Applying Brain Research to Online Learning : Brain Bites

Applying Brain Research to Online Learning

by Janet Zadina on 02/13/20

You may know how to apply findings from neuroscience and psychology to create a brain-compatible classroom, but what happens when you find you are going to teach online?  How do you create a brain-compatible “classroom” virtually?

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the Florida Virtual School conference where I addressed this very topic.  I will share just a few pointers from that with you here. Let’s look at some key points and see how we can translate them into the virtual classroom.

Stress impairs learning.  In my presentation on this, I share strategies that are done in the classroom to reduce stress.  But online teaching requires that we look at this issue a little differently.  First, your students may have even more stress.  One reason is that they may be in the environment that is stressing them, such as working online from a challenging home environment.  Another special stress for online learners is that they may be afraid of the technology.  In the classroom, they could get help from others, but online they may feel isolated and stressed about how to do the tasks involved in online programs.  Finally, you may have nontraditional students.  Older students, for example, can have anxiety about whether they are too old to learn or whether they can keep up with younger students.

The first thing we can do to reduce stress and increase a feeling of safety, is to provide resources.  At the beginning, let them know where they can get help with technology.  Let them know how they can get tutoring or additional services.  Provide information about mental health services that are available to them.  Set up social support systems so that students can form study groups that can be done online or in person. Finally, reassure them that you are there to help them succeed and that they should let you know if they feel they are struggling or feel overwhelmed (so that you can refer them to the appropriate services).

A strategy that reduces stress that can be done online is to provide choice.  As you look over your syllabus/schedule, homework assignments, and tests ask yourself where you can provide choice.  Can you write more questions for the test and say answer 4 of these 5, for example? Can you give a choice of homework options?  Can you offer them a choice of content, such as one of two readings on the subject? Some can read one and others read the other and then share insights and have an ongoing dialogue.  Does every student need to read the same article?


The brain is a social brain. The brain appears to be wired to learn from other people.  Others can serve as models and some research shows that just watching someone perform something well improves the viewer’s ability to perform that task.  Practice and watching others improves performance.  So how do we provide social needs online?

Thank goodness for videos!  You can video yourself demonstrating something for the students.  As a homework assignment, students may choose to video a demonstration and then you can use that (with their permission) in future classes.  Of course, you can find many videos on line that can explain something better than a text could.  Don’t limit your syllabus to only text assignments.  Whether students read or listen, the material is still processed in the brain.  One way is not better than another.

Build in social activities.  You can still have students work in groups, although virtually.  I do not require a student to participate in groups if they would rather work alone due to social anxiety.  This is especially important online because some students participate in virtual classes due to social anxiety.  But provide the opportunity for those who need it.

Finally, put your friendly, smiling face up front!  When you can’t do Zoom or Facetime, have a picture of yourself in the top corner of pages.  Text or email students individually.  Relationships are important to learning. Online ones can be just as helpful as in person!

with Dr. Janet Zadina
Copyright 2013 Janet Zadina, Ph.D. All rights reserved
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction

Science and Strategies
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction
Bridging Neuroscience and Education​

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