Getting Ready to Learn Online


Welcome to the first step in your online course! Before getting started with your course content modules, please take some time to explore this introductory module to learn about how to make the most of your online course, and how to succeed as an online learner.

How ready are you for an online course?

Penn State offers an online pre-assessment that you can complete to see whether your learner habits and preferences would promote successful online learning: Penn State Online Learning Pre-Assessment

How to be a successful online learner

  1. Organize your time
  2. Study effectively
  3. Think critically about material
  4. Complete assignments in steps
  5. Make the most of online communication tools
  6. Strive to uphold academic integrity
  7. Know the support services that are available to you

Organize Your Time

With the flexibility of online learning, it can be easy for students to get off track, or fall behind, in their courses. This is why you should always make sure to schedule time in your busy everyday schedule for your online course(s).

What's the best way to stay on track in your online course(s)?

  1. Look at the course schedule
  2. Make a schedule
  3. Set goals for yourself
  4. Stay on schedule and evaluate your progress
  5. Login to the course regularly


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Look at the course schedule

The first thing that you should do when you're enrolled in a new class is look at the course schedule to find out what your responsibilities and the important dates are (e.g., assignment deadlines, online quiz dates, etc.).

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Make a schedule

To organize your time effectively, create a master schedule that includes your course deadlines, as well as all of your other commitments (e.g., classes, labs, extracurricular activities). Remember to also schedule time to work through the course (the expectation for most courses is 10 hours of work per week). This schedule should be referenced regularly and kept up to date.

Either Google Calendar or Outlook Calendar are great resources for keeping track of your schedule.

You can find more information about making a master schedule here: Creating a Master Schedule

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Set goals for yourself

Ask yourself what you want to accomplish in your classes. To get the most out of the goals that you're aiming to achieve, use the SMART framework. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

For example, you can improve a starting goal of "I want to study more this term" using the SMART goal framework.

Specific Is the goal is clearly outlined, and not vague? Instead of setting a goal to "study more" you could set a goal to "study half a module's worth of content every other day"
Measurable Is the goal concrete? Can your progress be tracked? Studying half a module's worth of content every other day is measurable, since it involves a trackable amount of content.
Achievable Is the goal something that's reasonable for you to accomplish given your available resources? If you have conflicting time commitments on most weekdays you might find it difficult to consistently meet milestones.
Realistic Is the goal something that's attainable, or is it too challenging? For example, if you set a goal of studying for six hours every day, you'll likely be overworked.
Time-bound Does the goal have a clear schedule of deadlines? Do you have a timeline for when you want to achieve goal related milestones? Having a set amount of content to study every other day allows you to assess your progress at the end of each week.

Set your own goal for this course:

Thinking about your goal, is the answer to each of the questions listed in the Criteria column "yes"? If not, refine your goal using the questions as a guide.

Once you've finalized your goal, write it down somewhere where you can revisit it throughout the course.

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Stay on top of tasks and evaluate your progress

Consider using checklists, as well as your calendar, to keep track of course tasks (e.g., readings, assignments, etc.).

This will make it easier to determine what you've already completed, what you need to complete, and where you might be falling behind.


Reward yourself for completing tasks and meeting deadlines! This will help motivate you to complete all of your tasks, even the ones that seem overwhelming or tedious.

Here's an example checklist. Notice that "PSYCH 101 – Article review assignment 1" is further broken down into a list of subtasks. Dividing large tasks up into smaller, more manageable, chunks can help with task completion and motivation. 

BIO 101


  • Find peer-reviewed article
  • Write 1 page summary
  • Write 1 page critique

ENGL 101

If you don't want to handwrite your checklists, there are free checklist applications that you can use, like Evernote , Todoist, and Trello.

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Login to the course regularly

Ideally, you should login to your course once a day. This doesn't mean that you have to be on the course page for an extended period of time, it can even be for as little as 5 minutes to check whether there are new announcements on the home page or posts on the discussion boards.

Most importantly, avoid unnecessary stress by sticking to the schedule that you've outlined for yourself and by not trying to do too much at once!

For helpful time management tips, more information about time management skills, or to participate in a time management workshop, visit the Student Success Office page on Time Management.

Study Effectively

There are a variety of approaches that you can use to learn, and retain, course content. Before learning about the most effective strategies, take a minute to think about how you typically study for your classes. 

Consider: How do you usually study? (e.g., copy notes, make cue cards, etc.)

