Going Back to College? Three Tips for a Great Start from an Instructor

Are you going back to college as an adult? Have you chosen to pursue your education online or mostly online? If so, please read on for three tips I hope will help you get a terrific start in your classes and will help you communicate effectively with your online instructor.

First Tip: Read everything! Take notes!

Sometimes instructors will email you a welcome message ahead of the class start. Sometimes instructors will post a message to you in the classroom. Look for these messages from the instructor. Look for and read the syllabus carefully.

Some instructors (like me) will provide a course overview and/or weekly overviews. If the instructor doesn’t do this, try to develop your own. Is the course presented in a weekly format? In modules? Study the layout and figure out the formatting. Note the theme of each module or online week. What are you supposed to learn during the module or week? Note any assignment due dates you can find and mark them on a calendar.

Most instructors will try to present you with information you need to understand the course and get started on the first day. The amount of reading in the first week can seem overwhelming, but it must be done. The instructor has probably spent a lot of time trying to anticipate questions and give you a clear sense of direction. Therefore, it’s important to read before asking questions. Most of the time, I can quickly tell who is doing the reading and who is not based on the kinds of questions asked. I’m always impressed when I sense a student is paying attention in class, even an online one!

Second Tip: Communicate with Your Instructor, and Do It Professionally

I am still surprised (even after years of teaching online) by the students who never reach out to me. I try to keep track of my interactions with students and keep an eye on those who appear to be struggling, but when I have four or more classes underway, with 20 or more students in each, it gets a bit difficult. Therefore, it’s important that you be your own advocate and reach out when you have a question or are struggling. Most instructors are willing to help.

When you do reach out to your instructor, keep in mind that the instructor is also a human being. I think sometimes online students begin to think of us as computer programs. When you contact an instructor, it’s also an opportunity to create a favorable impression! A polite note can make a good impression.

Consider these two notes:

“My grade has dropped. Explain this to me.”

Yes, that’s an actual note I received from a student. It sounds very demanding, doesn’t it? You can probably imagine the first round of responses that went through my mind (all rejected by my common sense, thankfully).

Now consider this one:

“Hi! I noticed that my grade dropped this week, and I am not sure why. Can you help me understand this? Thanks for any insight you can provide.”

This will get my attention in a positive way, and I will see it as an opportunity to work with a student individually to help him or her succeed. (By the way, I modeled this response on one I recently sent to my son’s high school teacher about his grade.)

Third Tip: Communicate with Your Instructor CLEARLY

Sometimes I receive what I call “mystery messages” from students. They are mysteries because I have no idea what the student actually wants. Here’s an example:

“I don’t understand the question.”

Yes, that’s an actual message, presented in its entirety.

I am left to ponder: Was this a question on the quiz? Is it a question about the assignment? Is it a question about a discussion prompt? Which class is this student in? (The latter can become confusing if the student sends an email rather than communicating within the online classroom.)

When you send a question to the instructor, try to be specific about the problem you are having:

“I don’t understand question 15 on the quiz because….”

“I don’t understand what this means: ‘Student presents an actual quote from the assignment.’ What do you mean by _____?”

“I don’t understand how we are supposed to format our discussion responses. Do we need to cite quotes from the textbook?”

The point is to give me a clear understanding of what you need. Instructors aren’t mind readers. It can be frustrating for the student and for me to email back and forth while I try to ferret out the information I need to help that student. I want to help all students, but they need to help me help them!

Remember to read all of the material and view all content in a new class, communicate clearly and professionally with your instructor, and – perhaps most importantly – be your own advocate. Following these tips, you should be off to a terrific start! I wish you the best of luck!


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