Classroom vs online learning and how to succeed in an online class

    Olga Knezevic
    Olga Knezevic

    Olga is an in-house editor and writer at She has previous experience as a higher education instructional designer and a university librarian. Olga is passionate about well-crafted sentences, Wikipedia rabbit holes, and the Oxford comma.

    Classroom vs online learning and how to succeed in an online class
    Contents is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

      According to the most recent figures from the National Center of Higher Education Statistics (NCES), around 30% of American college students are in online programs and another 29% are taking at least some distance courses. Accelerated by the global pandemic as well as the popularity of upskilling alternatives like micro-credentials, increasing numbers of students are opting for online studies.

      Our economic analysis of online colleges found that while online degrees are not the best choice for everyone, they can be an excellent investment for students over 30, those studying part time, and other types of nontraditional students. Here, we take a look at non-economic benefits and drawbacks of online learning, including some recent statistics about online education and tips for succeeding in an online class.

      Advantages of classroom learning

      The main advantage to classroom learning is the in-person presence your classmates and teachers. As anyone who works or studies remotely can tell you – everything from interpreting someone’s tone to getting quick answers or insights from others can be challenging through a digital interface. In-classroom learning provides a face-to-face experience where students can interact with their teacher and peers in real time. This allows for immediate feedback and the opportunity to ask questions and receive clarification on complex concepts.

      Other advantages to in-person learning include:

      • Structured environment: The structured learning environment of a face-to-face classroom requires that students be present, focused, and engaged for the duration of the class.
      • More incentive to stay engaged: Knowing you may be called on to answer a question or participate in a discussion encourages you to do all your readings and otherwise prepare properly for each class.
      • Collaboration: Group projects, class discussions, and other collaborative tasks are common in classroom learning and help students develop teamwork, communication, and other key workplace skills.
      • Access to resources: Classroom learning provides access to physical resources such as textbooks, course materials, and equipment that may not be available in an online setting.
      • Socialization: In-person learning makes it easier to socialize and build relationships with teachers and peers, which can contribute to a sense of community and overall wellbeing.
      • Extracurricular activities: On-campus extracurriculars are almost impossible to replicate in online settings, and research has consistently shown that these types of activities have a positive impact on grades and learning.
      • Easier time management: In-classroom learning provides a set schedule for classes and assignments, which can help students manage their time more effectively.

      Popular online programs is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

      Disadvantages of classroom learning

      Although the traditional learning environment is widely regarded as excellent, there are a number of disadvantages to classroom learning:

      • Higher cost: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the cost of classroom-based learning has risen rapidly over the past couple of decades.
      • Limited access: Program and school selection is limited by geographic location and classroom learning may not be accessible to some due to factors like physical disabilities.
      • Limited flexibility: Students attend classes at specific times and locations, which can be challenging for those with busy schedules or other commitments.
      • Less individualization: In-classroom learning may not provide the same level of individualized instruction as online learning, as teachers may need to cater to the needs of an entire classroom. This can result in some students getting held up and others getting left behind.
      • Limited technology: The use of technological resources and tools may be limited, which can be a disadvantage for students who learn better via digital media.

      Advantages of online learning

      One of the main benefits of online learning is that online courses allow students to go at their own pace and learn in their own time. This is particularly true if a student chooses a course or program that offers asynchronous learning. With asynchronous learning, the student is not engaged with the learning at the same time as the instructor and other participants, meaning there is no real-time interaction with other people. This provides the highest possible degree of flexibility, allowing students to watch pre-recorded lessons or take on-demand exams at a time that suits them.

      For students wanting to benefit from a more social and collaborative environment, the option of synchronous learning may be preferable. In synchronous learning, students in the virtual classroom all engage with the learning at the same time, often via a webinar. This allows interaction between participants and the ability for teachers to provide real-time feedback. Synchronous learning requires a fixed schedule, so it does not offer the same level of flexibility as asynchronous learning.

      Other advantages of online learning include:

      • Accessibility: Online learning can be accessible to a wider range of students, including those with physical disabilities, those living in remote areas, and those with limited access to transportation.
      • Lower costs: Online degrees can be more affordable than campus options due to reduced costs associated with transportation, materials, and facilities. According to our data, online colleges are around 10% cheaper overall, and around 40% cheaper when excluding for-profit schools.
      • Individualized instruction: Online learning can provide more individualized instruction than in-person learning, as students can work at their own pace and receive personalized feedback and support.
      • Technological resources: Online learning offers access to a wide range of technological resources and tools that can enhance learning.
      • Health and safety: Online learning can provide a safer learning environment during pandemics or other emergency situations.

      Disadvantages of online learning

      Although the majority of students benefit from the advantages mentioned above, there are also a number of disadvantages to online learning. Students can be deterred by the use of online discussion boards utilized for communicating with fellow students and teaching staff. Others struggle to get engaged or receive prompt feedback from instructors. Lab work is not always possible with online formats, especially in science classes. Students may engage with the material through online simulations or carry out experiments at home and upload photos.

      Other drawbacks of online learning include:

      • Limited socialization: There are fewer opportunities for students to socialize and build relationships with their peers, which can contribute to a sense of isolation and loneliness.
      • Less structured environment: Learning from home may be challenging for those who struggle with self-discipline and time management.
      • Technical difficulties: Learning may be hampered by technical difficulties such as poor internet connection or equipment problems.
      • Limited access to certain resources: Online learning may entail limited access to physical resources such as textbooks, course materials, and equipment.
      • Cheating: The online format can make it easier for students to cheat on exams or assignments.

