Author: Jovi Nazareno, EdM Candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education

The new academic year recently began. In the first weeks of the semester, I amused myself by how often I completely ignored information presented right on the screen and via a teacher’s voice. I’m a grad student, I thought to myself. I should be better at this. I’m experienced and comfortable with online learning via synchronous meetings. So, why am I lost when I’m sent off into a Zoom breakout room? Why do I take so long to find information that I’m told is readily available on the Canvas page? I found my experience to be curious, especially when I realized that I was not alone. Despite what might seem like completely clear instructions from the transmitter, the receiving end was full of static.

Being online versus in-person is not what caused this sudden confusion, as many factors that influence quality learning are similar regardless of modality (a separate blog by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa describes what to consider while moving online1). However, being online unveils some of what gets forgotten about in learning, such as checking for understanding. This becomes exposed because, in cyberspace as we move from one virtual space to another, we might not have the same social cues we are used to. And we might assume we all have the same skills for and ease or comfort in using the many online tools.

Let me explain this further through what I’ve observed in my classes.

Setting the scenes

Many teachers prepared extensively for the online situation. Yet even a perfectly organized class meeting can feel like a whirlwind of information for students.

In one class, as we were prepped for breakout rooms for small group discussion, we were asked to have a notetaker, reporter, timekeeper. Sounds simple, right? We were also asked to take notes from our group discussion in what was being called a “note catcher”, that is, a shared Microsoft Word file for which a link was provided in the chat box.

At this point, I clicked the link and began scrolling around in the shared Word file to find the dedicated space where I should take notes. Here’s went through my mind: What group number am I in? How much time do we have? What are we discussing? This is cool that the teacher set up the groups and the files ahead of time.

Then, off I went into the cyberspace dedicated to my small group. I was sure the professor gave detailed instruction on what to discuss, as I remembered hearing her speak and I remembered a slide with the instructions. But, to my own surprise, I had no clue what the instructions actually were!

In other classes, instructions were provided across multiple shared documents and links. Sometimes instructions were brief, other times lengthy. Regardless of the length, I often observed myself and fellow students clarifying for each other what we think we understood about what to do. Sometimes we started discussing a topic and had to course-correct ourselves after realizing we were deviating from what we were instructed to do. Many times, we ran out of time to bring the conversation to a comfortable closing.

Going behind the scenes

Lots of incoming stimuli exist in any classroom, some external (e.g., a slide) and some internal (e.g., self talk). We cannot attend to everything at once, so certain stimuli are prioritized over others, and we suppress certain inputs in order to focus.2, 3 From a neural perspective, maintaining and switching between brain states likely includes the following key areas: the insula for switching states, the anterior cingulate cortex for maintaining states, and the striatum for habit formation.4 From a socio-emotional perspective, attention is also determined by feelings about a task, value placed on a task, and reasons to complete a task.5 It has also been shown that sustaining, switching, and focusing attention, along with self-regulation and working memory, all predicted reading outcomes for students in Grades 4–9.6

So, a lot of activity is present in the brain during learning, leaving us with many ways in which to deviate from what might otherwise be considered straight-forward or well-communicated tasks. What I attend to likely differs from another student, and my skills differ from another student. Additionally, rapid shifting of attention (i.e., “multitasking”) might negatively affect well-being and learning.7

Furthermore, a lot of presumptions exist in any classroom, some about the topic and others about an individual’s previously acquired skills. In the story I’ve shared above, some students did not have access to files, some did not notice the links, some were getting used to Zoom, some were taking handwritten notes instead of clicking on links. The possibilities of what each of us were doing could be endless. But the point is this: In a span of a few minutes, we are rehearsing what we know, learning to perform a task, and assessing why it is important (see graphic below). We attend to these different levels, and we understand some things but not others. The questions we might encounter are provided in the graphic below, although the list is not intended to be all-comprehensive.

lost cyberspace

Nazareno, 2020

Reconstructing for understanding

A check for understanding helps to ensure that students attend to the essential information, interpret information in a manner consistent with the intended meaning, and align their goals with that of the class. A check for understanding also helps to pinpoint the gap between a student’s prior knowledge and the expectation placed before them. The better the understanding at the beginning, the better the outcome at the end.

Small but powerful changes matter, such as:

  • Have a student verbalize the essential information/instructions into their own words before they start the task. To take advantage of the online modality, have students share this in the chat box. Correct any misunderstandings.
  • Share a worked model (an example) of the end-goal. Allow time for students to ask clarifying questions. To take advantage of the online modality, make a pre-recorded video that walks students through where to find relevant files or links, how to request access if needed, and how to operate the online conferencing tool alongside other windows.
  • Be patient; mistakes and misunderstandings will occur. Leverage immediate feedback as way to improve the next time.
  • Check in often. Find out what is exciting or worrying students, what they need, and how they think they can progress. In the online modality, leverage discussion boards or chats to make student’s reactions visible.

For me, even though I’m a few weeks into the semester, I’m still finding my way around the routine, content organization, and expectations for each class. With supportive teachers and helpful classmates, I think I’ll be okay. I kindly encourage everyone to help ensure that people around you will be okay too.

1Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2020, March 13). Taking your course online? Think before you leap. Connections: The Learning Sciences Platform.

2Glass, A.L. (2016). Chapter 4: Mental Action: Attention and Consciousness. Cognition: A Neuroscience Approach. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

3Jabr, F. (2014). The brain’s power to avoid diversions. Scientific American, 311(1):23. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0714-23

4Tang, Y.-Y., Rothbart, M. K., & Posner, M. I. (2012). Neural correlates of establishing, maintaining, and switching brain states. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(6), 330–337.

5Immordino‐Yang, M. H. (2011). Implications of affective and social neuroscience for educational theory. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43(1), 98–103.

6Berninger, V. W., Richards, T. L., & Abbott, R. D. (2017). Brain and Behavioral Assessment of Executive Functions for Self-Regulating Levels of Language in Reading Brain. Journal of Nature and Science, 3(11), e464. PMC.

7Rosen, C. (2008). The myth of multitasking. The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, 105–110.