Weigh When to Take an Online Math Course

Schools report fewer students pass online math courses in many cases, one expert says. 

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Even students who struggle with math can still do well in class if they are good independent learners, experts say.  

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For a while, Miami Dade College student Jazmin Rojas thought about transferring to University of Phoenix, where she could get tuition support from her employer. But then she discovered she’d have to take her two outstanding math courses online – and quickly changed her mind.

"I was like, 'No way,'" says Rojas, a 28-year-old pursuing an associate degree in tourism. “I am not the student who gets math automatically. I am a reading person. I need to be sitting in the first row watching a professor go step by step and explain everything.”

[Learn three lessons about online courses.]

Rojas' gut told her she would struggle in an online math class, and it turns out it might be on to something. Pass rates for online math courses tend to be lower than pass rates for on-campus math classes, says Paul Nolting, an author and math education consultant. Nolting has worked with more than 100 universities in his career, and in almost all cases, schools report lower pass rates in online math courses than in their on-the-ground counterparts, he says.

In many cases, students who are intimidated by math take their courses online so that they can avoid feeling embarrassed in front of others, he says.

“What better way not to get called on in the classroom? What better way to feel more calm and relaxed as you fail?" he says. "Most students who take the online classes don’t do OK, but they feel fine.”

As more colleges offer both regular and remedial online math courses, with sometimes disappointing results, it's important for students to consider how they will fare in a virtual class. Before signing up for an online math course, experts suggest students consider several factors.

[Discover ways to avoid taking remedial math courses.]

Many students sign up for online math courses under the assumption they are easier to pass, Nolting says. But online courses typically require students to put more hours toward their school work. And on top of that, virtual students don't have the ability to ask a question and get an immediate answer like they could in a classroom.

“One of the major myths is it’s easier and it won’t take as much time, but both of those are wrong,” he says. “It will take more time and it’s not easier.”

Marie Meeks, who earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 2012, says she took an online math course during her studies and found it surprisingly challenging.

"I think it was harder because it didn't have the same flow as an in-person question and answer session," she wrote in an email. "You can't raise your hand and ask for something to be explained a different way. It also was really hard to stick with the deadlines without having the reminder of actually sitting in class every day. It lacked the personal touch of being in a classroom. It was supposed to be convenient, but there's nothing convenient about being up until 2 a.m. trying to figure it out on your own. I'd rather go to class."

Not all students are math geniuses, but even those who struggle with math can still do OK as long as they are strong students and good independent learners, experts say. 

“The question is why are you struggling?” says Neil Nelan, professor of mathematics at Quinnipiac University. “If you have a weak background, do you tend to make algebra mistakes, or are you struggling because you just really have always had really poor study habits and you feel unmotivated?

"If the second is the case, that person should not be in an online class. What makes an online class work for people is an attitude of independence, self-directedness and a willingness to do it on your own.”

Students repeating a math course should consider a face-to-face option, experts say. In Nolting's experience, students who have already failed a math class tend to fail it again if they take it online the second time. 

“People who repeat the class usually need different instruction and they need more emotional and other support and that is hard to get online sometimes,” he says.

[Watch online students share time management tips.]

Not all online math classes have the same level of student engagement and one-on-one interaction with the instructor, experts say.

“My advice to any student is to understand how the course is taught. Will there be multiple opportunities to have one-on-one assistance from the instructor or the instructor’s assistant?” says Kenneth Hartman, senior fellow and principal analyst at Eduventures, an education consulting firm.

Kirk Gordon, a former student who took an online math class through Valencia College, agrees.

“I think online it depends on the professor and the tools they use,” says Gordon, who earned an associate degree in engineering from the community college. “I had a great experience. We used to be on Skype, webinars. We weren't in class but we felt like we were in class.”

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.