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A Q&A session with Lynn Burks, Ph.D., DeVry University, Dean of Faculty, Center for Teaching Excellence.

Online learning provides a convenient setting for students to further their education. Unlike traditional face-to-face classes, online courses offer students the flexibility to access course materials when they want, where they want, creating a personalized learning experience for each student.

If you’re considering enrolling in your first online course, you may be wondering what to expect. While policies and course offerings vary between schools, online students across the board can benefit from implementing a few tried and true strategies for success. We asked Lynn Burks, Dean of Faculty at DeVry University, to share with us advice for first-time online students.

The basics of online learning 

DeVry University offers students a wide range of degree programs and specializations. To begin, we asked Burks to discuss the basics of an online education at DeVry.

Q: How long has DeVry University offered online courses?

Burks: For over 20 years, DeVry University has been offering remote learning opportunities for students alongside myriad support services, in addition to our brick and mortar locations.

Q: Do faculty members need to adjust their teaching styles for online classes?

Burks: Our faculty are practitioners in their field and pride themselves with mastering the craft of online teaching. Faculty foster a modern and engaging approach to learning. Teaching is student-centered with real-world experience woven into the content to help students meet their academic goals, regardless of modality.

Q: What if a student needs to speak with an academic or career advisor? Are career events and advising appointments available for remote learners?

Burks: Our student advising team utilizes sophisticated tools to offer academic and financial advising remotely. Key tools, processes and systems are in place to ensure students again meet their academic and career goals. 

In addition to academic advising, students have access to career advising, virtual job fairs, and internships. Students are required to take a career-planning course to ensure not only their academic goals are achieved, but also on a pathway to achieve their career goals.

Lastly, we believe technical and workplace readiness skills matter. Skills such as web conferencing tools, group work applications, chats, simulations, and virtual labs. These skills not only assist students in navigating course curriculum, but build what we refer to as workplace readiness.

Tips for beginners 

Q: What advice would you give to a student new to online learning?

Burks: The ability to manage one’s time is fundamental to college success, particularly for remote learning. To assist with self-management skills, create a weekly routine. Leverage scheduling tools that may be built into your Learning Management System or go old school and purchase a day-timer/calendar.

Need help keeping track of your assignments? Check out this blog post featuring apps for taking notes, scheduling, and studying.

Q: Can you offer any tips for success in maintaining a study schedule?

Burks: Carve out specific time during your week to devote to your studies. This will foster healthy study habits throughout your entire student journey. Add personal obligations to your calendar – volunteer activities, family gatherings, professional society meetings. This will help you balance both personal and professional commitments. This also provides you an opportunity to take ownership of commitments and learn how to prioritize.   

Q: How can students stay focused and engaged throughout the duration of the course? 

Burks: Goal setting is important, even early on. These can be short term, such as course based, co-curricular based, or career orientated. Review these goals periodically to keep you motivated. Acknowledge them, and even consider posting to your computer or in your study space as a constant reminder. Meet regularly with your advisor to ensure you are on track to meet your goals. 

Establish connections 

Q: How can students feel connected to their classmates or professors online?

Burks: Take advantage of opportunities to get to know your classmates and peers. Engage in student professional societies providing additional opportunities to connect with your peers and practitioners outside of your classes. When you need assistance, reach out to your professor. Attend virtual live lessons, office hours or homework huddles to drive relationships.

Q: What advice would you give to a student who’s afraid of feeling isolated in an online class? 

Burks: Just because you are taking your classes online does not mean you cannot enjoy a sense of community with your fellow students and faculty. In fact, staying connected can help reduce stress and keep you motivated. You are not in this alone – by creating a virtual study group using Skype, Google Hangouts or other online chat programs you build your peer community.

Some universities also offer access to peer-to-peer learning communities, such as Get Set or other course communication applications that make ad hoc communities easier to engage in.

Tools of the trade

Q: What are the technology requirements for an online class?

Burks: A laptop that includes a webcam is important. Be aware of what program you are enrolling in and review their suggested equipment requirements. While most courses should be fine with a PC and webcam, some may have additional requirements. In some instances, students may have the opportunity to complete coursework on their mobile devices.  

Q: Do you have any recommendations for how students should set up their study space?

Burks: Wherever you choose to study, setting up a dedicated space and routine will help set you up for success. Look for a spot in your home that is away from noise and distractions. Of course, having a dedicated office is ideal, however, certainly not required. Get creative if needed. A small table in a bedroom or basement can function as a desk. Have headphones handy to use to block out noise if needed or for participating in-group project calls. Natural lighting, while not required, can assist in keeping your energy up. 

Keep coffee, soda or water on hand to keep you awake or hydrated, as well as snacks to keep your mind fueled as you study. If you find your energy waning, take a break. Go for a quick walk around the block or a quick jog up and down your stairs. Getting in some movement, if only for a few minutes, can help you return to your studies feeling refreshed.


  • Online learning requires the prioritization of coursework and time management skills. Consider using a scheduling system, mobile app, or planner to keep track of assignments and personal commitments.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize by setting goals. Recognize your accomplishments for completing both short and long-term goals.
  • Don’t be afraid to connect with your instructors and classmates. Reach out to your professors if you need help and participate in online study groups.
  • Create a study space free of distractions. Even a small table in a quiet location will do the trick.
  • Use headphones to block out noise.
  • Take breaks when needed. Refresh your energy by getting some fresh air or taking a walk.

Need help finding the right online program for you? Peterson’s Online Colleges & Graduate School Search Tool allows you to search by college, location, major, or keyword.