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How Do Online Classes Work? What to Know Before You Start

Online classes offer you the flexibility to complete coursework — which may include readings, discussion posts, quizzes, academic papers and presentations — virtually and when it makes sense for you.
An adult learner discovering how online courses work, sitting at a desk with a laptop.

Whether you’re considering going back to school to start or to finish a degree, taking online courses is an option that allows you to maintain control of your schedule.

Before you decide what course format you want to pursue, you may be wondering exactly how online college classes work.

How are Online Classes Different Than Face-to-Face Classes?

You might be familiar with taking a college class in a face-to-face environment in a traditional college setting. The basic premise is still the same online; you’ll have a syllabus to introduce you to what the class — or course — is about and the learning outcomes you'll work toward.

The syllabus also shows you what materials are required for the course, the types of assignments to expect, grading information, the assignment schedule and academic policies.

Attending classes on campus may tie you to a traditional semester schedule, limiting opportunities to begin a degree program to once or twice per year. Online classes may differ, offering term start dates year-round. At Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), for example, there are 8-week terms for undergraduate classes and 10-week terms for graduate, allowing ample opportunities for you to enroll throughout the calendar year.

What to Expect in an Online Class



An icon of a laptop.Your assignments will be much like what you might expect or have experienced on campus, except they will be virtual. Rather than an in-class discussion, you’ll use online forums for discussion posts and responses. There may be readings and additional resource materials, along with quizzes, academic papers, presentations and other assignments pertinent to specific areas of study.

A vast array of resource materials is available through a virtual library, and quite often with 24/7 chat assistance.

Every class also has an instructor you can reach out to with questions or if you need support. These instructors bring a wealth of experience relating to the course's subject matter, which means they can help you connect the dots between what you're learning and how it applies to the industry.

Are Online Classes On Your Own Time?



Online classes that follow an asynchronous learning format do not meet at a defined time each week. Instead, you’ll have the flexibility to do coursework when it makes sense for you within the framework of the course schedule. 

Robyn Roberts, a 2023 SNHU graduate with a bachelor’s in business administration

For instance, at SNHU, courses in online degree programs are broken out by week-long modules with due dates clearly defined each week. You may choose to complete all assignments for that week within a two-day period or chip away at work throughout the week. Depending on whether you're a night owl or an early bird, you can find the time of day that's most convenient and productive for you.

Robyn Roberts '23, a semi-truck driving great-grandmother, said she completed a majority of her online bachelor's in business administration degree while the road. "I pulled into rest areas and stopped and did discussion boards," she said.

What is the Online College Community Like?

And while the work will be done from wherever you are, you’re not alone if you choose a school that has supports in place to help you succeed. 

An icon of two speech bubbles, one on top, stemming from the right, and one on the bottom, stemming from the left.

Online students at SNHU work with an admission counselor to ensure the degree program they choose is the right fit. Upon enrollment, an academic advisor is assigned to them to provide support throughout each course and assist with scheduling, resource advice and lend a hand whenever needed. Adjunct instructors are available throughout each SNHU course to clarify information, answer questions and facilitate learning.

If you'd like to get involved with extracurriculars, some schools have an online portal where you can connect with other students, join clubs and participate in activities. Events including SNHU's annual LEADS conference also allow you to connect with others in the community while also focusing on your personal and professional development.

There are many opportunities to engage in experiential learning, too, at SNHU, no matter your degree program. Experiential learning is a type of learning that allows you to develop and apply your skills in real-world projects. If you're earning a healthcare-related degree at SNHU, for instance, you could participate in the Higher Education and Real World Training (HEaRT) Challenge. During a HEaRT Challenge, you'll learn about a problem an employer is facing and team up with your classmates to propose a solution.

A blue graphic with an icon of two white outlined hands shakingThere are also career advisors ready to assist you whether you're angling for a promotion at work or want to leave your job and find a new one. You can also gain career insights and assistance in building your connections and personal brand with the help of an alumni network. At SNHU, you'll find there are more than 240 thousand graduates.

While these supports may not be in place at every school you consider, it’s important to focus on what is meaningful for you — and ensure you select a degree program at a university that has what you need to work toward your goals.

Find Your Program

How Many Classes Do You Take in College?

