I’ve had the privilege of helping a number of schools adjust to online learning in recent weeks*. I’m in awe of the rapid transformation many schools have undergone as they attempt to shift their teaching approaches. It is a remarkable feat!
You see teaching online is not simply a matter of ‘digitalising’ your existing teaching approaches. You cannot simply transfer your existing instructional modes to a digital format. It’s not a matter of ‘just’ uploading your worksheets to Google Classroom and finding some educational videos from Khan Academy to link to in the lessons (although these can be great components of online learning). Students learn online in very different ways. This blog post will help both parents and teachers consider how the brain learns and how that might be best accommodated for when learning online.
I’ve created a virtual masterclass called How the Brain Learns Online to help teachers understand the neuroscience of learning in a digital context. I share the 12 principles of how the brain learns online to help teachers better understand how to design online learning experiences in a way that will support student learning.
One of the key things I’ve heard from parents, students and teachers alike in recent weeks, is how tired students (and teachers) get after a day of online learning. In fact when I recently was part of an Insight episode called Cooped Up Families, many of the students themselves reported that they felt exhausted after learning online. That’s because learning online is mentally taxing (I recently wrote about why adults are suffering from Zoom fatigue and many of the points in that blog post would apply to students too). The brain has processing limitations online- there’s so much for the brain to process including text, images, animations, videos and audio. The online world really is a sensory smorgasbord. This sensory stimuli can exhaust the sensory cortices of the brain.
In addition, when learning online there are so many temptations vying for students’ attention (especially if they use the same digital device for learning and leisure pursuits). This means that students have to work really hard to resist these temptations. This draws on their brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC) which helps with impulse control. Demanding tasks show time-related deterioration in performance called ‘fatigability effects’. The PFC occupies 4 to 5% of our brain, yet it’s responsible for 25% of its total energy use (it needs a lot of metabolic fuel like glucose and oxygen to perform its functions). So you can see that students (and their teachers) can easily fatigue when learning online.
My tips for helping alleviate online exhaustion-
// Work in sprints, not marathons– students’ attention spans vary greatly according to the task at hand, their age, the time of day and mode of delivery. Adjust your expectations about how long students need to focus online. It’s unrealistic to expect primary school aged students to focus on a video-chat call for 60 minutes (even adults would struggle with that). Generally speaking, working online using the Pomodoro method works well- 25 minutes of focused attention and then a five minute break and then repeating the 25-minutes again with another five minute break and repeating this for a maximum of four cycles before taking a longer break. (Obviously, don’t try and emulate this plan with your Kindergaretn student- adjust accordingly).
The other benefit of working in sprints is that it can help with memory. We tend to remember the first and last parts of a lesson (we call it primacy and recency) and often forget a lot of the middle. If we work in sprints, we can help to create more beginnings and endings which will help with our memory.
// Deliver content in chunks– give them bite-sized chunks of information online. We used to think that the brain could hold seven plus or minus chunks of information- that was our capacity for working memory. However, that science is outdated. Our holding tank for content, the hippocampus, has limitations on how much it can hold (a bit like your computer’s hard drive storage). It can get overloaded very quickly if we deliver too much content online. New research suggests that the brain can only hold between two to four pieces of information in working memory.
Chunking= Principle # 11 in How the Brain Learns Online.
// Make sure they’re getting enough sleep– tired brains cannot learn. Even a short nap (make sure it’s not too long and too close before bed as you’ll reduce their sleep pressure) can help alleviate their exhaustion and also help them to focus.
Sleep= Principle # 1 in How the Brain Learns Online..
// Active consumption– the brain encodes information through active involvement, not through passive consumption. Information has to move through a variety of regions in the brain (including the temporal lobe where they make meaning from the senses, the PFC where they make abstractions and the cerebellum where they actively test and process what they’ve learned). Online learning is not students sitting and passively watching an Eddie Whoo video (these are fabulous videos) or your teacher demonstrating a concept on video for 30 minutes. Students need to consume content and then complete a learning task that helps them to process the information.
Learn, Encode, Recall, Apply= Principle # 5 in How the Brain Learns Online..
// Eat and drink and deep breaths– ever tried to talk to anyone when they’re ‘hangry’? Given that the PFC requires metabolic fuel (remember it uses 25% of the brain’s energy supply), it’s important to ensure that students are eating and drinking sufficiently and taking some deep breaths to fuel this brain region. Sounds so simple, but it’s effective because as I often say,”The beasics work, if you work the basics.”
// Bolster their physical movement– many students are spending increasing amounts of time being sedentary whilst in isolation. Movement produces dopamine which can help students focus and aids their executive function skills. Can you encourage your child to do some physical activity before online learning sessions? Maybe it’s a run around the block, jumping on the trampoline, doing some push ups? Can they do some discrete physical activity whilst online (even on a Zoom call) like rubbing their quadriceps, or pulling their finger tips away from each other? Can you incorporate physical movement into online activities- could they sequence tasks with POst-It notes, or write algorithms with chalk? Could you create a standing desk?
Movement= Principle # 2 in How the Brain Learns Online..
If you’re a teacher wanting to access the virtual masterclass called How the Brain Learns Online, contact my team (we’re in the process of uploading them to my online shop, but we can send you the link to video and PDF summary sheet immediately. We can also provide a site licence for your school so all of your colleagues can watch the 75 minute video and have their TPL registered with NESA).
*Online learning is distinct from ‘remote learning’ which may also be the delivery of instruction via printed materials organised in learning packs. Online learning may also involve a hybrid of approaches with digital learning experiences combined with more traditional written or hands-on activities.