Chances are that you study by highlighting, underlining, copying, and/or rereading your notes and your textbook, since these are the strategies used most often by learners.

It might seem like these are the best approaches to learning, but research has shown that using only active strategies (we'll get to what these are in the next section) leads to better learning outcomes than using only passive strategies (for example, rereading and copying).

Passive strategies might make it feel like you've mastered your course content, but these are actually some of the least effective approaches to studying.

What are some examples of active strategies?

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Self-testing to practice memory retrieval
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Connecting what you've learned to what you already know
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Asking yourself questions about the material as you read through it
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Working through questions without looking up the answer first
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Organizing information in a way that's meaningful to you (e.g., using concept maps)

How should you schedule study time?

As is mentioned in the "Organize Your Time" section, it's easy to fall behind or put things off in your online courses. This can have negative effects on learning outcomes, especially when it involves falling behind on studying.

Consider: How do you schedule study time? Do you usually spread out your study sessions or cram before a text/exam?

Most students engage in massed studying (i.e., cramming), which isn't the best approach to studying.

Studying across multiple, spread out, sessions results in better learning than studying in longer, less distributed, sessions. In other words, whether your class is face-to-face or online, you should avoid cramming when studying. 

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Some of these approaches to studying might seem time consuming or difficult, but they're worth the effort. The more effort you put into studying, the greater the improvement you'll see in long-term learning.

Picking a workspace and minimizing distractions

It's also important to make sure that you're in a setting where you're free of distractions and are likely to be productive. For example, don't watch TV at the same time as you're going through your course modules or studying if you know that it would distract you.

Social media and other websites can be major distractions. If you find yourself frequently going online and/or browsing for an extended period of time, there are applications that can help! There are productivity applications for cell phones and Internet browsers that focus on blocking distracting websites, or rewarding you for avoiding them while you're doing work.

Here are a few examples of applications that block distracting websites and/or phone apps: ForestCold TurkeyFreedom.

You can also improve your productivity by setting aside dedicated work sessions using approaches such as the Pomodoro Technique.

The typical Pomodoro Technique can be summarized as follows:

Start a timer (25 min), only do work until timer runs out, take a break (3-5 min), repeat.

After four work periods, you can take a longer break (15-30 minutes).

Pomodoro applications, such as Marinara Timer, can help you track your work sessions (but note that these applications don't block websites/other applications like the previously mentioned productivity applications do).

To summarize what we went over in this section, the best approaches to studying involve:

  1. Using active study strategies
  2. Spreading out study sessions
  3. Avoiding distractions

Think Critically About Material

Most of your courses (both online and face-to-face) will require that you think critically about the material that's presented to you. Not only will thinking critically improve your performance in your class, it will also lead to deeper long-term learning of content.

What does it mean to think critically?

Critical thinking involves going beyond simple comprehension and memorization of content. Like the best study techniques, critical thinking means actively engaging with content instead of passively taking in information.

To think critically about material, you need to extend what you're presented with by applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.


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Extend what you've learned to other contexts


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Make connections with other ideas


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Assess whether you agree with an idea


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Generate original ideas

Learn more about each of these levels of Bloom's Taxonomy.

Critical thinking is also demonstrated when you engage in close reading, as is represented in these two examples pulled from GER 230: Vikings:

Screenshot of course with close readings. Screenshot shows text on a page with a sentence highlighted. Notes about sentence in margin.
Another screenshot of course with close readings. Screenshot shows text on a page with a sentence highlighted. Notes about sentence in margin.

In these examples, the reader extends on what's written in the text and generates their own expectations based on the content. In other words, the reader goes beyond the surface features of the text and elaborates on what they're reading.

Succeeding as a learner involves more than solely engaging in critical thinking as you work through material. In many cases, you'll also be required to present your ideas through critical writing.

What is critical writing?

One issue that many students encounter is distinguishing critical writing from descriptive writing. Generally, these two types of writing can be defined as follows:

Descriptive Writing:
Describing a situation/idea as it is without providing your own analysis or ideas.
Critical Writing:
Weighing evidence and arguments, and providing your own arguments.