      Online classes vs traditional classes – statistics

      In the fall of 2018, there were 6,932,074 students in the U.S. enrolled in distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. This means colleges across the U.S. were forced to adapt to the trend well before the onset of the pandemic. Note that all 8 Ivy League schools had already introduced some form of online education prior to 2020.

      • The pandemic appears to have accelerated what was already a global trend – as of 2019, online education had already witnessed a period of adoption and growth. Global education technology investments had reached $18.66 billion, and it was projected that the overall market for online education would reach $350 billion by 2025.
      • For the past decade, retention rates among classroom-based students have hovered around 61%. A recent study showed that retention rates for students taking at least some online courses are between 9% and 21% higher.
      • A survey of more than 100 students conducted by the University of Wisconsin found that students clearly preferred in-person learning. Students reported increased stress levels associated with online learning, despite grading being more lenient.
      • In a poll of over 3,000 students, respondents reported that their emergency online classes were inferior to in-person classes, with 78% reported that they found the online format difficult to engage with. It’s worth noting however that this poll was conducted during the pandemic, so it reflects student experiences with classes that had to be rapidly shifted to online formats.
      • The shift to entirely remote education since the onset of the pandemic hasn’t been without its challenges. Current estimates suggest that the pandemic has caused $183 billion in losses for U.S. colleges and universities.
      • Only about half (49%) of college professors consider online learning to be as effective as in-person learning. This statistic increased however by 10% in just a few months, which suggests that additional experience has led to them changing their minds.

      What is blended learning?

      Blended learning programs utilize both in-person and online education to facilitate student learning. Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, blended learning is distinct from hybrid learning, where students choose between attending classes in person or participating remotely.

      Blended programs often work in the following ways:

      • Students have certain classes in-person and others online.
      • Students physically attend classes during the first few weeks of the semester before switching to a predominantly online format.
      • Lectures and class discussions are attended in person, but assignments are completed online.
      • Students attend lectures online but complete lab work components in person to foster hands-on or practical learning.

      Is blended learning effective? Interestingly, a metanalysis of research by the U.S. Department of Education determined that blended courses “produced better outcomes than fully face-to-face courses”. It’s possible that blended learning offers the best of both worlds by combining online materials with traditional classroom-based teaching.

      Tips for taking online classes

      The experience of learning online is vastly different to education in a traditional classroom setting. The format and the processes can take some getting used to. However, as long as you make appropriate adjustments for these changes and plan accordingly, it’s relatively simple to succeed with online learning. Here are our top 5 tips to help you make the most of an online class.

      1. Designate an official study area

      Having a dedicated study area for online classes can help to create a more conducive environment for learning, improve concentration and productivity, and enhance motivation to succeed in your coursework. When you have a designated space to study, you can control your environment by reducing noise, interruptions, and other distractions. Habitually studying in the same area also helps your brain associate that location with concentrated studying, which can make it easier to stay on task and complete your coursework efficiently.

      2. Make sure your tech is on point

      If you’ve never worked or studied online before, take the time to use the technology you’ll need before your classes begin. Applications like Skype, Zoom, and Canvas can be tricky to learn so be sure to familiarize yourself with them to prevent any issues. If you can, connect to the internet by cable instead of Wi-Fi to ensure optimal video and sound quality. As a backup, you can use your smartphone’s cellular data by connecting it to your laptop or PC. Alternatively, you can join the class through your phone, just make sure you download the classroom software vendor’s app first.

      3. Learn some productivity hacks

      Online classes require exceptional self-discipline and time management skills. Make sure you set aside dedicated time each day or week to work on your coursework and try to avoid procrastination. Be aware that it can be easy to lose motivation when taking online classes. Find ways to stay motivated, such as setting goals for yourself, rewarding yourself for completing assignments, and connecting with classmates to form a support system. Research other productivity hacks to see if any resonate. While it may be more of a challenge to succeed in an online class, learning how to stay focused and motivated will help you in almost any work you do in the future.

      4. Ask a lot of questions

      Feeling connected to faculty and other students is one of the biggest challenges in online learning. By actively engaging with the materials and other students, you’ll take responsibility for your own learning. Ask questions, be proactive, and speak up wherever possible. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your instructor. They are there to help you succeed and can offer guidance and support if you need it. Engage with the course materials, participate in online discussions, and build connections. This will not only help you better understand the material, but it will also show your instructor that you are invested in the class.

      5. Make friends

      You’ll need to make more of an effort to meet people in an online class, but it’s well worth it. Joining or creating a study group can help you stay motivated, get feedback on your work, and engage in discussions about the course material. You can use online forums or video chat to connect with other students, and work together to master the material. Having friends in your class can also provide social support and help you feel less isolated.

      Final thoughts

      Online education is not going to be for everyone, and you might need to attend on-campus programs if you want the full college experience. Data collected during the pandemic has also shown that students can struggle with online learning. It’s worth mentioning though that there’s a world of a difference between classes that were hastily brought online during a pandemic and those that have been designed for digital delivery. Schools that specialize in e-learning tend to do the best job delivering it.

      There is nothing inherently bad about taking classes online, as long as you choose a high-quality, accredited program. What matters most is doing what you believe is the best fit for you. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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