5 Common Mistakes Made by Online Students

Many people consider the advantages of online learning and decide to follow that path to obtain a degree. Indeed, there are many advantages to the independent learning offered by online degree programs, but quite a number of students have difficulties that limit their ability to complete their degree requirements.

Here are some common mistakes to watch out for if you are an online student. We’ve included tips to help you avoid them.

1. Difficulty with self-pacing

The biggest advantage of online learning – the ability to self-pace – is often the biggest pitfall as well. Most online schools offer classes that have a good amount of flexibility in terms of assignment completion, but every class does have due dates for assignments.

Although you may want to simply submit everything for the course during the last week, the faculty who developed the course (and the due dates) realize that the most student growth occurs when the instructor has sufficient time to read and provide feedback on the assignments, so that you can incorporate that feedback for later assignments.

The fix: Use a calendar. Clearly mark self-imposed due dates so that you can stay on track. If assignments are large, they can be overwhelming. Break them into smaller chunks, and give yourself due dates for those.

2. Difficulty following assignment guidelines

Online learning is a pleasant experience for students and instructors when all goes smoothly – a student meets the learning objectives for the course and earns a good grade, moving him or her ever closer to degree completion. However, sometimes a student submits an assignment that results in either the assignment being returned to the student for revision or a poor grade. One of the most common reasons that this happens is that the student did not carefully follow the assignment guidelines. Suppose that an instructor gives the following writing assignment:

Summarize, compare, and contrast the learning theories of behaviorism and constructivism. Which most closely aligns with your teaching practice? Use the course resources to complete this assignment, and cite them in your paper. Your references should be in APA style. Expected length of your paper: 3-4 pages, not including references.

Sounds simple enough, right? But probably 4 out of 10 students would not submit a paper that meets all of these requirements. If you were to develop a plan for this paper, it might look like this:

Page 1: Introduction, summarize behaviorism and constructivism
Page 2: Compare similarities between behaviorism and constructivism
Page 3: Contrast differences between behaviorism and constructivism
Page 4: Description of which most closely aligns with my teaching practice, conclusion
Page 5: References in APA style

The assignments in online courses are very carefully constructed so that successful completion of them will allow the students to meet the objectives of the course. Therefore, it is important to follow the directions very carefully.

The fix: Print the instructions for each assignment. Develop a plan like the one above to make sure that you are covering all of the required parts. That should take care of the content portion of the assignment. For the other requirements, make yourself a checklist, particularly including those things where you have made mistakes in the past. Your checklist might look something like this:

  • Headings formatted in bold
  • Research reported in past tense
  • In-text citations done in APA style
  • References done in APA style

3. Ineffective incorporation of feedback

Most online courses contain multiple assignments – usually 8 to 10 in a short term – and most instructors provide a great deal of feedback to help students learn. One significant mistake that students make is to not review the feedback provided and incorporate it into future assignments.

It is very frustrating for instructors to receive revised submissions or later assignments with identical errors. If you continue to make similar errors over and over again, you will likely see an impact on the grades of subsequent assignments.

Online colleges tend to have many resources to help with feedback given by instructors. For example, suppose you were to have written an assignment in MLA style. Your instructor returns your work to you, and indicates that you should make corrections to your “Works Cited” page, so that it is MLA-compliant.

It would be ideal if you have an MLA manual in this case, but if you do not, you should consult your school’s writing center online. Most likely, you will find MLA examples, resources, and online links that can assist you.

The fix: Keep a small notebook for feedback. When your instructor gives you suggestions on your first assignment, make a short note about it in your notebook. Use that to help you develop checklists for checking future assignments.

4. Plagiarism

One of the quickest ways to get into academic “hot water” is to plagiarize another person’s work. When you quote someone directly, use quotation marks, and cite the author appropriately. Every time that you paraphrase or summarize the work of someone else, credit that author in the text of your paper. Do not present someone else’s words or ideas as your own.

Incidentally, you cannot present new work as original if you have used it previously. For example, suppose you wrote an article critique on school leadership in a course last year, and one of your assignments in a current course includes a portfolio which includes an article critique as a part of it. You may not reuse it; in fact, if you repeat some of the words or ideas in the new assignment, you must cite it appropriately.

Most universities have some way of detecting plagiarism. Sites like Turnitin allow students to submit their work, and the site is able to determine what percentage of the work is original, and what percentage of the work has been written in other sources. Often, instructors ask students to submit to this site or a similar one, so that the originality of the work can be assured.

The fix: If in doubt, cite! If you paraphrase or summarize someone else’s work, cite it every time. If you use a direct quote, use quotation marks and cite it. Even if your instructor does not require it, run all of your written work through Turnitin or a similar site, to ensure that you have not plagiarized unintentionally.

5. Unreasonable Expectations

Often, students who pursue a degree online are highly motivated and want to finish their degree quickly. However, keep your expectations reasonable. If your university indicates that someone can typically finish a given degree in three years, don’t assume that if you work really hard, you can finish the degree in nine months.

Likewise, be reasonable in your expectations of faculty. Today’s students seem to be online all the time; however, instructors are not. Do not assume that your instructor is available 24/7, and that they should return your e-mail within 30 minutes. Most online schools have policies regarding response time for email and turnaround time for grading assignments. This time is typically 24-48 hours for a return email and up to 5 days for grading assignments.

The fix: Be aware of your school’s policy on response time from your instructor. Try to be patient. However, if your instructor does not comply with the response time guidelines for an assignment, contact him or her politely, and make sure your assignment was received. If this happens frequently, you might contact your academic advisor for assistance.

The evolution of online degree programs has made a college degree accessible to many students who might not have previously been able to obtain one. But the lack of face-to-face interaction with the professor can present challenges for students. Be aware of common mistakes that students make; avoiding them will put you at the top of the class.

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