourself:

Rewards can help students maintain motivation and morale. When students are extrinsically motivated, they might engage in an activity to attain a reward, avoid a punishment, or achieve a valued outcome.9 Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, often motivate students by conferring a certificate of completion. Students might opt to challenge themselves and reward themselves after an incredibly difficult assignment, test, or semester.


1 United States, Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Back to School Statistics, 2020. nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372.

2 Martin, F. & Bolliger, D.U. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Online Learning, 22(1), 205-222. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i1.1092

3 Weidlich, J. & Bastiaens, T.J. (2019). Designing sociable online learning environments and enhancing social presence: An affordance enrichment approach. Computers & Education, 142. doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103622.

4 Was, C.A., Hollis, R.B., & Dunlosky, J. (2019). Do students understand the detrimental effects of mind wandering during online learning? Computers & Education, 135, 113-122. doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.02.020.

5 Cussler, S. & Gosselink, K. “Learning Strategies.” Academic Continuity, Mar. 2020, academiccontinuity.yale.edu/students/learning-strategies.

6 Khan, S., Khan, R.A. Online assessments: Exploring perspectives of university students. Educ Inf Technol 24, 661–677 (2019). doi.org/10.1007/s10639-018-9797-0

7 Reinach Wolf, Carolyn. “Virtual Platforms Are Helpful Tools but Can Add to Our Stress.” Psychology Today, 14 May 2020, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-desk-the-mental-health-lawyer/202005/virtual-platforms-are-helpful-tools-can-add-our-stress.

8 Ariga, A. & Lleras, A. (2011). Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition, 118 (3), 439-443. doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007.

9 Di Domenico, S. I., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 11, 145. doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00145