One in Three Students

Philadelphia, PA, April 5, 2021 – Virtual classes may have posed difficulty for many amid COVID-19, but a recent survey of 16- to 18-year-olds in the U.K. and U.S. shows that one in three students say their ideal post-pandemic learning environment includes some kind of online component.

The survey, conducted by Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) in March, gathered responses from 1,060 11th and 12th grade students from across the U.S. and sixth form students in England and Wales to determine their views regarding virtual learning. The students queried are participants in this year’s MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, an annual internet-based, intensive math modeling contest organized by SIAM.

“While the majority of students said they prefer 100 percent in-class learning, surprisingly, one third said they would choose either full-time or part-time online education when things return to normal after the pandemic,” said Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge program director at SIAM.

“Interestingly, while 73 percent of the students queried said they don’t learn as well virtually, nine percent said they learn better online and 19 percent say they find no difference in their ability to learn either way,” Montgomery said.

Now in its 16th year, M3 Challenge involves high school juniors and seniors, and sixth form students, working in small teams and committing 14 consecutive hours on a designated weekend in February/March to devise a solution to a real-world problem using mathematical modeling. Of the hundreds of participating teams, 10 finalist teams were selected from across the U.S., England and Wales, after having their submissions judged by an international panel of Ph.D.-level mathematicians. The competition’s final judging event — traditionally held in New York City — will be done virtually on April 26 this year.

Sponsored by MathWorks, the leading developer of mathematical computing software, M3 Challenge spotlights applied mathematics and technical computing as powerful problem-solving tools and viable, exciting professions. This year’s competition — which marks the first time M3 Challenge is open to students from England and Wales, awarding more than US$125,000 (£90,000) in scholarship prizes — asked students to use math modeling to provide solutions to combat the “digital divide” (the gap between those who benefit from adequate access to the internet and those who do not), a reality magnified by the pandemic. It drew the participation of more than 2,800 registrants across 535 teams.

Survey highlights

According to the survey, the No. 1 benefit of virtual learning cited by three quarters of all respondents is the time savings (traveling to and from school, changing classrooms, etc.), leaving extra hours for studying and other activities. Being able to get more sleep and occasionally having a more flexible schedule were each cited by 73 percent of students as other benefits. Almost one third said they see the advantage of having one’s own private learning environment at home, saving money (on transportation, clothing, etc.) and, in some cases, being able to review recorded classes later if needed.

The main drawbacks of online learning? According to the majority of students, it’s hard to stay focused (76 percent) and it can feel lonely or isolating due to the lack of in-person social interaction and connection to other students (66 percent). Almost half of the students said a main disadvantage is the lack of face-to-face interaction with teachers, 42 percent think teachers tend to assign more projects so the workload can be heavier, and 40 percent said the explanation of assignments seems less thorough.

The majority of those who said they perform better virtually versus in-person credit the fact that they get more sleep at night and feel more rested since they don’t have to commute to school (72 percent), and they can relax more during breaks, so they tend to concentrate better in online class (61 percent). More than one third said they’re better prepared for class since they’re forced to be more responsible due to the independent nature of online learning, they have less social pressure so can focus better in class, and they can more easily focus on what the teacher is saying since they’re less distracted by others in the class.

Students who perform better in person said that it’s harder to get motivated to learn virtually (83 percent) and they prefer live, face-to-face interaction (72 percent). They also said there are more distractions at home so it’s harder to focus (70 percent), and they’re less likely to make a connection with the teacher and ask questions in a virtual class (61 percent).

Student tips for virtual learning

When it comes to core subjects that lend themselves best to virtual learning, the majority of students cited English and History. Science and Math are seen by respondents as being the most challenging courses to learn online.

How can teachers make virtual learning of math courses more effective? Just over half (55 percent) of the students suggest using visual tools and videos to explain math concepts, while 53 percent recommend that teachers record classes for students to review later, as needed. About half of the students would like to see teachers better use technology and digital programs to explain math concepts. Thirty-seven percent think it would be helpful for teachers to provide one-on-one sessions with students to answer questions and ensure they understand concepts, and 31 percent suggest explaining concepts using real-world examples.

In providing advice for other students, respondents said the key to online learning success is to establish a daily schedule and stick to it (70 percent), attend all virtual classes and keep up with schoolwork (63 percent), connect socially with friends, even if virtually (46 percent), exercise frequently and eat well (45 percent), have a designated place to “attend” virtual classes (39 percent), and take frequent breaks (36 percent).

“We know that all students learn differently, and the results of this survey show that there is a role online learning can play for many students,” Montgomery said.

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