Let's look at a couple of examples of both types of writing: 

Descriptive WritingCritical Writing
"A recent survey found that 95% of students in an undergraduate class preferred 8:30 am classes to afternoon classes. 98% of the students in the class didn't complete the survey." "A recent survey found that 95% of students in an undergraduate class preferred 8:30 am classes to afternoon classes. It's not clear how generalizable these results are to the rest of the student population, since only 2% of the class completed the survey."
"The authors state that differences in intelligence can be easily assessed using standard IQ tests." "The authors state that differences in intelligence can be easily assessed using standard IQ tests. However, this point of view fails to account for the potential disadvantage that the test's format creates for individuals from different cultural backgrounds."

Both types of writing are important, but you should always make sure that you go beyond descriptive writing when you're being asked to think critically about a topic.

Critical thinking skills are useful to have in any context. You can practice these skills daily by asking questions about the information that you're presented with.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. Can I relate this information to my own experiences?
  2. How does this information relate to other material that I've encountered?
  3. How does the author back up their claims? Do I agree with their point of view?
  4. Can I think of another explanation for a particular phenomenon?

Complete Assignments in Steps

What steps should you take to complete your assignments?

Open all / Close all

This will give you an idea of what the instructor is looking for when grading your assignment, and what you should focus on when you're writing it.

Creating an outline will help you organize your thoughts, and provide structure for your assignment.

Try creating headings and subheadings as placeholders for the content you're going to add.

Here's an example of an assignment outline. The key sections of the assignment are included, as well as the subcomponents of each section.

  • Hypothesis
  • Outline main arguments
Main Body
  • Argument 1
    • Supporting statements
  • Argument 2
    • Supporting statements
  • Argument 3
    • Supporting statements
  • Summarize main arguments
  • Revisit main hypothesis


The University of Waterloo library page is a good place to look for books, journal articles, and other sources.

To choose sources that are appropriate for your assignment:

  • Search databases using relevant keywords
  • Try making a list of all the keywords related to your topic that you can think of, and narrow it down to the top 6-8
  • Use the PROMPT method to evaluate the credibility of sources
    Presentation Is the information presented clearly? Can I easily find what I need in this publication?
    Relevance Is this information directly related to my assignment topic?
    Objectivity Is there anything that suggests that the author is biased?
    Method Is the author’s method for collecting data/information legitimate?
    Provenance How credible is the author? Where was the information published?
    Timeliness Is the publication date within a range that is appropriate for my needs?
  • Remember to take note of the sources that you find as you're reading them [see the "citing sources" section below for more information about tracking sources and writing citations]

Fill in the outline that you've created. The first draft doesn't need to be perfectly worded. You can always edit what you've written. Just start writing.

Resources to help you with your writing can be found on the University of Waterloo Writing and Communication Centre resources page.

You might think that editing your assignment is the same as proofreading. However, as the Writing and Communication Centre page on Revision says,

"Proofreading is the final stage in revising and editing your writing, whereas revision [editing] looks at more global aspects of your writing such as the argument, flow, logic, evidence, and organization of your work. Only when you are satisfied with these larger aspects of your writing is it time to proofread."

University of Waterloo Writing and Communication Centre 

For helpful strategies and tips related to revising your work, visit the Writing and Communication Centre page on Revision.

Once you've edited your assignment, it's time for the last step in your writing: proofreading.

Before looking over your assignment a final time, take a break and step away from your work. This will make it easier to find mistakes in your writing.

Visit the Writing and Communication Centre page on Proofreading for more proofreading strategies and helpful tips.

Citing sources

To avoid forgetting where you've read something, you should take note of your sources as you're reading through them. There are a variety of tools that can help you do this. Some examples include: RefWorksEvernoteZoteroMendeley.

You'll also need to make sure that you're using the right citation style for your course, and that you're using the citation style correctly.

Use the style guide that the instructor has recommended. If your instructor hasn't listed a preferred style on the course, then ask them what they want you to use, or check which style your instructor has used for their references on LEARN.

Here are the style guides for some of the most commonly used citation styles:

For other styles (e.g., Harvard, STEM specific) visit: Resources for Documenting Sources in the Disciplines

Make the Most of Online Communication Tools

Sometimes it might feel like online courses don't give you opportunities to interact with other students, but this is a misconception about online learning. It can actually be easier to connect with your classmates in online classes than it would be in some face-to-face classes.

How can I build a connection with my classmates online?

Discussions are a great place to start! Actively posting in discussion threads can offer more meaningful interactions with other students than you would get in some face-to-face classes. This active engagement with your classmates can improve your learning experience and your performance in your online courses.

Find a learning partner! Having another student to discuss course content with has positive effects on learning.