How many classes you take depends mostly on you: whether you’ve already taken courses or not, how much time you can commit to school and which degree you hope to earn.

The number of credits it takes to graduate from college depends on your program:

  • An associate degree is generally 60 credits in length, or about 20 classes.
  • A bachelor’s degree program typically requires 120 credit hours (or approximately 40 classes).
  • A master’s degree could be anywhere from 30-40 credits, and sometimes up to 60 credits (from 10-20 classes), depending on the program you choose. For example, an MBA — or Master of Business Administration — may take as few as 30 credits to complete, while a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing could take 48 credits.

If this isn't your first time attending college, you may be able to transfer credits to your new program, altering your timeline and cost to completion. At SNHU, you could have up to 75% of your program finished by the time you start classes. Here are a few quick steps to take:

  • Complete the free 5-minute online application. There’s no obligation after filling it out.
  • Get your transcripts requested — for free. Chat with an admission counselor, and we'll request your transcripts on your behalf.
  • Receive your free evaluation. Soon after all your transcripts are in, you'll get your official evaluation. It will show you what was transferred in — and what classes you need to complete.

You may also be able to finish faster with prior learning credits obtained through certain certifications, trainings and military education.

Part-time or Full-time Student: How Many Classes is Full Time?

An icon of a graduation cap.Two online classes per term is considered full time at SNHU. If you’re hoping to maximize the number of courses you take each term to move faster to your degree, you may be surprised by how manageable two courses can be.

This may vary at other schools, so it’s important to ask questions up front to understand what constitutes full and part-time — and how your financial aid award might impact your options.

Is It Harder to Do Online School?

The best online classes have academic rigor and knowledgeable faculty with expertise in their fields. That winning combination, along with supportive resources and staff, creates a learning environment comparable to what you’d expect in a face-to-face class setting.

Some classes may feel easier than others for you based on your interest and comfort level with what’s required of you in a particular course. If writing is something you absolutely love and a class is writing-intensive, that course may be one you’ll feel really comfortable in. If a course seems like it may be challenging, it’s important to consider what resources are available to assist you in the areas you feel you need additional help.

For example, some schools offer 24/7 drop-in tutoring sessions as well as access to a writing center. Leveraging these resources can help you turn in your best work.

Knowing what supports are in place for you as a student can turn what might have been a difficult experience into a course you may thrive in.

If you're having trouble picturing yourself as an online student, you might wish to explore the advantages and challenges that come with a virtual setting and flexible schedule. That can help you determine whether online college courses are worth it for you.

Success Tips for Online Classes

To do well, it’s important to assess the time you have available for coursework and plan accordingly, leaving yourself some flexibility to pivot as needed if challenges in other areas of your life come your way. Schoolwork may be something entirely new for you, and you could be uncertain about how to maximize your success in a course.

Here are two tips to help:

  • Managing your time is essential for your success — and there are time management strategies that can help you tremendously, including prepping well for a project, prioritizing tasks and developing a schedule and sticking to it.

  • Practicing good study habits is another way to boost your learning. Think about how you learn; how you best engage with new information and what sticks and what doesn’t. Be sure to put yourself in an environment where you can best focus and retain information.

    Ensuring you have ample time to complete your assignments is equally as important. You’ll have a hard time focusing if you’re short on time and feeling stressed — and when you allow yourself the time you need, you’ll have an opportunity to reach out for help should you get stuck on any part of an assignment.

While your experiences or concerns may feel uniquely personal, rest assured that others have been where you are now and had the same desire to earn their degree.No matter where you’re planning to continue your education, the basic ingredients for college success are the same.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU online college degree that can best help you meet your goals.

Pamme Boutselis ’15, ’17G is an award-winning writer and content producer, currently serving as a senior director of content and a communication adjunct at Southern New Hampshire University. She loves hearing and sharing stories. As a writer spanning a 25-year career, her work has been featured in print and online via news media, career and education-focused blogs, regional magazines, technology publications and more.

A bachelor’s and master’s in communication – earned as an adult learner – positively impacted her life and career, melding decades in diverse industries with professional and academic knowledge and experience. A serial volunteer, Boutselis has been a TEDx organizer since 2013 and a speaker coach. She’s been fortunate to work with dozens of nonprofits throughout the years. Learn more on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.