Remember Why You Started, by Allyson Hahn and Vien Ho

With the rapid spread of COVID 19, our junior year of college went from collaborating with our friends, in-person, on a daily basis, filling up whiteboards in the Math Resource Center, and stopping by our professor’s office to gain clarity, to sitting at our desks and attending class from our respective homes. As students, we’ve been faced with many challenges over the past semester while acclimating to the remote learning environment. The learning curve was steep, but over time we developed strategies to become successful and overcome these obstacles.

We were eager to start the remote learning journey with Abstract Algebra II, but we encountered technical issues right away. Our first class period was difficult, as we struggled to hear our professor through the digital platform. This left us discouraged and we wondered whether we would meet the learning expectations we set for ourselves. But this just meant that we had to work harder. We spent hours reading the textbook and trying to understand concepts from notes and PowerPoints. Office hours were available virtually and via email, but it was challenging to communicate the mathematics. Thankfully, the audio was better after the first class, and we began to adapt to this way of learning even though other technical difficulties, such as suddenly getting disconnected from the digital platform or being unable to view the screen the professor shared, had become commonplace. Despite the challenges we faced, what motivated us to meet the expectations we set was our interest in the content, our belief in ourselves, and the reminder of why we fell in love with math in the first place.

This semester, we were also both in a small independent study course. In the first half of the semester, during class meetings we presented the proofs to theorems and lemmas; this helped our understanding of the material, as we explained it to our classmates and received feedback and further explanation from our professor. Outside of class, we would collaborate in the Math Resource Center to work on problems and ask our professor for guidance. However, we lost these opportunities when we switched to remote learning, which made it even more difficult to comprehend the material and tackle the practice problems. We felt that the first homework assignment due during remote learning was impossible, and we would never be able to finish it. After panicky texts back and forth, we decided to use Skype to discuss the homework and content. In the coming weeks, our calls would last for hours as we poured over the material and completed the problems. Math is incredibly visual, so we had to change how we collaborated. Since we couldn’t see each other’s work in front of us, we had to hold our solutions to the camera or send them via text. We didn’t have the luxury of working side-by-side to point out theorems and errors in each other’s work. However, this “video collaborating” experience made us better mathematicians because it forced us to be clear and concise in our work and discussion. This experience taught us not to be afraid to reach out to our friends and peers for assistance and guidance even if it might expose our weaknesses. But we wouldn’t have been as successful without our professor’s support during the remote learning journey.

As juniors at a small liberal arts college, upper-level mathematics courses are typically quite small, which can make remote learning difficult. With only 6-10 students in a class, we tend to foster a more informal environment when it comes to participation. This natural flow of learning and discourse, which we thrive on, was broken in remote learning. When a professor asks a question during remote learning, it is hard to jump in and answer. Not because we don’t have an idea of what the answer may be, but because when “in person”, the fear of being wrong was so diminished. In the remote setting, there is a new set of fears, that we would say something wrong or talk over someone. In addition, a student’s body language is telling, but without video, it is impossible for someone to pick up on those cues.  This is what causes the “Does this part make sense?” question to have an awkward silence, which we’re sure a lot of professors can relate to. In-person, a head nod would usually suffice, but in this new setting, it was somehow uncomfortable for us to say “yes.”

Since remote classes started, our learning process has been hindered by the numerous distractions in our homes. It is hard to admit, but there were days where we did not feel motivated to work on homework or try to understand new concepts. We learned that we had to structure our days with allotted times for classes, homework, and breaks in order to create a healthy mindset and a productive environment. Even little things like putting on jeans every day, turning off news notifications, or listening to music lightened the mood and helped increase our focus. Not only did we gain skills from learning how to navigate our classes and collaborate with peers and faculty during quarantine, but we also learned how to help ourselves mentally, by reminding ourselves of why we started.

This journey through remote learning was unexpected and left students and faculty to face numerous challenges as we all worked through the remaining weeks of the semester. However, it brought us an experience we will never forget and taught us many lessons. It taught us to be more independent but unafraid to lean on each other. It taught us how to adapt to a new environment and to find ways to work things out. It taught us to not take anything for granted and appreciate the time we had before the remote learning period. More importantly, it taught us to remind ourselves (and always remember) why we started our journey during difficult times. Remote learning ultimately was not a bad thing as it brought many lessons, and time to reflect and be grateful for every day that we get to spend with the people that we love. We are thankful to be safe at home and able to remain connected with our family, professors, and friends, while others are fighting on the frontlines to save lives and restore the world.

Allyson Hahn and Vien Ho are Pure Mathematics majors whose continued passion for mathematics was shaped by their dedicated and encouraging professors at North Central College. They share a similar goal of pursuing a Ph.D. in Pure Mathematics and eventually teaching at an institution. 

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