Learning Online: A How-To Guide for Nursing Students
Reviewed by Abbie Jacobs, RN, BSN
Online nursing degree programs are becoming more common, particularly for those transitioning between career levels or earning higher degrees. Additionally, more and more campus-based programs allow students to take general education or theory courses online, even if many nursing degrees require face-to-face time due to their hands-on nature.
As of March 2020, many nursing students suddenly found themselves learning exclusively online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether you’ve chosen to take classes online or circumstances require you to, we have tips to help you succeed in an online learning environment.
Online Class Structure
Online classes are as intensive and thorough as in-person classes; the setup simply looks a bit different. Instead of meeting your classmates and professors face-to-face, you will communicate via a Learning Management System (LMS). An LMS serves as host for your class, and your professors use it to post lessons, exams, and other information. There are also messaging systems allowing you to collaborate with your classmates, ask questions, and share resources.
Classes can be synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of the two. Synchronous classes meet at specific times, while asynchronous courses occur on your schedule. Like traditional classes, synchronous sessions allow for real-time interactions with classmates and instructors, so you can get instant responses and feedback. Asynchronous courses contain the same type of content, but you can watch lectures, send messages, and complete assignments when you have time.
Both types of online courses have deadlines, potential group work, and hands-on assignments, and exams will happen at a particular time—a specific class period for synchronous, within a window of a few days for asynchronous. In some situations, you will need to go to campus to test under the watchful eye of a proctor.
While a great deal of the communication will be written—class announcements, message board conversations, and so forth—professors will still post videos of their lectures, PowerPoints, and other filmed resources. You may also turn in video presentations or photographed assignments. If doing group work, chances are you will meet via a video chat function, either through the LMS or another chosen method like Zoom.
Ideally, your professor will provide a syllabus at the beginning of the course so you can be aware of due dates ahead of time and plan your schedule accordingly. If they don’t provide a syllabus, reach out and ask—proactive communication is essential in these classes.
Pros and Cons of Online Learning
Like many things in life, online learning has its pros and cons. While online classes are often more flexible than on-campus ones, they’re no easier and require a great deal of dedication and planning on your part. No matter what, you will have access to an academic advisor and a rigorous curriculum that will lead you toward your degree.
Tips for Success in an Online Classroom
Nursing may not feel like the most natural field for online learning, but by following some best practices, you can thrive in this environment.
Connect with your classmates. Whether you and your classmates are new to nursing or your class includes experienced professionals, your peers can be your best resources. Since nursing school often includes hands-on work with patients (or volunteers pretending to be patients), everyone will have different experiences at the same time. When someone encounters something unusual or comes up with a creative solution to a problem, they could share it for the class to learn from. You can also create study groups and share resources you’ve encountered.
Communicate with your professor and advisor. While you may be physically distant from the experts, they’re available to help you. Proactive communication is key—it’s easy to get lost in an online class format, and if you want your professor and advisor to know who you are, it’s your responsibility. Introduce yourself to them early on, including anything you’re worried about, like spotty internet access or a learning disability. Ask about accommodations, scheduling expectations, and alternative ways of contacting them as well.
Practice good time management. Not everyone is a natural at organization and scheduling, but to succeed in an online class, you will need to become an expert. These skills extend beyond the classroom and will help you in your nursing career as well.
Create a schedule and stick to it, making sure anyone you live with knows about it and agrees to accommodate you unless there is a real emergency. Plan for the long and the short term—the length of the course and day-by-day. Don’t forget to schedule in your real-life responsibilities and some free time; this is where a daily schedule comes in handy. Merely saying “I will do classwork today” and not planning a specific time may not be enough—those dirty dishes could prove too much of a distraction if you don’t force yourself to ignore them during a set period.
Create your perfect study space. Just as medical professionals recommend a bedroom should exclusively be a bedroom, so should your study space solely be a study space. If you’re lucky enough to have a spare room or an office at home, you have the perfect setup. However, something as simple as a study-only corner (outside of your bedroom, ideally) can work well.
Make it a space you enjoy being in thanks to a comfortable chair, colors and images that bring you joy, and good lighting. You should also make it as distraction-free as possible, telling those you live with to not drop by and keeping it away from a television, cell phone, or anything else you may “rather be doing.” Make sure it’s structured so you have easy access to all your materials, like textbooks and electrical outlets.
Prepare for technology to disappoint you. While you don’t need to be a digital genius to be a successful online learner, knowing how to solve basic issues is essential. Learn to troubleshoot common problems with your devices and how to reset your Wi-Fi router, and make sure to have backup plans in place if things go horribly wrong—like blackouts or internet outages. Save your work early and often. If you know your home is likely to have frequent connection issues, find a place in town with reliable access, like a library or coffee shop. Bring a portable charger with you in case you can’t find an outlet. Additionally, if you have frequent accessibility issues or your device breaks, contact your professor immediately to make any necessary arrangements. Many online teachers know these things happen and have plans in place.
Keep your kids busy. Many online learners have children—and you may be one of them. If so, you likely know kids require a lot of attention. In a perfect situation, you would be able to study while they’re at school or daycare or have a family member or friend watch them during your study period; however, these options aren’t possible for everyone. So, you need to find ways to keep them occupied while you work.
Don’t forget that you matter. When life gets crazy, people often forget to practice self-care. When you give all of yourself to others, to work, and to your studies, you may experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Nursing school is a great time to develop self-care skills, as they will help you during your career as well—nursing is often overwhelming, and it can be hard to leave work at work.
Schedule in time just for you. Self-care is often interpreted as meaning mindfulness, meditation, or spa visits—and that can be the case for some—but it really means you’re taking care of your well-being through activities you enjoy. Some people decompress with a good book or by watching a few hours of television; others prefer more active things like going to the gym; many are recharged by social activities with family or friends. There is no right way to take care of yourself—just make sure you do.
Resources for Online Nursing Students
Allnurses: Nurses and student nurses can connect via online message boards and have access to articles covering all topics relevant to them. The site even has a section specifically for those learning online to share ideas and help each other.
American Nurses Association: The ANA has a membership specifically for students, which includes a collection of resources, a community of like-minded learners supporting each other, and other member-exclusives.
Learning Nurse Resources Network: This site includes three primary sections: assessment, e-learning, and a library. The assessment portion provides information about what you need to study and gives resources to help. E-learning offers lessons that can enhance topics you’re studying in class, as well as one specifically about “learning to learn” online. Their library has a variety of resources on nearly any topic you may study.
Practical Clinical Skills: You can access valuable training and guides about skills you will use in real-life, including simulations allowing you to practice your skills in a low-stakes environment.
vHealthCare Breakaway Games: This site provides a variety of games, including trivia for NCLEX exam study and simulated patient interactions, to help you hone your skills in creative ways that may not exist in the online classroom. This subscription service is on a sliding scale based on how long your membership is, beginning at $10 per month.