APU Careers & Learning Online Learning

Four Cs of Success in the Online Classroom

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four-cs-online-learning-successBy Ronald Johnson and Katherine Riddle
Online Learning Tips, Guest Contributors

Online learning in higher education continues to demonstrate positive gains in student enrollment and gain acceptance by academic leaders (OLC, 2015). Our research indicates a need for a set of engagement standards for both students and faculty to support a higher level of learning in the online classroom.

There are four key strategies for success in the online classroom (the four Cs): communication, commitment, community, and collaboration. Students that invest in developing the four Cs will find greater success learning online.


Read everything! This begins with the course syllabus, course announcements, discussion forums, and, most importantly, professorial lessons.

Communication is essential between students and classmates and students and the instructor (Miller, 2014). Don’t be afraid to ask questions – make sure you understand the requirements of the course, how to navigate the classroom, and how to find resources. Doing so will help you take responsibility for your learning.


Online learners must be self-directed. This happens at different points for every student.

An important element of self-direction is organization. Look at the week ahead and schedule coursework around existing commitments. Plan certain times during the week to complete coursework. Planning and time management will help with work-life balance.

Likewise, allocate a dedicated workspace that has minimal distractions will help you focus on your studies (Lytle, 2013). Being able to focus directly on tasks will increase the likelihood of success.

Take time to master the essential technology for your courses (Miller, 2014). Learning the classroom and campus before courses begin can help ease anxiety.

If you need help, make sure you know where to find it (Miller, 2014). Every university has a variety of support services to include academic advisors, research librarians, and classmates. Commit to using all of these resources.


A sense of community has been proven to contribute to student engagement, class satisfaction, and recognized learning in an online environment (Reilly et al., 2012).

Get to know your classmates, who can be a very valuable resource. Your classmates will have diverse experiences and backgrounds that will further your education. A learning community is built by the relationships established in the classroom.

Visit the chat room; chatting with other students boosts relationships (Reilly, Gallagher-Lepak, & Killion, 2012). Post and answer questions in the classroom. Become a collaborative learner and work with your classmates and professor in order to have a meaningful classroom experience.


The online learning environment can be daunting; the sooner you get to know your classmates the better off you will be. Discussion among students can help develop critical thinking, which helps you to understand and analyze content inside the classroom (Ricci, 2013). Broadening critical thinking skills will help students become more mature and cultured in both written and spoken communication (Ricci, 2013).

Being able to identify one’s own emotions as well as other’s emotions is important. Research has shown that such emotional intelligence leads to greater success in an online learning environment (Berenson, Boyles, & Weaver, 2008). In fact, results show that emotional intelligence is the leading predictor of online scholarly achievement (Berenson et al., 2008).

Set yourself up for success with online learning by keeping the Four Cs in mind. The research shows that paying attention to communication, commitment, community, and collaboration will help you find greater success learning online.


Berenson, R., Boyles, G., & Weaver, A. (2008). Emotional intelligence as a predictor for success in online learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9 (2), 2-17.

Boling, E. C., Hough, M., Krinsky, H., Saleem, H., & Stevens, M. (2012). Cutting the distance in distance education: Perspectives on what promotes positive, online learning experiences. The Internet and Higher Education15(2), 118-126.

Lytle, R. (2013, January 14). 5 tips to succeed in an online course. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from: http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2013/01/14/5-tips-to-succeed-in-an-online-course.

Online Learning Consortium (OLC). (2015). Babson study: Distance education enrollment growth continues … http://onlinelearningconsortium.org/news_item/babson-study-distance-education-enrollment-growth-continues/

Miller, Amanda. (2014, Apr 21). Online college success. Military Times Edge, 18. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1523854145?accountid=8289

Reilly J. R., Gallagher-Lepak, S., & Killion C. (2012). Me and my computer: Emotional factors in online learning. Nursing Education Perspectives, 33(2), 100-105.

Ricci, F. A. (2013). Encouraging critical thinking in distance learning: Ensuring challenging intellectual programs. Distance Learning, 10(1), 1-15.

About the Authors

Ronald C. Johnson is an associate professor of business management at American Public University. His research interests are in the areas of Corporate Social Responsibility, mobile learning and humanistic management. His Ph.D. was awarded from the University of Oklahoma in Organizational Leadership.

Katherine Riddle is a graduate student of business management at American Public University. She has a Bachelor of Arts in business/economics from Randolph-Macon College. Katherine is employed at American Public University System as an undergraduate admissions representative. She is interested in studying leadership, college readiness, and team motivation. In her spare time she likes to travel.

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