Written by Alain Caron, Masters of Psychology
The particular situation that we are currently going through requires us to show solidarity, to adapt and to be creative. With learning taking place remotely, given the new reality that we will be grappling with for many weeks to come, the parameters of the teacher-student relationship are changing.
While the curriculum remains the same, the way that it is being communicated and that students are assimilating it has changed in a number of ways. In-person attendance is a recognized factor in reinforcing and rewarding the learning process. A hand placed on the shoulder of a student who is striving to solve a problem is gratifying for the student, which encourages them to carry on with the task and to want to please the teacher. It is much more difficult to leverage the student’s efforts or simply to remind them to pay attention when we are not physically present!
In addition, it is important to understand that the relationship students have with their tablet or a computer, when they are engaging in learning, is not the same as when they are playing a video game. Video games provide instant and dynamic feedback that is a constant stimulus for the youth’s attention and interest, whereas listening to an explanation on a specific topic in order to be able to subsequently do the work requires considerably more voluntary focus and the ability to persist when an effort is needed. This is especially true for students with learning disabilities (LDs) or attention issues, who are often already working harder than their peers.
To cope with the numerous changes associated with online education, I am proposing a number of strategies that can be helpful, based on human development as it relates to learning.
Indeed, as Stanislas Dehaene so aptly pointed out in his book “Apprendre !”, neuroscience now recognizes four pillars of learning in the very structure of our brain. These pillars are Active Engagement, Attention, Error Feedback, and Consolidation. The idea here is to understand what has made it possible for human beings to learn completely independently since the beginning of time and to use this to support students when learning online. Let’s explore these pillars briefly to see how we can apply them in practice.
The concept of active engagement as it relates to learning implies that students have a dynamic and voluntary interaction with the learning object instead of simply being passive spectators. This may seem obvious, but it is also true on a neurological level: in order for new knowledge to leave a mark in a neural network, students must have manipulated the information, and not just to have seen or heard it. Over the hundreds of thousands of years of its development, the brain has thus developed an effective tool to achieve this: curiosity!
In fact, we now know that children are born with a multitude of abilities “embedded” in the very structure of their brain, a legacy of human evolution, and that these abilities need only to be activated with experience. We could compare it to a new computer with all of its software programs included that need to be activated one after the other. The human brain is thus structured to explore all sorts of abilities that it has within itself, by using curiosity to discover them.
Based on this information, let us, therefore, examine three proposed approaches to work that we could use in order to support students in working independently online.
1) Consciously Manipulating Information
We know that a person who attends a conference and takes notes by hand will have a better recall of the information that is communicated than someone who takes notes on a computer. Why is this? It is because taking notes by hand is slower and therefore requires the note taker to better summarize the content of the presentation. In short, we assimilate information better when we manipulate it in our minds.
We should, therefore, encourage students to do the same instead of simply “listening” whether by asking them to rephrase what was said, to summarize it, to translate it into a movie in their mind, to explain it to their parents, to annotate a text, to take ownership for the task to be accomplished by breaking it down, etc. What is crucial here is for the students to actively do something with this new information in their minds. When they do so, a stronger imprint will be left on their brain.
2) Stimulating Curiosity by Challenging Students to Validate Hypotheses
When students are presented with a task where they need to determine whether the information is true or false, for example, their curiosity is directly stimulated and the actual learning structure of their brain is used. Such a challenge forces them to engage actively in their learning, which clearly reinforces the first point, but, above all, helps to activate their curiosity. In fact, challenging students requires them to do something that will become a source of stimulation for them.
3) Engaging Deeply in Their Learning
Finally, we need to explicitly tell students how important it is for them to engage deeply in what they are doing in order to be effective.
If you are trying to increase student engagement while distance learning, consider using Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL can be used in all subjects, at all grade levels, requires less direct instruction, and can be differentiated at all stages to meet the interests and needs of all your students, including those with LDs. Click here to access the article, Using Project-Based Learning in the Classroom.
A practical and simple definition of attention could be as follows: to succeed in voluntarily maintaining your mental focus over time, in spite of possible distractions. Obviously, attentional processes are infinitely more complex, but since our concern here is the effectiveness of student performance in an online learning environment, we will use this definition to explore three strategies to support these processes.
1) Avoiding Overload
One pitfall of online learning is that students quickly become overloaded if they are presented with too much information or too many tasks at the same time. This is especially true for students with LDs, who often have to work harder to process information. If they do feel overloaded, it will be difficult for their working memory to contain and manage important information, and the students might go off task. It is therefore essential to convey relevant information, whether it is new knowledge or a task to be carried out, at a pace that students can sustain. This applies both to the teacher providing the information and to the parent supporting their child.
2) Presenting Understandable and Short-Term, Attainable Targets
This point is self-explanatory. When presenting information to students, what is expected of them must be explained as explicitly as possible, and they must have a clear understanding of what they have to do. In addition, the tasks given to the students need to be achievable based on their abilities and doable in the short term. For students with LDs, this may mean adapting tasks to their strengths and needs. Remember that students might lose interest faster in front of a computer than in class because there is no direct relationship with the teacher. For this reason, it is preferable to set a shorter-than-usual timeline for achieving targets.
