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Voices of Online Students

Regaining Control of Your Environment:

Strategies to Help Students Navigate and Succeed in the Quickly Evolving World of Online Learning


"One of the factors that empowers individuals is the ability to exert a degree of control over their environment"

- Dr. John Drea, DBA, MBA


While sitting in the coffee shop on campus approximately one hour after helping the baseball team get on the bus and leave for a weekend series in Houston, I received a text message from our head coach. He said the series had been canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak and they were heading back to Dallas. At that moment, it became obvious that everyday life would soon look vastly different.

Within a matter of days, the university had sent many emails to the students about extending spring break and finishing the semester online. I was already accustomed to online learning due to being a former athlete; however, this was a unique experience. Hard classes that typically require face-to-face interaction suddenly became even more challenging. Already complicated information was now being presented through PowerPoints, Zooms, and online homework assignments, and coordinating meeting times with classmates and professors was nearly impossible. This was the “new normal.”

However, almost 3 years later, the world of online learning has evolved exponentially. Technology and professors have adapted to the “new normal” and created environments that are conducive to the student’s success, while, at the same time, refusing to neglect the ever-important aspect of human interaction and collaboration. In this article, I will discuss methods and strategies, that I have either observed or personally used, that have provided opportunities for myself and my classmates to thrive in an online learning environment. Finally, I will also cover tips on how to stay motivated, organized, and how to interact with your community through virtual learning. Thriving in an Online Classroom

Understand Your “Why”

College was hard before the pandemic. With the added unknowns and isolation that followed COVID-19, it made an already challenging time, even more complicated. This is why we saw dropout rates increasing to upwards of 24% for first-year students at four-year schools, and 39% at two-year institutions, respectively (Hanson, 2022). Why do I bring this up? Today, the challenge of simply completing a college education requires you to have a solid understanding of why you are getting your education in the first place. Dr. Margie Warrell states, “A clear sense of purpose enables you to focus your efforts on what matters most, compelling you to take risks and push forward regardless of the odds or obstacles” (Warrell, 2013, para 1). Knowing the details of your future is not as important as having a strong personal conviction to help solve problems using your skills. This will be the biggest key to being successful in college, and more specifically, in online learning environments.


Minimize Distractions and Manage Your Time

Online learning was originally developed to provide non-traditional students flexibility while completing their education. What I have found, however, is online learning requires the student to bring just as much, if not more, flexibility to the course than what is already provided through its design. Constantly establishing and revising study habits throughout the semester is vital to the student’s success. It is not one size fits all. It is important, however, to consider your strategies based on the obstacles that you will face at that time, in that course. To be flexible enough to manage your time well, you must first know what you will need to spend your time on. I make it a priority on the first day of every semester to sit down and write every single assignment for each class into my Google calendar. As I go through each assignment, I mark it done in the calendar for two reasons: 1) To stay up to date on which assignments are complete and what is coming up and 2) It provides a sense of accomplishment each time I mark something done.

Identify How/Where You Learn Best

Additionally, you must also be aware of what distracts you and where/how you are able to be the most productive. For example, I am terrible at studying in my house due to constant distractions such as family, food, or TV. For that reason, I set aside a minimum of three days per week to go to a local coffee shop after work and spend a few hours studying or completing assignments. Ambient noise helps me focus, so the constant buzz of coffee shop conversations is perfect for me. This practice developed over years of learning what is the best method for me. Part of this method, however, ties into my next subject.

I am also a very visual and kinesthetic learner, so anything I can do to see the topic in action, or perform a task, is going to help me better understand the information. This can be difficult at times in an online setting; however, I have found that watching videos, physically writing down notes, and being creative with categorizing information (different colored notes, flashcards, mnemonics, etc.), are some helpful study tools. Additionally, I have always found that verbally reasoning through difficult concepts, especially with other people, is vitally important to grasp the information. This has been made more difficult due to the pandemic, but virtual meetings with professors and/or classmates are possible and will be immeasurably helpful for your understanding.  

Understand the Difference in Facts and Skills

In virtual learning, your experience will inevitably be determined by two factors: 1) You will get out what you put in. Your efforts in planning, prioritizing, and practicing the information will ultimately determine your understanding of the subject. 2) Online courses are less about the facts and more about the applicable skills. You must come to the realization that the information is less important than the skill it is trying to build. For example, research papers are less about the facts presented in the paper and more about your ability to find information, think critically about it, and communicate it well. A math problem is less about the formula, and more about your ability to solve the problem based on the information you have.


There is no indication that virtual learning will be slowing anytime soon. In fact, one thing that the pandemic taught us is there are several courses that do not necessarily require in-person lectures. In summary, my final thoughts on how a student can be successful as virtual learning evolves are: 1) Be able to define “why” you are completing your education. 2) Prioritize organization and time management skills. 3) Develop a strong understanding of how/where you learn best. 4) Identify the actual skills the course is attempting to develop in you and focus on developing those skills. By adopting this mentality in your next online course, you will effectively be able to navigate the ever-changing world of online learning



Drea, J. (2021). Online? In person? The power of letting students choose. Harvard Business
Publishing Education.

Hanson, M. (2022). College dropout rates. Education Data Initiative.

Warrell, M. (2013). Do you know your “why?” 4 questions to find your purpose. Forbes.