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How Do Online Classes Work? Are They Right for You?

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Posted by Ashley Robinson | Feb 21, 2020 12:00:00 PM

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Online classes can provide a convenient and cost-efficient alternative to traditional, face-to-face classes for people who want to further their education. But how do online classes work, exactly?

Most people are aware that online classes are probably different from in-person courses, but many aren't sure what the process of taking an online course is like. To help you develop a working knowledge of how online classes work and what to expect from online courses before you decide to enroll, we're going to cover the following:

  • Explain what online classes are and where you can take them
  • Answer the question, "How do online college classes work?" by explaining how to enroll and attend online classes
  • Discuss what a typical class session is like in an online class as well as go over how online assignments work
  • Provide a 5 question quiz to help you determine if online classes are a good fit for you
  • Give you 5 tips for succeeding in online classes

So, how do online classes work, and how do you do online classes? Let's find out!



Traditional, in-person classes aren't a good fit for everyone. Online courses can accommodate your schedule and learning style while still giving you a high-quality education.


What Are Online Classes?

An online class is a course that is conducted online through digital devices using web applications.

With online classes, you'll never have to set foot in a physical classroom. Every aspect of the class, from course lectures to exams, happens online. Some schools have dedicated apps for online learning, while others will require you to sign in to a website through a web browser. Regardless, signing up for an online class means you'll be learning from a distance. (That's why online learning is sometimes called "distance education.")

One quick note: while we'll focus on online college-level courses offered through community colleges and universities in this article, those aren't the only types of online classes out there! Plenty of trade schools and nonprofit institutions offer online classes, too. Luckily, most online classes operate in very similar ways. So if you're looking into a less common type of online class, the information in this article should still be helpful!



While Google is a great place to start your search for online classes, make sure you're checking individual schools' websites for more information. A little research can help ensure you're making the best decision for you.


Where Can You Find Online Classes?

Part of answering the question, "How do online classes work?" involves explaining where you can find online classes. Different types of organizations and institutions offer online classes, but the most common type of online class is the online college class. If you are interested specifically in earning college credit through online classes, the best place to search for online classes is through individual schools' websites.

Luckily, most colleges and universities in the U.S. offer online classes in multiple subject areas, but they might not offer online versions of all of the classes in a given subject area, major, or degree program. If you want to enroll in a traditional undergraduate program and take a few online classes on your path to earning your degree, you can do just that.

An alternative to enrolling in a traditional undergraduate degree program and cherry-picking online classes is to enroll in an online degree program. An online degree program allows students to earn undergraduate college degrees solely by taking classes online. In this case, every single class you take will be an online course. This can be a great option for people who have other full-time obligations, like a job or family care. It's also a good option for people who live far away from college campuses or want a degree from a specific institution.

The first step to locating online classes is deciding whether you want to take a couple of online classes at a time or if you want to enroll in an entire online degree program. Once you figure that out, you can start looking for accredited institutions that offer the type of online classes that fit your needs and your schedule.




How Do You Enroll in Online Classes?

Once you've found the online classes you want to take, it's time to sign up! The online enrollment process is actually a lot simpler than you think.


The Enrollment Process

The first step to taking an online class is enrolling in one. To do that, you have to complete the online registration process that is required by the college or university you choose. The way you go about enrolling in online classes is determined by the type of student you are: degree-seeking student or non-degree seeking student.

At most colleges and universities, degree-seeking students are students who are currently enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate degree program. Degree-seeking students are students who have gone through the admissions process and are now qualified to earn a degree from their school or university.

Degree-seeking students typically enroll in online classes by reviewing the online course offerings for a given semester in their university's course catalog, contacting their academic advisor, and registering for the online course using correct course numbers through their university's online registration system.

Non-degree seeking students, on the other hand, are students who are not admitted to or enrolled in a campus-based degree program but who would like to take an online class. That's right--on many college campuses, you can take classes without working toward a specific degree!

Typically, a college or university will provide specific registration instructions for non-degree seeking students who wish to take online classes. On some campuses, non-degree seeking students have to register for classes using a different process or through a separate online portal. Knowing your student status is key to making sure you're registering for your online courses correctly.


Paying for Online Classes

Regardless of whether you're taking online classes to earn a degree or not, you'll most likely have to pay for them. (There are exceptions to this rule, which we'll talk about in a second.)

The cost of an online course varies from school to school. In some cases, online classes can be cheaper to take than their in-person counterparts. But that's not always true! If you're looking into online classes because of your budget, make sure you're calculating the real cost of attendance before pulling the trigger on registration.

