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Teaching and learning

How to get the most out of virtual learning

Here’s our digest of the findings that could help to make online learning stick.

30 July 2020

By Emily Reynolds

When the coronavirus hit, many of us had to quickly adapt to remote working — and even post-pandemic, many of us are likely to continue at least some of these tasks online.

Demands for more flexible working practices continue to grow, and for good reason — it can make life easier for employees with parenting or caring responsibilities, health problems or disabilities, and some argue it can also increase productivity. Online webinars and conferences also allow continued professional development without workers ever having to leave their home office.

Things are no different in the world of education: many undergraduate courses now provide lecture recordings for students to watch in their own time, and online masters programmes are offered by some of the UK’s top universities. Freshers’ Week this year is also likely to be very different, with many students experiencing a wholly virtual first year of university.

But learning online is not always easy. How do you concentrate when staring at a screen for hours at a time? How do you manage your workload? And what is the best strategy for note-taking? Here’s our digest of the findings that could help to make online learning stick.

Learn how to make notes effectively

Writing down what’s said during lectures may seem fairly straightforward. But there is evidence that some strategies are better than others — and knowing what those are could help you take notes more efficiently.

In 2019, a team from Kent State University looked at how often students were following best practice on note-taking. Writing with pen and paper is encouraged, for example, because laptops can distract both the note-taker and those sitting near them, and notebook notes tend to be more varied, not simply copied from the lecturer verbatim. Both organising information and using it to test your knowledge, rather than just passively writing and rereading notes, is also likely to boost your memory.

The researchers found that students weren’t always using these techniques — and when it came to those taking online courses, only half of participants were even taking notes. This is concerning, the team notes, because to really learn properly, you can’t just rewatch recordings. So brush up on the research if you want to avoid these students’ mistakes.

Ask yourself a “prequestion”

Working out what you want to get out of a lecture before it happens might help, as research from Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition suggests. Students were shown an informational video before answering questions about what they’d seen. Those who had been given two “prequestions” related to the information before watching outperformed those who had not.

Researchers believed that this technique was especially effective for learning from videos: it’s not easy to skip through video content to find answers to those prequestions, so viewers likely end up paying more attention.

Thinking about what you want to get out of a video lecture or webinar before you watch it might therefore help you retain more information.

Set your goals early

Prequestions can work on a small scale — and asking yourself questions about wider goals can also help in the grander scheme of things.

One piece of research suggested that students were generally unprepared for the levels of self-directed learning that online courses necessitate — there is far less direction and routine, after all, than in a traditional learning setting.

The team suggests that students consider a number of factors before they start online courses. First, think about what your learning needs are and what resources are available to help you with them. Then, consider what specific strategies you think might be helpful for you personally.

Finally, try to set yourself learning outcomes and evaluate how successfully you achieved them at the end of the course — this may help you hone your study technique for future classes, courses or modules.

Work on your concentration

Looking at a screen all day can be tiring — after several hours of Zoom, it can be hard to keep focused. So working out how best to boost your concentration might help you out, and there’s lots of different research that might inspire you. One study claimed that treadmill desks helped memory and concentration; another suggests that doodling can do the same.

If you’re reaching for your fidget spinner, however, you might be disappointed: one 2019 study suggested that they can impede learning.

Get socialising

Unlike traditional methods, online learning can be solitary: you’re at home on your own, with minimal time to socialise with your coursemates. But as well as boosting your social life, encouraging discussions between peers can help learning stay on track too.

One study suggested that discussing course material with other students in online forums may improve outcomes: the students who were most active in the learning forums were more likely to achieve a higher final grade. Some of this will obviously be to do with motivation and effort — students who put in a lot of effort studying and working on papers are also more likely to put effort into engaging with classmates. But active learning can’t hurt, either.

Start later if you need to

For the night owls out there, online learning is somewhat perfect: there’s no need to do much more than roll out of bed and switch on a computer to make that pesky 9am lecture, and if you miss it you can always watch later.

And according to one 2017 study, later start times may benefit many undergraduates:  students who started and finished later, working between 11am and 9.30pm, had the best learning outcomes. The team suggested that asynchronous online classes might help provide for people with all kinds of sleep schedules — so whenever you get out of bed, online learning may work for you.

Manage boundaries

Smartphones have made work easier in lots of ways, but they can also come with an added helping of stress, pinging with notifications even outside of working hours. This is such a problem that the French government has taken action, giving workers the “right to disconnect” from out of hours correspondence from colleagues or bosses — and it can be even more difficult when your home is also where you work or learn.

A study from the University of Illinois published this year also highlighted the stress of this always-on approach. Looking at a group of teachers, the team found that those with better boundary tactics — keeping work email alerts turned off on smartphones, for example — experienced less work intrusion. Setting such boundaries may help you concentrate when you’re online for work or university.

Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep has many cognitive benefits. Periods of sleep between studying can help you learn faster and retain those memories for longer, for instance — so you might want to stock up on herbal teas before term starts.

Even thinking you’ve got a good night’s sleep may act as an effective placebo, regardless of how much sleep you’ve actually had or how high quality it was. And if you can’t sleep? Don’t stress. Some research suggests insomnia doesn’t have to ruin your life, and how we think about sleep is nearly as important as how much we get.

Find your own strategies

Following advice is all well and good — but you might be better off finding your own strategies when it comes to productive work. A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at behavioural interventions in online learning, finding that general strategies were not that helpful for students.

Instead, the team suggests, students and teachers alike should understand their specific needs and the context in which they’re working; if a student has ongoing issues with their internet connection, they’re not going to need advice about self-regulation, while those who find it hard to wake up in the morning might. Working on personalised strategies, therefore, might benefit you the most in the long run.

About the author

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest.