My experience of remote working as a maths student

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By Matthew, Mathematics
College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, University of Birmingham

Writing this from my desk at home, it seems a long time ago since I was sat in a Maths lecture hall with over 200 other students. The pandemic has caused a lot of change for everyone, including uni students. During the various lockdowns, we’ve been studying completely remotely, and outside of lockdown periods, the university have adopted a bimodal approach to teaching, which involves some teaching on campus for those who want it, but the majority is still online. As a third year Maths student with experience of university study in pre-Covid times, I want to share my experience of remote learning with you.

Since the pandemic began, lectures have all been pre-recorded and uploaded to our virtual learning platform for us to watch when we wish. I really like being able to choose when to watch my lectures. Personally, I like to try and watch them all at the start of the week and then spend the rest of the week working through problems to consolidate what I’ve learnt. It’s also really useful that you can pause and rewind the lectures in case you don’t quite understand something. In ordinary times, most in-person lectures are also recorded for you to watch back later but most people attend in person so they can keep up to date. Obviously you can’t ask the lecturer a question halfway through a recorded lecture if you don’t understand something, but people rarely did this anyway in large in-person lectures. Instead, lecturers have really encouraged us to ask questions at other sessions.

The ideal opportunity to ask questions is in problem classes. During these, the lecturer will work through some more examples related to the material covered in lectures that week. The lecturers also welcome any questions about any of the material. Outside of the various lockdowns, these problem classes have been run both on-campus for those students who wish to attend in-person and online. During lockdown periods, these have all had to be done online. Typically we have three of these sessions a week, one for each of the modules we’re taking that term, so that’s three hours of on-campus learning available outside of lockdown.

In addition to these sessions, lecturers also have ‘office hours’, ordinarily in their office as you would expect, but this year run online, during which students can come and ask a question one-to-one or with their friends. Again, lecturers really encourage us to make use of this time and are always very helpful if you have any questions.

Finally, we also have weekly personal tutorials, as we would normally, although this year these are also online. These small group tutorials are a great way for first year students in particular to make friends and you also get to know your personal tutor really well. Your personal tutor should remain the same throughout your 3 or 4 years here, barring any unforeseen circumstances, which is great because they get to know you really well and can offer pastoral support whenever you need it, as well as careers advice, for example.

So as you can hopefully see, remote learning this year has actually worked really well. But the main thing that I do miss about on-campus learning is the social side of it. In ordinary times, we would quite often have hour-long breaks between lectures or classes and during these times my friends and I would go to one of the study spaces in the Maths building. Here we could work on problem sheets together or help each other to understand a difficult example from the previous lecture. And of course, there were times when we took a break from maths entirely and simply enjoyed each other’s company. If you prefer to work in a quiet space, then there are plenty of those too in the School of Maths and other buildings on campus. But it’s that opportunity to socialise and work together that I miss most of all.

The School of Maths and the student-led Maths society, MathSoc, have organised lots of sessions throughout the year to provide an opportunity to do this virtually. These include virtual study sessions and drop-ins, where you can come together with others to discuss your work or ask a postgraduate student for some help. MathSoc have organised regular virtual poker nights and other games nights, as well as a Staff vs. Students Quiz which was really good fun. I know that they also have some in-person events planned now that restrictions are being lifted. And then of course we’ve been able to socialise and have fun in-person with our housemates or flatmates.

So all in all, I’ve still had a really good time at uni this year despite the pandemic. The School of Maths have been very supportive throughout and have done their best to provide excellent teaching. I have missed being on campus and the friendly atmosphere within the Maths building, but I look forward to seeing my friends more as restrictions ease and I can’t wait to celebrate graduation with them. I hope that your uni experience is just as good as mine, and I’m sure it will be!