The good news is that if you're taking an online class from an accredited institution, student aid packages like federal grants, scholarships, and private loans can usually be used to cover the cost of attendance. It's definitely worth learning more about whether you qualify for financial aid before you start enrolling in your online courses.


Can You Take Online Classes for Free?

You may have heard that you can take online college classes for free. There are definitely colleges and nonprofit organizations that offer free online courses! These are called MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Classes, and they're usually offered at low to no cost.

While free online courses are tempting, they come with a few caveats. The first is that if you're trying to earn a degree, the classes you take through a MOOC or an equivalent don't always transfer to more traditional universities. You definitely don't want to take four or five MOOCs only to find out that your university won't accept the transfer credits!

Also, the quality of MOOCs varies widely, so you'll have to be pretty particular about what types of classes you're taking and the places you're taking them from. Unfortunately, not all MOOCs are created equal. It's always best to take MOOCs that are offered by accredited institutions to make sure you're getting a quality education.

But if you aren't sure about this whole "online classes" thing and want to test one out without spending a lot of money, a MOOC can be a great online class option for you. If you're interested in taking a MOOC, check out our list of the best free online classes to get you started.




How Do Online Classes Work? A General Overview

Once you've signed up for classes, it's time to get to work. But many people are confused about how online classes work on a practical level. How do you attend lectures? How do you turn in assignments? And do you have to show up at a certain time every day?

If you're asking "how do online college classes work," don't worry. This next section will help you get a handle on what being in an online class is really like.

Before we get started, though, we want to make sure you know that this is just a general overview of how online classes work. There are many different approaches to online learning out there, so it's important to research individual classes and/or online programs to make sure they're a good fit for you before you enroll.

With that said...let's answer some of the most frequently asked questions about how online classes work.


Do You Have to Attend Online Classes?

In online courses, the expectations for attendance depends on the type of online course you're taking.

There are two main types of online courses: self-guided online classes and instructor-led online classes. In both self-guided and instructor-led online classes, students "show up" to classes through a Learning Management System (LMS), which is a "digital classroom" where you'll watch lectures, submit assignments, and even take your exams.

In self-guided online courses, the instructor will provide all course materials through the LMS, and students complete the course at their own pace and on their own time. As long as students complete all of the course requirements by the end of the semester, they will be able to successfully complete the course. In other words, in self-guided courses, "attendance" looks like completing all of the required coursework by the final deadline for completion of the entire course. You don't have to show up every day at a certain time—you're able to fit your coursework around your busy schedule.

In instructor-led courses, the instructor sets deadlines for meeting course requirements. In this type of course, the instructor might host live lectures or discussions that students must attend by logging into the LMS at specific times on specific days. The instructor may also set due dates for homework assignments and course exams throughout the semester. So while you may not have to show up to a physical classroom, instructor-led courses work a lot like their in-person counterparts.

When you're signing up for online classes, it's important that you pay attention to the class format. The format (self-guided or instructor-led) should be specified on the course descriptions in a university's course catalog. When you get ready to enroll in classes, you should consider whether the more flexible self-guided "attendance" expectations seem like a better fit for you, or if having the built-in structure and accountability of an instructor-led course might better suit your learning needs! Making sure you're taking the right style of online class can make a huge difference in your overall success.



Many online classes have video lectures that you'll be required to watch. Instructor-led classes may even livestream lectures, so you'll have to log on at a specific time to watch them!


What Is a Typical Online Classroom Like?

So, how do online college classes work on a day-to-day basis? And what's a typical classroom session like in an online class?"

If you're taking a self-guided class, then you'll have everything you need to learn the course material provided to you through the LMS as soon as you enroll. There will probably be instructional videos for you to watch along with homework assignments you'll submit after watching them. You'll also likely have bigger assessments, like exams, that help ensure that you're actually learning the material.

Since you're learning at your own pace, there's no typical "day" in a self-guided class! You can choose to do as much—or as little—as you want during any particular class session. You have the freedom to create your own learning experience.

Instructor-led classes run more like in-person courses, which means that you'll likely have a more formal "classroom experience." While instructor-led online class sessions can vary in format depending on a school's policies and the instructor's personal teaching style, there is a common pattern that most online classroom sessions tend to follow in instructor-led classes.

In online classes that require students to "attend" class sessions, the class session format typically involves a lecture given by the instructor, followed by a discussion session involving you and your fellow students. The instructor might have a designated time every week when they will give a live lecture, using video conferencing or an audio conferencing app, which students are required to attend. If you miss the lecture, then you miss that day's instruction!