To make the most of online discussions, it's important that you:

  • Subscribe to discussion topics to stay up-to-date on discussion threads
  • Learn more about online discussion skills (see Online Discussions: Tips for Students).
  • Engage in respectful discussions with your classmates.

Take some time to read the pages about making the most of online discussions, and to watch the following video for tips about how to best use online discussion boards.

Let's consider whether the following examples follow discussion etiquette.

Note: these examples were created for the purpose of this course, and are not taken from real discussions.

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I have a few issues with the movie that we watched for this week's class. First of all, I don't know why the director of this film decided to ignore the role that Churchill played in this. Why ignore such an important political figure? I think it was to avoid spending time on lengthy speeches so that there would be more time for action scenes. Also, this movie is full of historical inaccuracies. If we were supposed to learn from this movie, it did a horrible job. Another issue is the actors that they chose to play the main characters. Not at all impressed by that. Oh, and did anyone else notice the lack of focus on what was happening overseas at the time? The entire movie was about what was going on in Europe. What about the role that North American countries played? I get that movies have to be somewhat narrow in terms of plot, but come on. There was also the issue with how the movie ended. There was no attempt to show the lasting effects on the involved countries after the war was over. It's a pretty important thing to consider.

What would you change to improve this post?

Note: Your response will not be saved. You are encouraged to record your response elsewhere if you wish to revisit it later in the course.


  • Focus on one or two key points. Posts should be clear and concise.
  • Elaborate on main points and back up criticism with evidence. Use course content and/or external resources to support the argument being made.
  • Make sure that a professional tone is used throughout the post.
  • Ask more open-ended questions to promote discussion with peers.
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Hi Everyone,

I thought this week's reading was really interesting, but felt that the author didn't offer enough evidence to support their main argument. The focus was on how context drives group dynamics, but I think that we should also consider the role of self-esteem if we want to get an idea of what the full picture is.

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I completely disagree with what you're saying. It is obvious that you completely misread the article and have a general lack of understanding of what the course is all about.

What should David have done differently?

Note: Your response will not be saved. You are encouraged to record your response elsewhere if you wish to revisit it later in the course.


  • Outline why he disagrees with what Samantha is saying. This encourages further discussion and creates opportunities for learning from one another.
  • David's reply reads as a criticism of Samantha herself, and not of the point that she's making. It's okay to disagree with another student, but he should avoid making things sound personal.
  • David's reply could be a case of emotional responding. This can be prevented by taking some time to think about the post before sending it.

Taking the time to check the discussion boards and respond to other students' posts can create a stronger sense of community, which will ultimately enhance learning and motivation.

How can I connect with my instructor online?

You can use the Ask the Instructor discussion for content related questions, and can stay in contact with your instructor via email and using other tools provided on LEARN.

Note: Don't post personal or sensitive information in the "Ask the Instructor" discussion. Everything posted there is public and openly available to your classmates.

More information on how to use LEARN discussion boards can be found at Disscussions.

Strive to Uphold Academic Integrity

The University of Waterloo prides itself on promoting an environment of academic integrity.

What is integrity?

The University of Waterloo Office of Academic Integrity page defines integrity as "the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change." [Cambridge Dictionaries Online]

In other words, as C.S. Lewis says:

"Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching."

C.S. Lewis

Let's take a few minutes to see what you already know about academic integrity.

1. Sandra is working on her assignment in the library with her friend Angela, and is struggling with a few of the final questions. She asks Angela if she can look at her answers to see how she should respond, and says that she'll review her notes on that section later. Is this a breach of academic integrity? Y/N and explain.

Note: Your response will not be saved. You are encouraged to record your response elsewhere if you wish to revisit it later in the course.

Yes! If Angela lets Sandra use her assignment, then both students will have engaged in Excessive/Unauthorized Collaboration. Unless the instructor says otherwise, it should be assumed that there is no collaboration on assignments.
2. Tom is taking an online course for the first time. He references his notes when he's completing online quizzes because, given the online context of the test, the instructor should expect that all students have access to this material. Is this a breach of academic integrity? Y/N and explain.

Note: Your response will not be saved. You are encouraged to record your response elsewhere if you wish to revisit it later in the course.

Yes! Tom should assume that all tests are closed book unless the instructor says otherwise. This is an example of cheating.
3. Will is trying to finish an assignment for his computer science class, but is having trouble finishing off a command. He searches online and finds code that would complete his answer to the question. He types the code that he found into his assignment. Is this a breach of academic integrity? Y/N and explain.

