Online Learning Challenges – a Quick Refresher

Online learning presents many challenges for instructors and students.  Many of our students struggle to access online content because they either lack stable internet access or lack a suitable device with which they can access their courses.  Beyond issues of access, it is fair to say that both instructors and students are facing struggles delivering and receiving virtual instruction.  With so many logistical challenges, it is easy to lose sight of the most important part of virtual classes – deep learning.  We know that deep learning occurs when students are able to work with new material, connect it to what they already know, and discuss or share ideas about the new information with their instructor or classmates.  In face to face classes, students have assigned reading to provide background knowledge.  The concepts and ideas introduced in the reading are then reinforced in lecture when the instructor presents opportunities to consider this  information or knowledge in new ways via hands on activities, group discussions, practice with partners, etc.  It is believed that this reinforcement (I read, then I hear, then I do) strengthens neural connections and creates new neural pathways making information easier to retrieve and deepening understanding about how ideas and concepts connect to one another (Dubinsky, 2013).  Providing the right amount of challenge (getting students into their Zone of Proximal Development) can be particularly challenging in an online environment making it difficult to identify scaffolding that might be needed for particular students.  However, we know that providing activities that pique student’s interests and curiosity can act as a scaffold that supports learning.  

When students feel anxious or uncomfortable, it is often difficult if not impossible for them to concentrate fully which has a considerable impact on their ability to learn (Sylvester, 2003; Hammond, 2015).  So, how can we support students experiencing the anxiety and isolation associated with virtual learning?  To begin, we want to encourage problem-focused, self-regulating strategies like sticking to a structured study schedule.  Next we need to teach them study strategies that reinforce learning like how to properly review and use their notes.  Provide full transparency with assignments – what exactly is your expectation? Make sure instructions are clear.  Uncertainty can lead to anxiety. Can you provide an example of good work?  When possible, try to avoid situations in which an anxious student will have to perform in front of a large group.  Lastly, when we provide frequent low-stakes assessments, students are retrieving information in less threatening environments.  I’ve been teaching my students how to properly use their notes to create and take practice tests.  As with frequent, low-stakes assessments, practice tests require students to retrieve information in a non-threatening environment which reinforces learning.

My mother always said that “kindness is never wrong” and I think she was right.  I’ve found that giving students the benefit of the doubt, showing them empathy and support, and getting to know them on a more personal level (Are they working full time AND taking classes? Why are they taking your course?  What do they hope to get out of it?) helps lower barriers to learning.  When the barriers come down, performance usually goes up, and students become more engaged and eager to learn.

Dubinsky, J.M. ,Roehrig, G., & Varma, S. (2013). Infusing neuroscience into teacher professional development.  Educational Researcher, 42, 317-329.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain:  Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sylvester, R. (2003). A biological brain in a cultural classroom (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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