Educational Neuroscience and Online Education

Through the exciting advancements made in brain science, we can expand our mental models of what makes for effective learning.

North American October 14, 2021

Brain science research includes insights from areas of study such as neuroscience, molecular biology, and cognitive psychology. These insights can help teachers create more engaging online learning experiences. Nicholl (2017) proposes eight ways that brain science can be applied to online learning design: 

  • Mind-wandering – After 10 minutes, students’ minds tend to wander. Students need to do this in order to shift their brain from its executive functions to the creative realm, and this mind-wandering can be an effective technique for problem-solving. Educators can use this shift during online learning by planning instruction in chunks, varying the content and instructional strategies, and allowing students to wander mentally when they need to.  
  • Peer learning – Learning should include connections with peers, especially when students are physically separated. Educators can create peer-learning opportunities like group exercises or partner assignments and encourage participation in online discussions. Changing groups periodically is useful as well.
  • Situated Learning – Teachers need to provide students with real-life examples and experiences so they can better understand new concepts. Also, students need time to reflect on their learning, so they can consolidate new information in a way that makes sense to them. 
  • Generative Learning – Learners need to create something new with what they learn. Students can create blogs, videos, 3-D models, interviews, questionnaires, reflections, social media posts, living museums, hexagonal thinking demonstrations, plays, sketches, reflections, commercials, and so on. This is most helpful if they not only present their final product but also describe their creative process.  
  • Retrieval Learning – Retrieval learning trains the brain to retrieve learning, not just store it.  Educators can use automation features in online learning platforms to send content or questions to the learner after information has been learned to encourage practice of information retrieval and to release content in a spaced pattern, like releasing review quizzes later in the learning path. It helps retrieval to do reviews of earlier content frequently so students do not forget what they learned months ago.
  • Interleaved Learning – Students can form concepts well through the use of contrast and comparison. Teachers can interleave different learning concepts online by contrasting content and integrating multiple topics. Games are a great way to interleave learning concepts. Teachers can also use demonstrations, questions, and statements to show what a certain concept is and what it is not. 
  • Synthesis – Learners put concepts together to synthesize learning and integrate it into their own experience and knowledge base. Students can be asked to show how learning content applies to their lives or understanding of the world. Teachers can also use discussion and interspersed assignments to encourage students to reflect and connect concepts. Providing learners with audio and video feedback can also help to create these connections.

Through the exciting advancements made in brain science, we can expand our mental models of what makes for effective learning. By building our understanding of how brain science applies to online learning design, educators can help learners stretch and expand while doing online learning.


Yanina Jimenez

Yanina is an SDA multigrade teacher in Illinois, Ph.D. Student at Andrews University, and author of the book Brain-friendly Teacher

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