Regardless of whether online courses have required sessions for students to attend at designated times, most online classes follow a recurring schedule of activities and assignments on a week-to-week basis. Many online classes will distribute readings, post PowerPoints, and assign homework at the beginning of the week. Students will then complete the assignments and turn them in by their assigned deadlines. Exams also tend to happen on a set schedule: instructors will upload the exam, and then students usually have 24 to 48 hours to complete it.

Even though instructor-led classes have more structure, they are generally more flexible than in-person classes. Assignments tend to have longer windows to complete them, and you can normally turn in your assignments any time before midnight on the day they're due. The goal of an instructor-led course is to give you the experience of learning from an expert while still providing the flexibility you need to fit the class into your own schedule.



Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but most online classes have student assessments like homework, assignments, quizzes, and exams!


What Do Assessments Look Like in Online Classes?

Just like in traditional classes, online classes have assessments that students must take to demonstrate that they are mastering the course material. In fact, the assessments in online classes really aren't that different from the assessments in traditional classes--you just have to complete all of them online instead of in person!


Quizzes and Tests

The most common types of assessments in online classes are quizzes and tests. In self-guided courses, students can take quizzes and tests on their own time and at their own pace. In instructor-led courses, quizzes and tests may be made available at specified times, and may be "closed" at set times as well.

Regardless of whether you're taking a self-guided or instructor-led course, you'll have to use the LMS to access, complete, and submit the quizzes and tests. The frequency of these assignments varies from course to course, but you can generally expect weekly quizzes with three or four exams over the course of a semester.


Discussion Posts

Discussion boards are also a key assessment tool in many online classes. Discussion boards are used to assess students' comprehension of learning materials and to promote critical thinking about course readings and topics. It's common for instructors to post a question or prompt on the class discussion board on a weekly basis and require students to write and post a public response. Students will then comment on or respond to each other's posts to get a discussion going throughout the week. Generally, discussion posts are treated like homework in terms of your overall grade, which means you'll have a little more time to complete them than you would an exam.



Also, don't be surprised if you're required to submit essay assignments! Essay assignments are much more common in instructor-led classes, though they pop up in self-guided online classes, too. Essay assignments allow instructors to make sure you're understanding the course's core concepts and that you're able to apply them to other ideas, too.

In some classes, essays may make up the majority of your course grade. That's especially true if you're taking humanities courses like composition, literature, history, and political science. If that's the case, your instructor may also ask you to participate in a process called peer review. You'll upload a draft of your essay, then your fellow classmates—usually selected by your professor—will offer suggestions and feedback on your work through the LMS. Once that's done, you can revise and submit your final essay.

The big thing to remember is that like all of your assignments, your essays will be submitted digitally (and you'll get feedback the same way).


Final Projects

A final assessment tool that is used in many online classes is the digital project. Digital projects are frequently assigned toward the end of an online course as a way for students to show what they've learned over the course of the semester. Since online classes don't meet face-to-face, instructors in online courses might assign projects such as video essays, PowerPoint or slide-based presentations, podcasts, or electronic research papers or reports. These online projects may be research-based or collaborative, so instructors will encourage students to work together to complete course projects using tools provided in the LMS, such as group sites, chat tools, or web conferencing tools.

In the case of all assessments in online courses, the instructor will use the LMS to evaluate and assign grades to each student's completed assignments. Students will be able to access their grades and feedback on coursework through a gradebook that is built into the LMS.

How online classes work in regard to assessments can vary, but most online classes make use of similar activities and tools to help students learn and further their education!




Will Online Classes Work for You? A 5-Question Quiz

Maybe you're still unsure if online classes would be a good fit for you. To help you decide, you can take our five question quiz below!

  1. Are you self-motivated?
    A. Yes!
    B. Uh, not really...

  2. Are you able to meet deadlines on time?
    A. Absolutely. I'm a stickler for deadlines.
    B. Deadlines? What's a deadline?

  3. How good are you at learning new software and web apps?
    A. I'm definitely up for it! I'm no Bill Gates, but I'm pretty tech savvy.
    B. Spending tons of time figuring out new software feels like a waste of time.

  4. Can you learn new concepts on your own?
    A. For sure. I always made better grades on my homework, and I hated group assignments.
    B. Man, group assignments were my favorite part of school. I'd rather work with other people than try to learn things on my own.

  5. Do you have access to a reasonably new computer and reliable internet access?
    A. Yes, I have both at home. There's also a library close to my work that I could use in a pinch.
    B. I have data on my phone, but that's about it.