Note: Your response will not be saved. You are encouraged to record your response elsewhere if you wish to revisit it later in the course.

Yes! Will copied another person's code. This is an example of cheating and plagiarism.

You can avoid accidentally breaching academic integrity by making sure that you understand what the commonly misunderstood offences are.

A good starting point is to become familiar with the academic integrity policies at the university.

For example, you should have a basic understanding of University of Waterloo's Policy 71. Watch the following video to find out more about the components of this student discipline policy that relate to academic integrity.

Test your knowledge about Policy 71, as it relates to academic integrity.

1. A student can't be penalized for breaching academic integrity if they didn't know that their behaviour constituted a breach.

2. What should you do if you're unsure whether an action is a breach of academic integrity?

3. What is an example of an offence that would be considered "unauthorized resubmission of work"?

Note: Your response will not be saved. You are encouraged to record your response elsewhere if you wish to revisit it later in the course.

Reusing previously submitted work, such as an assignment that was written for another course, is considered unauthorized resubmission of work. This is the case regardless of whether you were the author of the original assignment.
4. What is an example of an offence that would be considered "impersonation"?

Note: Your response will not be saved. You are encouraged to record your response elsewhere if you wish to revisit it later in the course.

Impersonation is any instance in which someone else completes course work for you. For example, having someone else take a final exam for you would be considered impersonation.

To succeed as a student, you should always learn with integrity. As the University of Waterloo's Academic Integrity page puts it, "the road to success is paved with integrity." Don't cheat yourself of true learning!

Integrity isn't only crucial in the context of academics. Integrity is an important consideration no matter what situation you're in, as is emphasized in the University of Waterloo's work. study. play. with integrity campaign.

Interested in learning more about academic integrity?

More information can be found on the University of Waterloo Office of Academic Integrity website.

Know the Support Services that are Available to You

What are some of the support services that are in place for students?

Student Success Office: For helpful tips and workshops to help you succeed in academics and personally.

Writing and Communication Centre: For help developing your writing skills.

Office of Academic Integrity: For more information about how to uphold integrity.


Library- Online tutorials

Library- Subject guide


  • Davies, J., & Graff, M. (2005). Performance in e-learning: Online participation and student grades. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(4), 657-663.
  • Penn State. Readiness for Online Learning. Retrieved from:
  • Richardson, J., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students' perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(1), 68-88.
  • Writing S.M.A.R.T. Goals. Retrieved from:
  • Online Resources: Time Management (2016). Retrieved from: - Time management
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Cambridge, MT: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Cirillo, F. (2006). The Pomodoro Technique (the Pomodoro). Retrieved from
  • Dunlovsky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students' learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
  • LucidChart. What is a concept map? Retrieved from:
  • Van Blerkom, D. L., Van Blerkom, M. L., & Bertsch, S. (2006). Study strategies and generative learning: What works? Journal of College Reading and Learning, 37(1), 7-18. DOI: 10.1080/10790195.2006.10850190
  • Armstrong, P. Bloom's Taxonomy (year). Retrieved from:
  • Hughes, W., & Lavery, J. Critical Thinking: An Introduction to the Basic Skills – Canadian Seventh Edition. Broadview Press.
  • Student Learning Development: University of Leicester. What is critical writing? Retrieved from:
  • The Critical Thinking Community. Defining critical thinking. Retrieved from:
  • West, R. F., Toplak, M. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (2008). Heuristics and biases as measures of critical thinking: Associations with Cognitive Ability and Thinking Dispositions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 930-941.
  • Open Polytechnic. Step-by-Step guide to assignment writing. Retrieved from:
  • Evaluation using PROMPT- Being digital. Retrieved from:
  • Centre for Teaching Excellence. Netiquette and effective electronic communication. Retrieved from:
  • Davies, J., & Graff, M. (2005). Performance in e-learning: Online participation and student grades. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(4), 657-663.
  • Richardson, J., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students' perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(1), 68-88.
  • University of Waterloo Teaching Assistant/Preceptor Training Course.
  • Integrity. Lexico. Retrieved from
  • University of Waterloo. Academic Integrity. Retrieved from

  • All icons on this page are © Course Author(s) and University of Waterloo

The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of ‎ the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land promised to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is centralized within our Indigenous Initiatives Office.