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Your Brain Online: Distance-Based Education and Cognitive Function

While teachers in higher education have been incorporating elements of distance, hybrid, and blended learning into their instructional practices for years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, fully online learning was something that, in many cases, students opted for based on a variety of factors.

Due to the onslaught of the coronavirus, however, by September of 2020, close to 80 percent of the 100 major U.S. universities polled by the Washington Post were teaching in hybrid formats or primarily online. This data, compiled by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, was part of the College’s efforts to track the response of schools across the nation to the pandemic.

With such a sudden and major shift in instructional practice, students and teachers alike have had to adapt to a way of teaching and learning that was not chosen, but rather thrust upon them with little to no time to prepare.

Regardless of whether students and teachers find themselves in online classrooms by choice or circumstance, this begs the question of how to optimize learning in online contexts.

Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Janet Zadina generously offered her time to address this question in a recent interview.

Expert Interview with Janet N. Zadina, PhD

Janet ZadinaJanet Zadina, PhD, is an associate at the Brain Institute of Louisiana and president of Brain Research and Instruction.

A renowned expert in the field of educational neuroscience, Dr. Zadina spent 20 years teaching in public and private schools before earning her doctorate in 2006. While completing her PhD in education at the University of New Orleans, Dr. Zadina conducted MRI research on neurodevelopmental language disorders at Tulane University School of Medicine. She then continued on at Tulane as a postdoctoral fellow in cognitive neuroscience.

Currently, Dr. Zadina writes textbooks for students on reading and learning as well as professional development books for teachers. She is the author of Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain: Energizing and Enhancing Instruction and has been an invited speaker at more than 400 events. She is also the co-founder of the Butterfly Project, a nonprofit organization that assists educators after natural disasters.

In 2010, Dr. Zadina was selected as a Distinguished Fellow in the Council of Learning Assistance and Developmental Education Associations (CLADEA) and in 2011, her contributions to the field were recognized by the Society for Neuroscience with the presentation of the Science Educator Award.

The Brain and Online Learning

Some heartening news for educators regarding the brain and online learning is that “if you understand some of the principles about the brain and learning, you can make online instruction as brain-compatible as face-to-face,” Dr. Zadina shared. The reasoning? The same principles generally apply with regard to the brain and learning in both contexts. However, there are three important aspects of how the online environment affects the brain and cognition that are important to consider.

The first is with regard to cognitive load. This concept refers to the demand placed on working memory in the learning environment. Educational psychologist John Sweller developed the cognitive load theory in the 80s and since then, it has become one of the most highly cited theories in educational psychology as well as the basis for instructional design in a variety of contexts.

In online learning, “there might be an increased cognitive load if learners are struggling with the technology as well as the content,” Dr. Zadina shared. She added that “heavy cognitive load would negatively impact their learning.” This can occur when using videoconference tools like Zoom, which can increase cognitive load due to the additional effort needed to monitor nonverbal behavior. Such platforms require learners to monitor the nonverbal cues of peers while also managing their own online participation using the camera, microphone, and other communication features like chat boxes.

To address this, Dr. Zadina proposed three strategies for maximizing cognitive function in online learning environments:

  1. Reduce cognitive load
  2. Support the working memory
  3. Provide opportunities for encoding into long-term memory

Reducing Cognitive Load

Cognitive load has three components: intrinsic, germane, and extraneous.

Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the complexity of the learning task itself, while extrinsic or extraneous cognitive load relates to the design of the task and other outward factors (such as learning tools or the learning environment). Germane cognitive load is considered productive and assists the learner with the task—it’s what a student “brings to the table” so to speak.

Dr. Zadina explained,

Everything uses some of the brain’s resources at a given time, and if some of it is devoted to unfamiliar technology or complicated technology, there’s less germane cognitive load to process the material because of the extrinsic challenges.

Ways to reduce cognitive load due to technology in online learning include:

  • Orienting students to the technology they’ll be using to learn online, including the vocabulary and resources for trouble-shooting. This could be done in a synchronous way by sharing screens or asynchronously through the use of screencasting.
  • Working with support staff to ensure that the technology is accessible to all learners and adheres to principles of universal design for learning.
  • Anticipating how to support students experiencing tech difficulties both during instruction and when working independently in synchronous and asynchronous learning activities, and plan accordingly.

