Tips for Studying Online to Get a Master's Degree
Tips for Studying Online to Get a Master's Degree

Study Tips for Online Master's Degree Programs

Every year, more and more students decide that distance education is the best way to achieve their academic goals. In fact, from 2009 to 2013, the number of college students taking at least one online course rose from 23 percent to 45 percent, according to a report from Refuel Agency, a market research company.

Online courses can clearly lower a lot of barriers to higher education, particularly for graduate students who may be juggling the demands of work and family with their academic goals. However, students who earned their bachelor’s degree at a brick-and-mortar college may be nervous about studying online to earn their master’s degree. You’ve been academically successful in the past, but will you be successful in an online program? Although there are some key differences between studying on-campus and online, students should be able to leverage their past academic successes and experiences to prosper in an online setting.

To help you pave the way for success, here are five tips from the experts about studying online to pursue your master's degree.

1. Be Prepared Before Beginning a Program

As with many experiences in life, it helps to manage your expectations. Some students may incorrectly assume that studying online will be effortless compared to attending physical classes. However, many experts in the field of distance education point out that the coursework is not necessarily easier. According to Patricia Reyes, distance education coordinator and instructional designer at Galveston College, some students walk into her office thinking that online education is going to be easy, but, she says, "it's nowhere near being easy." As with anything worth pursuing, earning an online master's degree requires planning, motivation and follow-through. Knowing this beforehand and being mentally prepared for the work you are committing to can be immensely helpful.

Before beginning an online master’s program, it also helps to know the structure of the program you are enrolling in. While some online programs are asynchronous, meaning that you can complete classwork anytime you want, other programs are synchronous, which means you will be required to log in at specific times to view lectures or participate in discussion forums. Although both types of online programs can give you more flexibility than a traditional classroom-based program, it’s important to choose the program that works best for you and your schedule. For instance, if you are a parent enrolling in an online program to have flexibility around your child’s schedule, a synchronous class that has a lecture at the time you need to pick your child up from school is not going to work for you. In this case, an asynchronous schedule would be better for you. Not all online programs are designed or scheduled the same, which is important to know. When picking an online graduate school, be sure to do your research to find a program that is structured in a way that meets your needs.  

Lastly, making sure you are tech ready can help you be successful when studying online. Most colleges outline the technical requirements for online students. These can include internet speed, operating systems, hard drive space and anti-virus programs. Depending on the classes, students may need specific software installed on their computer. Some basic programs include Adobe Acrobat, PowerPoint or OpenOffice. In the case of Galveston College, Reyes says the school provides these programs to students. However, that is not the case at every school, which is why it's important to do your research at the beginning of every course. The computer you used as an undergrad may not be up to date on the necessary requirements, so if you want to be prepared, check the technical requirements before your classes begin.

Action Items
  • Understand that an online program is not going to be easier than a traditional program
  • Research the structure of each online program you are interested in, and pick a program that fits your schedule
  • Look up the technical requirements of your online program, and update your computer accordingly

2. Study as if You Were in a Brick-and-Mortar Class

In your undergraduate years you learned how to study for college-level courses. You also learned what study practices work best specifically for you. Students may assume studying online is a completely different ballgame, but all the study skills you’ve gained can still be applied to online classes. The difference is that studying online is much more solitary, so students need to be more proactive in managing their study schedule.

Reyes explains managing their time is one of the biggest challenges that students face with online learning. "Students need to have really good time-management skills and be able to do what they need to do in the time that they have," says Reyes. Maintaining a calendar is one great way to keep organized and make sure you don’t miss any important assignments, lectures or exams.

Srikanth Mudigonda, director of applied analytics at Saint Louis University, agrees, adding if students stay on top of their work by keeping a checklist of daily items that need to be accomplished or adding deadlines to a planner, they will "go through the class at a pace that is not as stressful."

In order to maintain a calendar, it is important to make sure you understand what is expected of you in each online course that you take. The best way to determine that, says Reyes, is to always start your courses by reading the syllabus. "Almost every syllabus includes exactly what they're going to be doing … Unfortunately students don't pay enough attention to it," she says. The most important thing you can do to keep up in your classes can be boiled down to three words: "Do your homework," Reyes says.

Using a calendar, keeping a daily checklist and reading the syllabus – these are all simple things you’ve done before to manage your study schedule when you attended a brick-and-mortar campus. The key here is to stay organized and stay on top of your program. Unfortunately, you probably have a lot more going on now than when you were earning your bachelor’s degree; you may be balancing a full-time job, children and other family obligations alongside earning your master’s degree. However, you’ll have to make sure you give your degree program adequate time and attention, rather than completing the whole course the night before it ends. Fortunately, you already have the necessary study skills. Just make sure you apply them.

Action Items
  • Maintain your time by keeping a calendar and daily checklist of deadlines
  • Read your syllabi to know what is expected of you during each course
  • Leverage the study skills you learned as an undergrad and use them in the online setting

3. Establish a Routine

You likely choose to attend an online school for its flexibility, but it still helps to establish a routine. In addition to tracking all the assignments you need to complete, as discussed above, part of managing your time in a graduate program is finding a consistent time and place where you can study.

