Secondary Logo

Journal Logo

Succeeding in an online nursing program

Sanders, Ellarene Duis, PhD, RN

doi: 10.1097/01.NME.0000549623.58762.3c
Department: Education Extra

Ellarene Duis Sanders is an Assistant Professor of Nursing at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Nursing in Lubbock, Tex.

The author has disclosed no financial relationships related to this article.



Online nursing programs have made advancing our education more accessible for many of us. Although online programs are flexible, they aren't easy. The demands of the courses are roughly equivalent to those of in-person programs, especially if the program has national accreditation. Taking a planned approach can give students an edge. This article provides key tips for success in an online program, including preparing for a course, student-student and student-faculty relationships, organizing your time, and making the most of feedback.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Before starting the program

Understand time requirements. Credit hours are defined by state/federal regulations and reviewed by accrediting agencies. One credit hour is equivalent to 1 hour per week of course time over a 15-week semester. For a 3-credit hour course, this means you should plan to spend 45 hours a semester learning and completing assignments. Because many online courses are offered in shorter time frames, such as 5 or 8 weeks, those 45 hours would be divided by the number of weeks in the course. This means that if you're taking a 3-credit hour course over 5 weeks, you should expect to spend 9 hours each week on the course. If you're taking the course in an 8-week session, you should expect to spend 5 to 6 hours each week on coursework. If you plan to take two courses at a time, you'll need to double the hours needed for your time investment.

Prepare your workspace. It's a good idea to have a dedicated space for your studies. A desk or table where you can keep your computer, books, and study materials is helpful to avoid going on a search every time you're ready to study. Having a designated learning space can also boost focus when it's time to study.

Plan for child/elder care. Think about child or elder care ahead of time. If you know that caring for others will be distracting, consider having at least a few hours every week where you get another family member or a sitter to allow you some uninterrupted time to focus on your studies. Reading and digesting new information and writing papers can be challenging if you can't completely focus.

Assess your writing skills. Writing papers, preparing presentations, creating posters, and posting in discussion boards are just a few of the course activities that require writing skills. Be completely honest with yourself about this. If you don't have solid writing skills, identify resources that can help you. Ask a friend or work colleague to proofread your papers and edit for grammar and writing issues. Learn how to use the spelling and writing tools in your word processing software. Finally, find out what resources are available at your school. Many schools have a writing center and provide online writing support.

Communicate with family and colleagues. Be sure that those closest to you know about the demands of your program. They need to understand the amount of time you'll be spending studying and completing learning activities. Put your blocks of study time on the family calendar so they know when you'll be focused on school. Talk with your boss about your specific needs related to school. Depending on your work schedule, you may find that taking the same day off each week to focus on coursework is helpful. Let your work colleagues know what you're doing. They may have tips for you and will certainly provide support, especially if they already have or plan to pursue another degree themselves.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Beginning the program

Complete orientation. The faculty and staff invest a great deal of time and effort into providing a program orientation to support your success. Generally, orientation provides opportunities to practice in the learning platform by doing introductions, posting in a discussion board, and submitting assignments. This is also where you'll find out details about resources that you have access to during the program.

Connect with faculty and fellow students. Your program may be online, but you aren't alone. Typically, there are ways within the learning platform to connect with peers and faculty. Take advantage of those opportunities. Educators prefer to spend a few minutes on the phone or in a videoconference with a student to clarify something rather than deduct points from an assignment because the student didn't understand what was expected.

Put due dates on your calendar. At the beginning of each course, review the schedule and write all of the due dates on your calendar. In many courses, quizzes and exams have limited access and can't be reset, so if you miss the date, you'll get a zero for a grade. Typically, points are deducted if other assignments are late. Often, assignments aren't accepted at all if deadlines are missed.

Back to Top | Article Outline

During the program

Communicate with faculty. Keep faculty in the loop with any personal matters or issues that may come up during the course. Because educators may be willing to flex due dates, being proactive is best. We all know normal life goes on while you're in school and things don't always go according to your best-laid plans.

Focus. For some, it will be enough to sit down in a designated study space to focus on studying. For others, it may be beneficial to identify a focus exercise to help transition from the rest of life to coursework (see Candle focus exercise). Spending a few minutes doing this can make study sessions much more efficient.

