Tips for Online Computer Science Classes

Written by Kathleen Swed


Across the nation, colleges and universities have migrated to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the first to cancel in-person classes, the University of Washington and Stanford University both announced the closure of their physical doors on March 6, 2020. Boston University followed suit on March 17, while others, like the University of Georgia, closed by the end of March. On the whole, CampusTechnology.com reports the closure of 90% of all colleges and universities as of April 22, 2020.

Whether meeting in real-time virtual sessions through a web conferencing or watching lectures and commenting in forums asynchronously, many students must adjust to major changes in the structure of their learning.

On this page, students can find tips for online class success, including some of the pros and cons of online learning and ideas for establishing strong study habits from home.

Pros and Cons of Online Class

Pros Expand - Plus/Minus
  • Flexibility: Even classes that call for synchronous, real-time meetings allow for more flexibility than in-person classes, saving students time and money on a commute. Online meetings provide the same benefits as on-campus classes, often allowing students to work in groups and contribute to discussions. Many professors also record real-time lectures and meetings that allow students to access the material whenever they desire.

    Asynchronous classes offer further flexibility, allowing students to log in at their convenience to access course material. While students must still typically turn assignments in on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, they can watch lectures, participate in forum discussions, read assigned articles, and schedule group work around their individual home commitments. Distance learners also enjoy the flexibility to study wherever there is a WiFi connection.


  • Increased Skill Building: Distance learners hone the technical skills they need to navigate the course platform. Before entering the workforce, students can master platforms they may not have encountered during their previous studies, including applications like Dropbox, Basecamp, Trello, and Slack. Students can then claim in-depth experience with these and other platforms as they move from the college environment to the workforce.

    Assignments and presentations may require participants to reach beyond their previous experience. For example, an instructor may ask students to create a video instead of giving a typical in-person presentation. Additional skills associated with online learning include time management, communication, and global-minded critical thinking. Furthermore, online learning can help students develop skills in self-motivation and self-discipline.

Cons Expand - Plus/Minus
  • Lack of Face Time: While some students thrive in a virtual environment, others may experience difficulty navigating the lack of face time. Social interaction can represent a key attraction of the college experience, and those studying online may miss out on the opportunity to chat informally with peers in the classroom.

    Knowing when and how to ask questions and participate in discussions can feel like a daunting task. Optimally, professors offer virtual office hours and clear instructions on how to ask for help or discuss challenges, but the shifts in communication style can cause headaches for many new distance learners.


  • Time Management Challenges: Particularly for students thrust suddenly into an online learning environment, time management can prove a major challenge. Online courses require the same dedication and intensive study as traditional in-person classes. Without the structure of face-to-face meetings, some students experience difficulties meeting requirements due to scheduling problems and time management issues. Particularly when taking a self-paced or asynchronous course, distance learners must learn to motivate themselves and practice self-discipline to excel in their courses.

    Distance learners should do what they can to create effective timetables and communicate with instructors about the difficulties they face related to time management. For ideas on better time management, read through the following list of tips for online classes.

5 Tips for Switching to an Online Class Format

Set a Daily Routine

Establishing a regular routine can help online students manage their time effectively. Students should consider planning a routine and trying it for a week, making changes where necessary.

To establish a routine, consider waking up at the same time on every workday and include breaks, meals, and exercise in the planning of a daily routine. Working around any required face-to-face meetings, distance learners should also set an end time to their studies whenever possible.

Create a Workstation

Interruptions from roommates or family members can disrupt a student's work. By creating a dedicated workstation for schoolwork, students can set boundaries to help minimize interruptions. Students should inform those who live with them that they should not be interrupted when sitting at their workstation.

A workstation can also help students set their own parameters for work. The temptation to work on one last problem often dissipates when students create a specific area just for work that they can walk away from. Finally, workstations keep course materials in one place so nothing gets lost, saving time and frustration. To set up a workstation, find a comfortable spot in a quiet area, ideally with strong WiFi.
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Use Your Planner

Professors teaching online courses provide syllabi to guide students through activities and assignments. By reading through the syllabus ahead of time and noting relevant readings, projects, and tests in a planner, students can plan for the full semester effectively. Students should consult their planners regularly, viewing upcoming deadlines by the semester, month, week, and day.

Some students prefer digital planners, apps, or calendars, while others use paper versions. Distance learners should find a method that works for them so they can plan what to study and when. Even the most organized professor may end up changing some readings or altering dates; course participants should check their planners on a daily basis and make changes as necessary.

Take Breaks/Work in Sprints

While some distance learners struggle to complete their assignments, others find it hard to stop working. Both types of students benefit from scheduling breaks into their daily routine. Stopping to eat a meal, for example, can help clear the mind and ensure better productivity for the rest of the work period. Necessary for people who sit for long periods of the day, exercise breaks also help improve mental focus.

By working in sprints, students can ensure that they take frequent breaks, thereby extending their ability to focus and care for their bodies through good ergonomic practices. To work in sprints, students should set a timer for a specific amount of time, which can vary depending on the individual and the assignment. For example, a 20-minute reading sprint followed by a five-minute stretch break could work as a good warmup for the day.

Consider Your Background (if Video Conferencing)

Regular video conferencing through Zoom and other platforms may present new challenges for students meeting in face-to-face virtual courses. Distance learners should consider their location and background before logging in to meet with professors and peers. As home and school life blur, students can easily forget that their online instructors and colleagues see not only their attire but their environment as well.

Consider tidying the visible background before a real-time web conference. Take time to remove inappropriate household items or potentially offensive decorations. Additionally, students should consider their own privacy and hide any items they wish to keep confidential. To ensure they don't forget, students can factor in time for a room check into their daily routines or set up a workstation where the background always stays clear of clutter.

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