Routines play an important role in learning, and finding a place to study that is comfortable and familiar can help you be successful in your program. Everyone learns differently; some people need some background noise, while others require quiet when studying. The first step is to understand your own study preferences with careful self-evaluation. If you experienced a particularly productive study session, assess what may have contributed to that. Similarly, if you are having a difficult time focusing, try to determine the reasons. As much as you can, find a space that features the environmental factors that help you focus, and consistently use that as your study spot. Going back to that same location helps cue your brain that "it's time to study!"

Just as important, it is also necessary to find a scheduled time to complete your online coursework. Students should try to find a time that can be integrated into their regular life, allowing their graduate program to fit into their routine. For example, a parent of a small child may want to schedule their study times during their child’s daily naps. On the other hand, parents of elementary aged children may want to schedule their study times at the same time their children complete their homework, so they can study alongside their kids. Graduate students who have full-time jobs may want to pick consistent study hours either before or after work.

Unlike a traditional program that has set schedules and defined times for classes, in an online program, you are the one who has to set up your schedule and stick to it. Getting into a routine is a great way to keep your graduate program a priority in your life.

Action Item
  • Establish a routine by finding an ideal time and place to study

4. Explore your resources

Students taking online courses for the first time may fear that they won’t have the resources they need to complete their coursework. However, most schools that offer online programs provide ample support for their online students. This includes access to an online library with librarians dedicated to helping online students. Also important, many schools provide a team of technical support staff to help you if any technical issues arise. Many campuses require that students take a short online course that teaches them how to use the online platform. Online students don’t need to worry that they won’t have any support. However, some resources may not be immediately obvious, so it is up to you to research to discover what is available to you.

Aside from the resources specifically for online students, there may be other school resources available to you as a student of a university. These include advice from college advisors, career advisors and tutoring services such as the school writing center. While some schools may be set up to provide these services to online students, others may not be. However, these resources are likely still available to you; you may just have to do some legwork to reach out and set up phone appointments with advisors.

Students should also fully explore the online platform that hosts their online master’s program. This platform likely has many subject-specific resources for students. In addition to helping students discover study resources, exploring the online platform will help students learn how to navigate through it, which can also be helpful to be successful in a program.

It’s always better to know what resources are available to you upfront, rather than discovering them a year into your program, so make discovering these items a priority when you begin your program.

Action Items
  • Research what online resources and school resources are available to you
  • Explore the online platform that hosts your program to find subject-specific resources

5. Actively Communicate

One of the worries that students may have before beginning an online program is that they won’t have any contact with others in the classes, including the professors. While online learning is generally more of a solitary activity compared to studying in a traditional classroom, online students only have to be as isolated as they want to be.  

As an online student, it helps to actively participate in the discussion forum and other chat features provided through the online learning platform used by your school. Just as you would in a physical classroom, participating in class can help you find which students you connect with. These students, in turn, will likely be the classmates you ask questions to, collaborate with on projects and ultimately deem as your friends. Online programs provide ample opportunities to connect to others in class; it’s up to you to make the most of those opportunities.

Similarly, it should not be difficult to contact and receive feedback from your professor in an online master’s program. Keep in mind that instructors are there to help, and they have a vested interest in ensuring their students have what they need to succeed. Most online teachers provide several methods of communication for students to contact them. Aside from email and phone, this can include platforms such as Google Hangouts or FaceTime. At Saint Louis University, Mudigonda explains, "The onus is on the instructor to provide the appropriate channels, and secondly the students should not feel reticent about contacting their instructor.”

Ultimately it’s up to you to communicate in order to meet other students and receive personalized instructions from professors. Studying from your home may make the classroom feel very distant, but it should feel just as confortable to reach out to your professor for help as if you were together in the same room. Mudigonda says students should seek help not only from their instructors, but from their fellow students as well. "Asking for help as an adult might be a little out of character, but [students] should also realize they are here to learn and to get the most of the learning experience," he says.

There are numerous ways that this type of proactive communication can be mutually beneficial to your peers, Mudigonda says. For example, if you are having an issue with the online learning platform, consider posting it in the discussion forum so that students who have similar trouble can get the answers they need. In the end, the more you interact with your class, the more it will feel like a community.

Action Items
  • Participate in the online forums or chat features offered by your program to connect with classmates and find study companions
  • Understand that is generally easy to contact an instructor for feedback, and don’t be afraid to reach out to them for help

These fundamental tips for studying online to earn a master's degree can help give students a sense of what to expect and what they need to know prior to starting coursework. A solid understanding of expectations is one of the best ways to meet challenges in the online learning environment.


College Explorer '14,

Patricia Reyes, interview with the author via telephone, April 22, 2016

Srikanth Mudigonda, interview with the author via telephone, April 25, 2016

Online vs. Traditional Education: The Answer You Never Expected, Rasmussen College,

Library and Research Support, Walden University,

Technical Assistance, Walden University,