Use your resources. Programs typically have advisors, counselors, mentors, or other support staff to assist students. Be aware of what those resources are for your program and make use of them. If you're concerned about your writing or math skills, or other topics related to nursing, talk with your faculty and other staff early to find out what specific services are available to you.

Embrace group work. One benefit of completing assignments in groups is that you don't have to figure out the whole project on your own. Teamwork is often part of what accreditation agencies look for and is certainly part of what employers expect. Although it can be challenging to work with groups in the online environment, it can also be beneficial to help you see other views.

Make the most of feedback. Faculty invest significant time and effort into giving feedback on assignments and papers. Take the time to review and understand feedback when grades are released. If the feedback isn't clear, make an appointment with the educator to review it (see Communicating with faculty). Educators do get frustrated when students make the same mistakes on subsequent assignments despite having already received feedback that should've made the student aware of the issues. In many cases, expectations related to scholarly writing increase as the program progresses, turning what may have resulted in a minor point deduction early on into a major point deduction later.

Find a balance. Think about what's important to you and factor that into your schedule. Family, work, and school may be your top priorities, but other things, such as exercise and a healthy diet, need to be worked in as well. Habits may need alteration for the short term. For example, a student may need to give up reading novels for the time being, but reading magazines or short stories is still a good option for relaxation before sleep. Students may also need to avoid binge-watching TV programs until semester breaks (see Balance and rewards).

Reap the rewards. Enjoy the journey of learning. You may not always achieve the grade you want, but appreciate the education you gain. Think about how what you learn is applicable to your present or future work. Identify some small ways to celebrate each milestone, such as each successful assignment, project, or exam you complete, as well as each course you complete. Share these celebrations with others so they can cheer you on as you progress.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Finishing the program

Provide feedback about your experience. There will be many opportunities to provide feedback, including end-of-course or end-of-program surveys. Take the time to provide constructive feedback to faculty and staff so they can use it to improve the program for future students.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Final thoughts

Being proactive and having a plan that works for you are keys to success. If you haven't taken online courses previously, you may have a little more preparation to do before beginning an online program. Be prepared to revise your plan as life happens. Consider how you'll handle school deadlines along with required on-call time and requests for overtime and schedule changes. Be flexible and don't be afraid to ask faculty and others to help you find solutions to unexpected issues. Remember that pursuing additional education is a short-term disruption in a lifelong profession and you, your patients, and your colleagues will benefit greatly from your newfound knowledge.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Candle focus exercise

Materials needed: Tall candle, paper, pencil, and a timer

Sit with both feet on the floor in a comfortable chair with the materials right in front of you on a desk or table. Light the candle and set the timer for 5 minutes. Put all your focus on the candle flame. Every time your attention wanders, bring it back to the flame and make a mark on the paper. Notice that the candle flame has many colors, shapes, and other variations. Add 1 minute each week until you're up to 10 minutes.

Usually, at first you won't have too many marks on the paper because you aren't noticing how much your mind wanders. After 2 to 3 weeks of daily practice, the number of marks will increase because you're becoming increasingly aware of your lack of focus. As time goes on, the number of marks will decrease again as you gain better control of your ability to focus.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Communicating with faculty

Make sure you know the best way to contact faculty in advance and keep this information in your phone. If faculty members share their phone number, feel free to text or call. Otherwise, use messages/email in the learning platform to keep them in the loop.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Balance and rewards

Ideas for mini-rewards include your favorite coffee or smoothie, a foot massage, 15 minutes to meditate, a nice bubble bath, doing a “happy dance” with your kids, or something else that's uniquely you. And, remember, if possible, have at least 1 day a week where you take a few hours to do something fun for you.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Beaudoin MF, Jung I, Suzuki K, Kurtz G, Grabowski BL. Online Learner Competencies: Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes for Successful Learning in Online Settings. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing; 2013.
    Dabney BW, Linton M, Duncan C, Koonmen J. Measuring the gap between students' expectations and experiences in an RN-to-BSN nursing program. Nurs Educ Perspect. [e-pub May 30, 2018]
      Olson CC, Benham-Hutchins M. Learner presence in online nursing education. Online J Nurs Informatics. 2014;18(3).
        Schwarz DR. How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell; 2016.
          Shellenbarger T, Robb M. Returning to nursing school? Keys to success. Am Nurse Today. 2017;12(7):12–15.
            Copyright © 2019 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.