Attention, Cognition, and Online Learning

Twitter-AttentionLast week, I began discussing Michelle Miller’s new book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology.  In my post, “Cognitively Optimized Online Course,” I reviewed the first three chapters on online learning, how it works, and the psychology of computing.  In this post, I look at the fourth chapter, on attention.

Sooo … has the cute picture of the little dog grabbed your attention?

And in doing so, have I sidetracked our exploration of attention?

Michelle’s chapter begins with an exploration of the Stroop Effect, and how easy it is to derail attention.

StroopThe link above takes you to a simple task of speaking two sets of words, with the caveat that you speak the color, not the printed word.  It took me about 50% longer to complete Set #2 over Set #1, because my mind kept focusing on the mismatch between the printed word and the color.  Michelle noted that you cannot separate cognition from the mechanisms we use to allocate our cognitive resources…so paying attention to paying attention is important in online course design.

Yet, attention can easily be shifted.  The message ding on our phone pulls us away from the computer screen.  Images in our lessons that do not align with the task impact our attention.

We also have limitations, including inattentional blindness when we focus.  It goes back 8 years ago, but I used the video below as an example of inattentional blindness during a job interview.

As Michelle noted:

“The inattentional blindness effect illustrates a broader truth about human perception and attention, that looking and seeing are two different things – and that we are remarkably prone to missing stimuli when our attention is directed elsewhere.”

… as “The Invisible Gorilla” showed.

While capacity cannot be expanded, it can be altered by practice. Actions that become automatic free up the brain to process other information.  Michelle is quick to note that practice does not mean we can actually multitask…we just think that we can.

Attention is highly intertwined with visual processing, which is another facet of online course design that matters.  She describes change blindness, in which changes to the screen are not picked up readily.  Most people think they perceive more change than they really do.

 Working memory is an area of significant variation among individuals.  Michelle noted that attention directs what goes in to working memory, so again, understanding attention is important to creating a learning environment.

minds_online2Michelle suggested several strategies regarding attention and online learning.

  • Ask students to respond
    • Chunk material into short segments and have students do something (answer a question, click on a hotspot, etc)
  • Take advantage of automaticity
    • Use auto-grading features of LMS’s to provide practice opportunities and feedback, with incentives for completion
  • Assess Cognitive Load
    • You really can do little to impact the cognitive demands of the topic or the individual, but you can impact cognitive load by design features.  Poor instructions or requiring new features without practice can negatively increase cognitive load.
  • Discourage Divided Attention
    • The web is full of distractions, but simply informing students that they should pay attention actually increases attention.

The chapter on attention suggests that educating students about multitasking, making materials as seamless as possible, minimizing extraneous attention drains, and keeping them engaged through compelling activities – these will help with learning in online classes.

From attention, Michelle moves to memory – my next post.

{Graphic: Social Caffeine }


Cognitively Optimized Online Course

active-learning-stratsMonday, I attended a regional conference hosted by the Harvard University Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning on active learning.  It was a good day of conversation with colleagues from some 35 institutions in the area.  I met Jim Lang of Assumption College, and he pointed out that “active learning” is a potential active learning problem for faculty in general.  Totally agree.

During the morning, we worked as small groups to identify both barriers to adoption and solutions:

Some barriers:

  • Faculty personal identity as “one who lectures”
  • Loss of control
  • Fear that experimentation will impact student evaluations
  • Classroom spaces not conducive to active learning
  • Lack of faculty knowledge as to active learning techniques

Some solutions:

  • Creating culture of active learning
  • Sharing of practices … and sharing evidence of efficacy
  • Spotlights on faculty doing it
  • Discipline journals including SoTL in addition to discipline research
  • Convene faculty development around shared problems
    • Start with small teaching activities
  • Understand the difference between “starting” versus “sustaining” active learning

minds_online2Yet, my best take-away from the conference came when Jim mentioned a new book he was reading on the train that morning:  Michelle Miller’s (2014) Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology.  I immediately went online and ordered my own copy, which arrived last night.  The book starts with the cognitive principles that could be applied to improved learning through technology, focusing on attention, memory and thinking.  It then provides practical applications of these principles to provide a “cognitively optimized, fully online course.”  That intrigued me!  Sixty-five pages in, I am excited enough to post this preliminary reaction.

Michelle noted in the preface that this book “…explains how principles of human cognition can inform the effective use of technology in college teaching”, noting:

  • “Technology enables frequent, low-stakes testing, an activity that powerfully promotes memory for material
  • Technology encourages better spacing of study over the time course of the class and helps prevent cramming.
  • Technology facilitates presentation of material in ways that take advantage of learners’ existing knowledge about a topic.
  • Technology facilitates presentation of material via multiple sensory modalities, which, if done in the right ways, can promote comprehension and memory.
  • Technology offers new methods for capturing and holding students’ attention, which is a necessary precursor for memory.
  • Technology supports frequent, varied practice that is a necessary precursor to the development of expertise.
  • Technology offers new avenues to connect students socially and fire them up emotionally.
  • Technology allows us to borrow from the techniques of gaming to promote practice, engagement, and motivation.” (p. xii)

She noted that technology does not promote learning by its mere presence … learning requires focused attention, effortful practice, and motivation (concepts that align with Susan Ambrose’s (2012) How Learning Works).

Michelle’s first chapter deals with whether online learning is here to stay.  She suggests factors such as economics, student demand, calls for measurable evidence of learning, new technologies and a drive to innovate as reasons why technology in higher education is now a given … and that we should invest in using it well.  She then looks at whether learning online works (noting that just by asking the question, we are holding technologically aided teaching to a higher standard than classroom teaching).  She charts out principles for optimal college teaching excerpted from four “best practice frameworks:

These best practices do suggest that online learning works…and some of what makes it work is active learning.

In Chapter 3, she tackles some of the prevailing myths about the psychology of computing:

  • Use of the web “rewires” the brain
  • Students today are “digital natives”
  • Social networking destroys real-life social relationships


While there are grains of truth, she provides some interesting analysis of the realities behind these myths and what that might mean for teaching.

So … I am through the first three chapters and stoked!  I will continue this as I move further through the book, and I will continue to find connections with the active learning session I attended this week.

If you are looking for a good book that applies the learning sciences to online teaching, I would recommend this book.

(…and thanks again to Jim Lang for the suggestion…)

{Graphics: Kenny, Barnes and Noble, Vogler}