Institutions of higher education are increasingly investing in online learning courses and programs. Students, too, are requesting more flexible and convenient options to continue their education and develop their career skills. But this shift has raised an important question: Do students have the skills needed to be successful in online environments? We believe the increased supply and demand of online learning has highlighted the importance of learning how to learn. That is, students need to develop a specific skill set in order to thrive in online learning environments.

Skills Needed for Online Learning Success

As institutions look to expand their offerings of online courses and programs to students, they must do so in an environment that is structurally different from the traditional, face-to-face learning environment most students are accustomed to. While providing students with more flexibility, independence, and self-pacing, online learning environments also place greater control on the student to:

  • Manage time and control distractions
  • Balance competing demands in work, school, and personal life
  • Communicate and collaborate with peers, instructors, and others
  • Identify and overcome obstacles and setbacks
  • Self-regulate and remediate their learning

Armed with greater control of their learning, online students need an enhanced learning skill set that combines skills related to their specific course domain (e.g., creating a business plan, planning survey research, or conducting a science experiment), technological skills (e.g., using computers or evaluating online resources), and “soft skills” — the interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities used to navigate complex, often socially embedded situations. Soft skills enable students to effectively manage time among competing demands, overcome problems or obstacles in their learning and personal lives, and reach out to faculty or staff when they need support. Additionally, soft skills are highly transferable. Students who graduate with a robust set of soft skills are empowered with the skills that factor most heavily on hiring (and firing) employment decisions.

Teach a Student to Fish

Recognizing the need to prime students for success in online learning environments, WGU Labs partnered with Headlamp, a skill-based learning platform developed by Instructure, to create and deliver a series of three soft skill learning experiences focused on teaching students how to learn. Taking a “teaching to fish” approach to instruction, we developed three project-based learning modules focused on skill development and culminating in a demonstrable project. 

  • Unlocking the Learning Mindset: What does it really mean to be “smart”? What can we learn from psychology about how we approach, respond, and learn from new experiences? A “Learning Mindset” ensures that all students are prepped with the confidence needed to take on new, challenging learning experiences.
  • Building an Adaptive Resilience Mindset: What is resilience and how is it different from grit? How can an adaptive resilience network assist students in navigating inevitable trials and setbacks? Learning is tough, and life can be tougher. Students with an adaptive resilience mindset are better able to weather the challenges of life while progressing in their learning goals.
  • Giving and Receiving Wise Feedback: What does feedback from another really say? How can students manage their internal narrative to ensure that feedback moves them closer to their potential? Students are always giving and receiving feedback, but not all feedback leads to change and growth. Learning how to give and receive wise feedback can help students use constructive criticism as a tool for consistent improvement.

In online learning, teaching students to fish extends beyond merely equipping students with knowledge bound to specific lessons, units, modules, courses, or even programs. Yes, teaching a student to fish ensures that students have the complex skill set needed to succeed in a specific learning context, but also empowers students with increased confidence and capacity to learn new skills when needed. In an academic and professional world that is increasingly collaborative, flexible, and dynamic, the ability to learn how to learn is essential.

As higher education administrators and staff work to increase the supply of online courses and programs to meet student demand, significant work is needed to ensure that online students have the skills needed to be successful in these environments. These skills, including often overlooked soft skills, are crucial in orienting students toward success in their learning and future careers.

Learn more about how we prepare students for success through our user-centered learning design and development process