With enough information and a little bit of guidance, you’ll be able to take advantage of all the benefits of online learning. Developed by our academic skills experts and in partnership with University Technology Services (UTS), this page is the place to find information, guidance, tips, tools and resources to support your academic performance online.
This page will help you:
- Develop online learning skills
- Explore strategies for online learning
- Build confidence in online learning environments
Why learn online?
Online learning is a chance for you to expand your academic possibilities outside of the traditional classroom. If you’ve ever had trouble concentrating or feeling comfortable in huge lecture halls or crowded classrooms, online learning allows you more control over your learning environment. Additionally, through online learning, you can:
- Develop self-directed learning skills
- Improve your online communication
- Digest material at your own pace
- Take advantage of a flexible schedule
Online learning basics
We understand that adjusting to an online learning environment can be challenging. It’s a process that requires patience and practice, but you’re not in it alone, and there are resources to help. Check out this section to develop your skills so you can apply them in an online learning environment.
You can get started by watching this video, part of the Academic Skills Animated Series.
When it comes to online learning, there are two main course types: synchronous (virtual) and asynchronous (online). The major difference between these two types of online courses is the way you participate and connect with your peers.
Synchronous (virtual) courses: Real-time participation
- Synchronous courses are directed by the instructor.
- You attend and participate in classes and lectures at the same time as your peers.
- Classes and discussions are offered using conferencing software, live chats and webcasting.
Asynchronous (online) courses: Self-directed participation
- Asynchronous courses are self-directed, meaning you get to study and participate at your own pace.
- There is no formal or scheduled class time. Instead, you review course content (lecture recordings, slides, etc.) according to your own schedule.
- Discussions take place on message boards and using chat software. Participation in these discussions is often graded, so make sure to be active and post often.
Blended course types
Some courses may use a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous learning. As with any course, make sure that you understand the learning format. Read the syllabus carefully, and connect with your instructor if you have any questions about how to access course content and participate in classes.
Online courses require the same dedication, resilience and skills as traditional, on-campus courses. However, it may take a while to adapt to new learning environments — this includes your physical study space, studying strategies and more.
Set up your learning environment
You don’t have to have a big office or at-home library to study effectively. However, it’s important that you have a learning environment that allows you to study efficiently. For example, working from your bed or couch can make it hard to limit distractions and concentrate. Here are some strategies for creating a learning environment that allows you to stay productive and study efficiently.
When studying, the goal isn’t just to be able to remember information. Instead, the ideal outcome is to be able to understand, apply, analyze and evaluate course content. Studying with this outcome in mind will help you become a more efficient and productive learner.
Break down the learning process
We recommend that you integrate a model called Bloom’s Taxonomy into your studying strategies. This model breaks down the learning process into six levels:
- Remember: Review content until you can recall facts, terms and basic information.
- Understand: Focus on core concepts until they start to make sense.
- Apply: Start making connections and comparing concepts.
- Analyze: Break down concepts into different pieces of information. Tables and mind maps can help.
- Evaluate: Think about the value and relevance of concepts.
- Create: Use existing concepts to build new ideas.
To help you make the most of this model, try making study questions for each learning level. You can also improve your study habits by using active study strategies and working on your skills. Check out our tip sheets to learn more.
Academic skills workshops
Additionally, check out our academic skills workshops to help you develop new studying strategies.
Online and remote learning doesn’t mean learning alone. There are many ways to connect with others and increase the social aspect of your online learning. This includes knowing how to follow proper online etiquette (or “netiquette”) to avoid misunderstandings when communicating with your instructors and peers in an online environment.
To learn about netiquette and behaviour in online learning environments, check out McMaster Student Support and Case Management (SSCM)’s netiquette resource and read the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities.
Communicating with instructors
Before you connect with your instructor:
- Check your syllabus — you may be able to solve your question.
- Use Q&A discussion threads to get answers to your course-related questions.
- If you need additional support, try contacting the teaching assistant (TA) first.
Emailing your instructor:
- Write a concise subject line that clearly identifies the purpose of your email. Include your course code.
- Be extremely brief. Faculty receive hundreds of emails, so one-to-two sentences are plenty.
- Use your instructor’s formal name in the email greeting. When your instructor responds, they will likely sign off their message with their preferred name for you to use in the future. For example, start with “Dear Dr. Lam,” until Dr. Lam calls herself “Hannah” in her reply.
- Be polite. If you’re annoyed or upset, remember that there could be a misunderstanding or miscommunication. Ask for more context or clarification.
- Allow time for them to respond.
Using office hours:
- Office hours are dedicated times instructors offer students to answer course-content questions, review assignments and other issues. You can find these times on the course syllabus.
- Have questions prepared before your appointment.
- Bring materials and take notes of the conversation.
- Be respectful when asking for feedback on an assignment or exam.
- If office hours conflict with your schedule, connect with the instructor and offer some dates and times to meet.
- Office hours offer a special opportunity to get to know your instructors and build relationships. You may need a reference letter one day!
Communicating with peers
Whether you’re working on a group project, discussing content in a forum or just socializing in an online chat, connecting with your peers can make your academic experience more rewarding.
If you’re unsure of how to connect with your peers in an online environment, our tip sheets can offer some guidance to help you improve your online communication skills and learn about valuable tools and software.
Staying focused and motivated can be challenging in any course, but online courses can bring with them unique challenges. Physical classrooms are designed to limit distractions and promote focus. Your at-home learning environment probably wasn’t designed the same way. However, with perseverance and a few helpful strategies, you can stay productive and meet your online learning goals.
Check out our resources for guidance on staying productive, focused and motivated while completing online courses.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to start with online learning — don’t worry. Meet with someone who understands to explain your situation, make a customized plan and get adjusted to your new learning environment.
One-on-one academic coaching offers personalized guidance to support your success in an online learning environment. Meet with an academic coach to discuss study strategies, time-management skills, assignment work plans and more.
Academic coaching appointments are 30 minutes long, and you can book as many appointments as you need in a semester. At this time, all appointments will take place online using Zoom. After you register on OSCARplus, you will receive a link to connect with your session.
With online courses, you may find that your writing skills are more important than ever. For example, in many online courses, you get participation marks by posting on discussion boards instead of communicating in a physical classroom. Meet with a writing advisor to polish your writing skills so you can communicate your ideas effectively.
Writing advising appointments are 50 minutes long, and you can book up to 10 appointments each term. At this time, all appointments will take place online using Zoom. After you register on OSCARplus, you will receive a link to connect with your session.
Student Accessibility Services (SAS) provides compassionate, individualized services for students with disabilities, with an integrated support structure, including the facilitation of academic accommodations, programming and support services.
SAS assists students with disabilities to reach their full potential with a service that aims for students to experience full participation, autonomy, empowerment and equity.
- Academic accommodations
- Learning strategies
- Assistive technologies
- Student support specialist
- Transition programming
- Deaf and hard of hearing supports
- Volunteer note-taking support
- Test and exam administration
Online proctoring (Respondus)
Respondus is McMaster’s online proctoring software for assessments and exams. Check out this page to learn more and get answers to any questions you might have.
McMaster community resources
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