Brain rules for the virtual classroom

A look at the implications for virtual classroom facilitators of the neuroscience findings summarised in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules.

Recently I conducted an in-depth review of John Medina’s book Brain Rules for my personal blog, Clive on Learning. I took my time over this because John’s analysis of the applications of neuroscience to education and training was so far-reaching. I looked at each of John’s rules in turn, assessing the implications for workplace learning in general. The purpose of this post is to explore the ideas in a more restricted context, the facilitation of virtual classrooms.

For each rule, click on the link to see the original posting.
So we learn much more effectively when we’re on the move. Implications for the virtual classroom? I would imagine it’s impractical for participants to use a mouse and headset when exercising, so I’d probably keep sessions short and encourage participants to exercise in the breaks. Some chance.
Without good facilitation, there is a risk of relationships breaking down, perhaps because one person tends to dominate or behave aggressively.The implication for the virtual classroom is to choose facilitators carefully for their empathetic ability and then provide them with the training they need to handle problems diplomatically and sensitively. Given you can’t see your learners, how do you pick up on potential problems? How do you deal with a difficult participant without embarassing them in front of their peers?
All learners are different and that makes it hard for the facilitator of any live session to ensure every participant achieves their objectives. In the virtual classroom that means keeping class sizes small, so facilitators stand a better chance of understanding and reacting to the differences inherent in every learner. It could mean running special sessions forlearners that are behind the pack. It also places a premium on the use of polls and other survey tools that provide you with more information about the group you’re working with.
You’ll achieve nothing if you haven’t captured the attention of your audience. The best way to capture attention is with an emotionally-arousing experience of some sort – perhaps an anecdote, a surprising fact, a scenario, an activity – that is relevant to the point you will be making.
Even if you do manage to capture the audience’s attention, you’ll have lost it within 10 minutes if you don’t stimulate a fresh emotional arousal. In the virtual classroom it will make sense to start with an overview and provide regular progress updates. And in each 10 minute block, concentrate on a single key point.
If you want people to remember something, make sure they understand it. Facilitators should make liberal use of relevant, real-world examples.
Retrieval works best when the environmental conditions at retrieval mimic the environmental conditions at encoding. If this is true, then the most effective environment in which to learn would be on-the-job, which for many virtual classroom participants will be where they will be!
A key lesson here is to present important information repeatedly over time, elaborating on it as you do so. Where possible, build on the learner’s prior knowledge, rather than presenting new information in isolation. Provide opportunities for reflection and/or discussion immediately following the session, perhaps using an asynchronous medium, such as a forum.
So, getting the right amount of sleep is critical to the brain’s functioning, including learning; we differ in how much sleep we need and this varies at different times in our lives; we could all do with a nap in the afternoon. The implications for the virtual classroom? Well, perhaps you should avoid sessions mid-afternoon. You might also find that some participants take advantage of the fact that you can’t seethem to catch up on their sleep during particularly boring sessions!
There’s no real harm in a a learning intervention causing a little stress in learners, so long as this is very moderate and short-lived. A small degree of peer pressure would be a good example. What we don’t want is to stress our learners out. I reckon that a great many classroom events, particularly those that are highly interactive, stress out learners too much because the degree of peer pressure is too high – the learner may be terrified of embarrassing themselves. Live events may also be stressful because they attempt to cover too much information too quickly and the learner simply cannot keep up.
Medina draws heavily on the work conducted by Richard Mayer on the link between multimedia and learning. At the most simple level, Mayer concluded that “students learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.” Facilitators of virtual classroom events should try to avoid the most common sins, i.e. delivering two sources of verbal information simulataneously (typically voice and a lot of text on the screen) or two visual sources (say graphics and video). The brain can only comfortably pay attention to one visual and one verbal channel at a time.
Visual aids are not an optional extra; they are usally helpful and sometimes essential. It does matter what pictures you use – different types of information require different types of visuals to convey meaning most clearly. While more abstract information is harder to convey pictorially, it is worth the effort. However, better no picture than one that just fills a space and conveys an inappropriate meaning.
This may be the case, but I struggle to find any implications for the virtual classroom facilitator. In many cases, you can only tell who’s male and who’s female by the name on the participant list.
When it comes to more formal learning interventions, we sometimes seem to conspire to minimise the possibilities for exploration and reflection – the dominant strategy continues to be structured instruction, regardless of the suitability to the requirement. Guided discovery is more engaging and more rewarding, particularly when the participants have plenty of experience to draw upon and share. Probably learners would like a balance between the two. They appreciate the opportunities to reflect and explore, particularly collaboratively, but they also quite like to be able to draw upon expert experience from time to time. This is entirely an issue of pedagogy – virtual classrooms are neutral on this issue and can support each approach equally.