Supporting Working Memory

Working memory is the ability to hold information in the conscious brain long enough to do something with it. Take the example of asking for directions somewhere. If the directions are too long, it will be too much for working memory and you won’t know whether to turn left or right when you walk out the door.

We are all limited in working memory capacity and the learning process demands much of that capacity. For example, language learning requires extensive working memory, and math, writing, and reading tasks place heavy demands on it as well.

Problems occur with working memory when the length, affected by the complexity, is greater than the amount that can be held in working memory. George A. Miller’s information processing theory proposed that working memory can only hold about seven “chunks” of meaningful information (e.g., digits, words, people’s faces, chess positions) at a time.

Educators can create problems with working memory when their instructions or test questions are too long for the capacity of working memory. If you create a matching problem and there are too many items to match, you are only measuring working memory—not content knowledge. The same thing can happen when giving instructions for a synchronous or “real-time” activity. Teachers may wonder why students aren’t following directions, when in fact, the instructions were too long or complex for students to process and use.

Teaching online can strain the limits of working memory. Sometimes a student can’t back up and read or listen again. Things move quickly. If students are trying to remember a technology sequence while answering questions, the technology can take up all of the working memory available. Since images take up far less working memory capacity than language does, Dr. Zadina advises teachers to use visuals to guide students whenever possible.

She also encourages online instructors to be aware of pacing in the delivery of content. “Be careful that too much information doesn’t come too fast online,” she advised. “Allow students to break information down into small, bite-sized pieces.”

And finally, make sure students are understanding the information being presented by pausing during lessons and allowing them to process the content by:

  • Writing it down.
  • Repeating it back.
  • Discussing it in pairs or small groups.

Providing for Encoding into Long-term Memory

Hebbian theory states that “cells that fire together, wire together.” What this means is that when neurons are stimulated in close proximity, the bond between them is strengthened. In learning, that means that students need to “fire it until they wire it” as Dr. Zadina puts it. It also means that students can benefit from being offered a variety of ways to process information. The stronger the bonds between neurons, the greater the learning.

In the online learning context, Dr. Zadina explained, “There are many ways to use technology to fire and wire and encode into long-term memory. It is so easy to insert or provide videos, quizzes, polls, breakout rooms.

Another highly beneficial activity is practice testing. Dr. Zadina elaborated on how this supports the encoding of information into long-term memory:

We know that repetition strengthens the neural pathways that you build when you learn. But that doesn’t mean “drill and kill.” So, for example, one of the things that we can do is practice testing because that has been shown to be very effective, as are daily quizzes, that enable [students] to recall the material and strengthen the learning.

Practice testing also uses the expressive pathway rather than the receptive pathway of just reading something over and over, which is not very effective. But when learners use the expressive pathway of saying it or writing it or doing something with it, which is what they usually have to do on their test, it strengthens their ability to do that. So, that’s another reason that practice testing is effective.

A final strategy to support encoding knowledge into long-term memory is to offer a variety of homework options. Dr. Zadina calls this the “homework menu.” This can be daunting for instructors wondering how to grade homework assignments when students are doing different tasks. She added that for some instructors, this approach is “a new way of thinking.”

The key, however, is to design a variety of assignments that target the same learning objectives. That way, no matter which assignment a student chooses, no matter how a student chooses to demonstrate the knowledge, instructors are able to measure the extent to which they processed the information. With regard to grading such assignments, Dr. Zadina added,

My answer is, did they process it? Did they fire and wire it? If somebody just did one little last-minute post or threw something up there, you know it wasn’t well-processed. But, if they had to put some information together, they did the assignment.

The takeaway is to offer a variety of assignments targeted toward the same skill or knowledge set that allow students to demonstrate understanding in multiple ways.

Dr. Zadina left us with this:

There are many ways to fire and wire. We don’t have to drill and kill. You could offer a variety of assignments … so that students are working with the material in a variety of ways. The main thing is that they are activating the material in their mind repeatedly.

For more on brain-compatible learning, see Dr. Zadina’s seminal work, Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain, her Brain Bites blog, and this interview in eLearn Magazine.

Cevia Yellin

Cevia Yellin is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon. She studied English and French literature as an undergraduate. After serving two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, she earned her master of arts in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cevia's travels and experiences working with students of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have contributed to her interest in the forces that shape identity. She grew up on the edge of Philadelphia, where her mom still lives in her childhood home.