by Andrea Almoite

As Tyler shifted the majority of its courses online for summer and fall 2020 to address the ongoing pandemic, many students worried about the transition to online classes. What would it be like to take an online class? How do you talk to the professor and complete assignments? And will you learn as much? 

While learning online is different than classroom learning, for students like Brittany Mahan, online classes offer the flexibility and support to tackle even the most daunting subjects.

When Mahan returned to college at Tyler after seven years away from school, she knew her strengths. “I am a bright student who had always done well in ‘soft’ disciplines, but mathematics has always been the subject that challenged me the most,” she said.

“Mathematics is a funny subject,” Mahan’s professor Ben MacKinnon said. “As you get better at the subject, you move into more challenging courses and you feel like you’re bad at math all over again. Ultimately, feeling like you aren’t good at something is the perfect opportunity to cut your teeth on it.”

Mahan had already taken several online courses because they allowed her to set her own schedule for studying and balance school with full-time work and other interests. But when she enrolled in her first online math course this summer, she was nervous, knowing that activating that part of her brain after several years of not using it was going to be a challenge. However, she was determined to succeed.

As it turned out, the fully online format of her Math 161 class was just what Mahan needed to thrive. MacKinnon posted instructional videos each week, and students worked through the videos on their own schedules, using chat and other communication tools as needed and completing online assignments that gave instant feedback.  “I could pause the video, work problems at my own speed, and look up additional information as needed,” Mahan said. “Getting instant feedback on homework and tests also helped me learn. While I took the course at a glacial speed, I believe I was able to learn the material better than I would have in a traditional classroom.”

Mahan and MacKinnon also believe the online format is an advantage because it allows students to work on their own time, rather than being tied to a specific date or time to show up to class. “Sometimes carving out a particular time slot for learning throughout the week can be a tall task for some students as the needs of work, family and life can keep folks in a generally on-call lifestyle,” said MacKinnon. “Two hours a week isn’t as easy to find, as 30-45 minutes a day.”

“I planned my entire week in advance,” Mahan said, “and did my best to schedule my class time for when I would have the energy to devote to it and be free of distractions. I also estimated the amount of time I thought a task would take me and then doubled it, so I never was rushing to finish.”

Mahan benefitted from the online Math 161 course so much that she signed up to take her next math course in the same format. “The course format really has been the difference between mediocrity and excellence for me.”

For students taking their first online course, or considering tackling a challenging subject in an online format, MacKinnon suggests overcoming the potentially impersonal nature of an online course by connecting with the professor during office hours and reaching out to the Academic Resource Center for online tutoring, if needed. “You grow when you put yourself out there, utilize additional resources, work diligently, and cut yourself a break as you learn new material,” he said. “Your professors understand that you are learning; there is no shame in asking for help.”

“You know yourself better than anyone,” said Mahan. “If you can get past distractions, can stay motivated, and create an environment outside of a classroom that allows you to learn, I highly recommend online classes. I had to trust myself to get the work done; you can trust yourself too!”