3) Setting out Guidelines for Tasks
Students with LDs often have weaker executive functions and may require more support when planning and organizing assignments. It might, therefore, be useful to set out clear guidelines for the tasks that are proposed to students. This simply involves breaking down and clearly organizing what is presented to them. For example, we explain that there are three steps to follow, that the first one consists in doing such and such a thing, and that it should take approximately 5 minutes. By using this approach, we break down the complete task into several smaller targets that are easy to achieve. This is what Jean-Philippe Lachaux, a renowned researcher in neuropsychology, calls “mini-missions.”
Error feedback calls upon the ability to learn from past mistakes and experiences in order to make better choices afterward. This requires a great deal of flexibility, but it is an essential skill for students to progress. In practical terms, this means that students need feedback on their actions in order to adjust them to reach their goals. Although developing this ability is more effective in direct educational interactions, here are nevertheless a few tips to facilitate the process in the context of online learning.
1) Encouraging Students to Ask Themselves Feedback Questions
When students have a task to carry out, prepare a series of relevant questions for them to answer once it has been completed. For example, you can ask questions such as these: What steps did you follow to complete the task? How can you make sure that you did not forget anything? How can you check that your answer is accurate? Can you identify a mistake that you might have made? Questions of this type will stimulate the students’ ability to give themselves feedback on their own work, thus paving the way for error feedback.
2) Asking Trick Questions
Questions such as “Michael has 20 marbles and 8 more than Paul. How many marbles does Paul have?” are tricky (there is the word more in the question so it appears to be an addition), and several students fall into this trap. By asking trick questions like this one, in order to draw the attention of students to their mistakes, you activate their ability to reflect on errors. You can then incorporate trick questions of varying degrees of difficulty throughout the tasks to be done in order to provide an opportunity to reflect on them later on.
3) Giving Emotional Alerts
Research has shown that when students are confronted with trick questions such as in the previous point, giving them an emotional alert such as “Be careful. This might be a trick question.” Increases the likelihood that they will be attentive, which will prevent them from falling into the trap. In other words, if students have already fallen into a trap in the past and you give them an emotional alert about what you are presenting, they learn to be on their guard and to recall their past mistakes in order to perform better. For example, you could tell them that the next question or problem contains a trap, or that there is a trick question in the next set of five questions. You could even go as far as saying that, in the ten problems that you have asked them to solve, there are surely two trick questions and possibly a third one.
Finally, consolidation is the last step in learning. It consists of ensuring that the students’ newly acquired knowledge or skill becomes an increasingly automatic competency such that it requires little effort. Here are a few points to facilitate this process.
1) Regularly Reactivating New Learning
When a new concept has been presented to the students, periodically reviewing this concept reactivates the neural network associated with it and consolidates this knowledge. Students with weak working memory may need more repetition to commit new information to memory and consolidate their learning, than their peers. This reactivation does not need to be as thorough and active as the first time, but the aim is to help students to remember the important elements of this learning. Subsequently, the reactivation can be shorter and more spaced out, such as a review that consolidates the acquired knowledge.
2) Resting Body and Mind
Finally, research has shown clearly that sleep helps to consolidate learning. In fact, when we are sleeping, our brain reactivates the main elements of new learning that we have acquired during the day, which helps to consolidate them. Even in these troubled times, it is, therefore, crucial to encourage students to sleep well, stay on a regular schedule, and rest when necessary.
Using natural learning processes, i.e., the four pillars that the brain has developed during its evolution, will not automatically guarantee that everything will be easy for students in the current context, where they are learning in front of a screen. However, precisely because these processes are natural, the different strategies proposed here may promote the development of greater cognitive independence in students.
References and Other Sources of Information
Berthier, Jean-Luc. Neurosciences cognitives, comment changer l’apprentissage ? 8eConvention pédagogique : Les pédagogies actives et renouvelées. Lyon. August 30 and 31, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69vya5lvdkw.
Caron, Alain. Arrête, observe et agis. Chenelière Éducation. Montreal. 2019.
Dehaene, Stanislas. Apprendre ! les talents du cerveau, le défi des machines. Odile Jacob. Paris. September 2018.
Dehaene, Stanislas. Apprendre : les talents du cerveau, le défi des machines. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAIhjeyET4c. (On the solemn occasion of the beginning of the new academic year at the University of Poitiers)
Lachaux, Jean-Philippe. Le cerveau funambule. Comprendre et apprivoiser son attention grâce aux neurosciences. Odile Jacob. Paris. 2015.
Lachaux, Jean-Philippe. Les petites bulles de l’attention. Se concentrer dans un monde de distraction. Odile Jacob. Paris. November 2016.
About the author:
Alain Caron has a master's degree in psychology from Laval University and has worked in the education sector for over 25 years. With his work experience with elementary and secondary students and those who find it difficult to adapt to school, he has developed a particular interest in the unavoidable problem of classroom attention, hyperactivity, persistence in the task, as well as the importance of executive functions in the academic success of students.