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Texas A&M University

Distance Education - Master of Science in Mathematics

Tips for Taking Online Courses

Taking courses online can be a little like taking courses in a foreign country. Most of us are still learning the norms and expectations of the online environment. Even though the technology is wonderful and exciting, we would never say that this environment is the right learning environment for every student. It works well for some students most of the time. It provides exciting opportunities for people who are constrained by time, place or other factors.

Online courses can work for any student, just as a physical, onsite classroom with face-to-face instruction can work for any student – but we all know the quality of the "fit" with a particular instructor or a particular class environment varies. Taking an online class requires just as much time and effort as class on campus and there are some new twists for most of us. To see if online classes are right for you, answer these questions:

  • Do you like to work independently?
  • Are you persistent?
  • Do you need convenience and an adjustable schedule?
  • Are you comfortable asking for clarification and continuing to ask when you need more information?
  • Are you comfortable working at a computer?
  • Are you comfortable working primarily with a text-based medium?
  • Would you be comfortable phoning or faxing your instructor if you had problems with anything in the course?

If you answered "yes" to most of those questions, then you should do well in the online learning environment. If you hesitated, be certain to keep a very close touch with your progress.

Reading is Key

Remember that you won't have all those non-verbal cues that you get in the physical classroom and neither will your instructor. Also, your instructor's role will be much less that of the distributor of information, and much more that of a guide or resource for you in exploring an area of knowledge. Almost all your information will come in the form of words. Words on the screen help the instructor "see" you much more clearly. The teaching style used in online courses may be different from the traditional college model. Taking a class online means you won't be sitting quietly in the classroom; participation is even more essential.

Communication is Key

As always, effective communication is critical to success. It's even more important in the online environment because your instructor can't see your frown, or hear the question in your voice. Here, you'll be responsible for initiating more contact, for being persistent and vocal when you don't understand something. Your instructor wants to help – please write your question and send it along, express your confusion, your concern, and be direct! You will save a lot of time, and both you and your instructor will know better what you intend. Be sure and ask about anything and everything that has to do with course content, course procedure and evaluation.

Do's and Dont's

  • Do take time to review all the help files available.
  • Don't read material just once. Multiple reading, line-by-line reading are among the keys to understanding mathematics.
  • Do spend some time just navigating your way through the class and making sure you can figure out what the buttons are for.
  • Don't expect too much, to soon. Study and then re-study.
  • Do manage your time. You will find that your time management skills will be critical in an online class. Why? Because it's very easy to spend either far too little time, or far too much time on the class. Set designated blocks of time to work on the class. This will help you stay up with the assignments and with the interaction required in most online classes.
  • Do download or print out pages for reference and review away from the computer.
  • Do set priorities and pay close attention to what your instructor says about priorities.
  • Do especially for mathematics courses: Try hard to solve problems independently before you ask for help.
  • Don't give up. Mathematics can be very, very challenging, particularly when you are alone. If you haven't had a mathematics course lately, the first part of the course may be daunting. This will ease.

More Rules of the Road

  1. Participate. In the online environment, it's not enough to show up! We need to hear your voice to feel your presence, and we especially need your comments add to the information, the shared learning, and the sense of community in each class.
  2. Be persistent. Remember that we're all working in a fairly new environment. If you run into any difficulties, don't wait! Send a note immediately to the instructor of the course listed on the syllabus. Most problems are easily solved, but we have to hear from you before we can help.
  3. Share tips, helps, and questions. For many of us, taking online courses is a new frontier. There are no dumb questions, and even if you think your solution is obvious, please share it! Someone in the class will appreciate it.
  4. Think before you push the Send button. Did you say just what you meant? How will the person on the other end read the words? While you can't anticipate all reactions, do read over what you've written before you send it.
  5. Be patient. As much as your instructor will try to be prompt in answering questions, please do not expect instantaneous responses to your queries. Learn how to set break points in your study, so that you can return exactly to the point when your question is answered. Be patient with yourself as well; give the material a chance to soak in.
  6. Plagiarism, cheating and other violations of ethical student behavior are serious actions in a learning community. You should expect to be treated accordingly. Specific policies regarding such actions are spelled out in the Student Handbook, which is available in hard copy from the College, and will be available online very soon.