Did you answer all five questions? If you chose "A" in response to three or more questions, then it's pretty likely you'll succeed in online classes!




How Do You Do Excel in Online Classes? 5 Tips for Success

Doing well in online classes is about more than understanding how they work. That's why we're giving you our top five tips for succeeding in online classes!


Tip 1: Get Used to "Checking In" Frequently

Actively engaging with your online course is a key part of succeeding in an online class. Because you don't have to show up to a classroom two or three times a week, you'll have to make sure you're checking for class updates on a regular basis.

Here's what we mean: in order to stay on top of course expectations and deadlines, you'll need to check your email, the course announcements page in the LMS, and your syllabus often. When you're not attending an in-person class, it can be easy for deadlines and due dates to sneak up on you. Checking these resources daily will ensure you turn your assignments when they're due and have ample time to complete course readings and absorb course material. It will also help you plan for future assignments so that you're not scrambling to complete them at the last minute!


Tip 2: Do All the Reading

Since you don't have face-to-face reminders from your instructor in online classes, it's important to thoroughly read all the materials your instructor uploads to the LMS. This includes the course syllabus and schedule, assignment instructions, uploaded readings, and feedback on your completed assignments. Paying careful attention to assignment instructions is particularly important, especially since your instructor may not go over the directions with you.

More importantly, reading all course materials carefully can also help you to ask thoughtful questions, and know when you need to follow up with your instructor for more information or clarification. Reading carefully--and reading everything ahead of time!--ensures that you'll know exactly what to do on each assessment in order to ace the class.


Tip 3: Use a Digital Planner

Since deadlines arrive quickly and frequently in online classes, it can be helpful to set up reminders on a digital calendar, to-do list, or planner to help you anticipate assignment due dates and any other important tasks in online classes. And while paper planners are great, the fact that online classes are run...well, online...means that many students find it easier to keep track of everything digitally.

Here's an example: in some classes, deadlines for a given type of assignment (like discussion posts) can fall on the same day and time each week. For instance, in an English class, you may have to post discussion questions and responses every Tuesday by 11:59 pm. To make sure you never miss an assignment, you can set a recurring reminder in your calendar to notify you a few hours before each discussion post is due.

In some cases, LMS systems have built-in planners and to-do lists where instructors can upload assignment due dates and important reminders. If that's the case, take advantage of them! The biggest hazard in online learning is staying on track, so don't be afraid to rely on planners and to-do lists to keep you focused on success.


Tip 4: Get Familiar With the LMS System and Course Apps

The LMS system is the primary hub of online classes. There are tons of different LMSes out there, but some common ones include BlackBoard and Absorb. Because you'll do all of your learning on the LMS, it's important that you know how to use it. In fact, it's usually a requirement of the course! Your instructor definitely won't accept "I didn't know where to find the information" as an excuse for late work in an online class.

Many online classes also ask students to use different web apps within the course's LMS to complete coursework or interact with the instructor or classmates. These web apps can include video conferencing software, blogs and wikis, and chat tools. Again, it's your responsibility to make sure you know how to use these different tools, so you'll want to spend some time familiarizing yourself with them before you have to complete assignments.

If you feel apprehensive about using apps or other digital tools that you're unfamiliar with, it might be worth it to spend some time browsing around the LMS and testing things out before the class actually begins. That way, you'll be able to ask your instructor questions or consult your school's tech support if you need help!


Tip 5: Communicate With Your Instructor and Your Peers

Perhaps the most important thing you can do in online classes is to communicate clearly and often with your instructor and your classmates. If you feel confused or uncertain about the expectations for an assignment, email your instructor or request a meeting during their virtual office hours to discuss your concerns (after reading the entire syllabus and other written instructions, of course).

Just because online classes are a form of distance learning doesn't mean you can't ask your instructor for help, form study groups with your peers, or have meetings to talk about your progress in the course. That's what all of those chat tools and web conferencing apps are for: helping you stay connected and in sync with your instructor's expectations, even if it's from a distance.




What's Next?

One of the best ways to succeed in an online course is to make sure you're managing your time well. Here are twelve time management techniques that can help you ace your classes. Just because a class is online doesn't mean you won't have to study!

Studying regularly helps you retain course information, which is super important if you want to make great grades on your quizzes and exams. Follow these expert study tips to keep your studying on track.

Remember how we mentioned that online college courses are just one type of online class you can take? Well, it turns out that you can go to high school completely online, too! Here's a complete list of free online high schools, and a bonus guide that can help you figure out if an online high school is right for you.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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