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Online learning works if students have a growth mindset, stay disciplined

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By Dr. Matthew Tanzy and Dr. Delayne Johnson

Dr. Delayne Johnson | PHOTO C/O Delaware State University

At the end of the 2020 Spring Break, faculty at Delaware State University worked to transition our courses online. Over the remainder of the Spring semester we held our courses in a synchronous manner where everyone is online, learning at the same time. 

We also recorded our lectures for students who could not make a class due to the illness or other challenges, used polling and other strategies to keep students engaged in a new environment, and held office hours via face-to-face teleconferencing. Our students rose to the challenge.

Dr. Matthew Tanzy | PHOTO C/O Delaware State University

What were the critical skills, strategies, and dispositions of the students who were able to be most successful during this time? Here are some strategies for success.

Be flexible and have a growth mindset

Over the summer, I received an email from a student who asked how to prepare for my mathematics course for the fall semester, including advice for “a certain mindset” the course required. Mathematics is arguably the subject where mindset matters most, especially when considering how frequently students express experiences with math anxiety or negative feelings towards mathematics learning.

Part of my response, “Everything you are asked to do you are capable of doing. Be open minded, persistent and flexible in your thinking.”

In a growth mindset, students believe that their abilities can be developed through commitment, hard work, and persistence. At some point, mathematics will become challenging for everyone. Being prepared to face those challenges with belief in self and a productive disposition towards the study of mathematics gives students the resilience needed to overcome any challenges.

Develop a schedule

Students are often told about the importance of time management. What does that actually look like? The move to virtual instruction meant that some of the structure of the shared classroom learning environment has been lost. Without regular face-to-face meetings, it became more difficult for students to manage their time.

One effective strategy is to set aside specific times each day for studying and homework so that a routine is established. By building a habit of consistent work, over time, students can avoid falling behind in class and getting lost. This is especially important in mathematics, which is generally sequential and cumulative, meaning that concepts are connected, and one idea builds upon another.

Having a scheduled time can become especially important when a student needs to share studying resources such as computer usage.

Use your resources: We are in this together

There is much to gain by instead going to office hours for help or sending your instructor an email. One thing many students do not realize is that many of the more difficult problems are assigned specifically to illustrate a technique or an idea. By skipping these problems, students can miss key concepts which may make later lessons more difficult. If you feel reluctant to contact your instructor, your classmates can also be an untapped resource.

Often a difficult problem can be worked through by brainstorming with classmates. There are online tools for discussions and small group collaborations.

Students should use these resources as soon as they feel they need extra help. Ask for what you need. There are faculty, peers, and tutors available and willing to help.

Fully engage

To fully benefit from classes requires one additional thing, participation. Educational research shows that the most effective mode of learning is active learning.

There is a significant difference between having a lecture up on your computer while texting on your phone, watching a lecture, and working through examples while participating in discussion and instructional activities. To learn actively, a student must also think and question the material. The more you participate, the more you will gain from the learning experience. 


Dr. Matthew Tanzy is associate professor of Mathematics and director of the Mathematical Sciences program at Delaware State University; Dr. DeLayne Johnson, is associate professor of mathematics education.

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