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Brain-Based Activities in the Virtual Classroom

Brain-Based Activities in the Virtual Classroom

5 Recommendations to Design Brain-Based Activities for the Virtual Classroom, and What Virtual Learning Experts® Need to Know

This is part of an ongoing column by Virtual Learning Expert® Jennifer Finan. She’s exploring trends that impact virtual classroom trainers and designers to improve learner engagement in hybrid virtual classroom learning.

Are Brain-Based Activities the Key to Engaging Online Learners?

As virtual training professionals, we know that passive webinars don’t yield the same results as real classrooms where active learning happens. At the same time, we know that online classroom training can be just as effective as, if not more effective than, traditional in-person learning events. We know that the right activities engage learners emotionally, environmentally, and intellectually. Successfully promoting true learning in virtual classrooms means ensuring our learners experience instructionally sound activities based on the latest in brain science.

What Do We Mean by ‘Brain-Based Activities that Work in the Virtual Classroom’ and Why Is It Trending?

Brain-based learning refers to teaching methods based on the “latest scientific research about how the brain learns” according to EdGlossary.org. A quick search uncovers countless articles, books, and academic papers on the subject of how we learn. However, educational neuroscience is still relatively new and there is so much we still do not fully understand about the human brain. This causes some of the information shared to be out of date or based on unreliable research. The result of all this misinformation is numerous learning myths, misconceptions, and, as Clark Quinn calls them, “learning superstitions.” While many of us tried to adapt virtual classroom training to suit different learning styles, we may have incorporated quite a few “learning superstitions” ourselves. How many of us chopped all our training into eight-second chunks because we believed that humans now have an attention span shorter than a goldfish?

Knowing this, how do we design brain-based learning in a virtual classroom? True brain-based learning provides the opportunity for learning transfer, practice, application, and collaboration while still being practical and feasible in the virtual classroom. How do we ensure that we’re using brain-based science and not falling for another myth?

The work of Caine & Caine is based on many disciplines and includes perspectives from science as well as best practice in the industry of education. Their twelve principles give us, as learning professionals, a framework for thinking about the activities we choose to incorporate into our programs.

What Impact Do Brain-Based Activities Have on Learner Engagement?

When virtual classroom design focuses on brain-based activities, it stimulates intellectual engagement. Learners will be able to spot patterns and make connections between the content and their work. They’ll be able to take their previous experiences and build on them with new knowledge and skills learned in the class. However, we know that the dimensions of engagement are all interconnected. When you are intellectually engaging online learners, they are significantly more likely to feel emotionally and environmentally engaged as well.

Although all twelve of Caine & Caine’s principles relate to intellectual engagement, some have obvious benefits on the other dimensions of learner engagement too. Principle two states, "The brain is social." Learners feel like they belong and can contribute without fear of judgment when the right virtual learning strategies are incorporated. These include activities that foster a sense of learning community as well as that nurture emotional engagement by ensuring everyone’s voice is heard. Fostering this environment through proper learning facilitation paves the way for open conversations that enhance learning for all.

Principle eleven says, “Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.” For some learners, the technology itself can feel like a threat. If learners cannot use the technology whether due to limited functionality or limited knowledge, that problem could threaten the overall experience. Our instructional team can put the technology in the background to minimize that threat so that learners can embrace the challenges that are intentionally there to enhance learning.

5 Recommendations for Designing Brain-Based Activities that Work in Virtual Learning Platforms
  1. Do your research. When it comes to understanding brain-based learning, choose your sources wisely. Scrutinize any research so that it appropriately applies to your learners and is a reliable source of information. For example, child education research should have little impact on how you teach adults. 

  2. Don’t skip the debrief! The debrief is where the learning happens. It’s where learners have the opportunity to reflect, consider the content in their contexts, and identify patterns that help them organize their learnings.

  3. Take breaks. As principle eight tells us, “Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.” Allowing time between information and activities allows for better retention of knowledge. 

  4. Ensure the program is inquiry-based. Principle ten states, “Learning is developmental." Accounting for this makes it beneficial to ask learners to consider or share their experiences so that you can build upon what they’ve already learned as new content is introduced.

  5. Balance challenge and threat. Create a psychologically safe space where learners know how to interact with the virtual classroom tools and the others in the class. It also helps to include challenging activities to develop their skills and increase confidence in the content.

What Do Virtual Learning Experts Need to Know about Brain-Based Activities for the Virtual Classroom?

Everyone in the instructional team needs to know the twelve principles of brain-based learning and how they can support them in the virtual classroom design. Everyone on the instructional team also needs to believe that virtual classrooms are real classrooms where real learning can and does take place.

  1. Virtual classroom designers must design with the learning objectives and the learners as the main focus. They must consider how the twelve principles of brain-based learning can be used in their activities, rather than how the technology of the virtual classroom can be used. Designers need to consider the InQuire Engagement Framework too and ensure that they are not only designing to stimulate intellectual engagement but also designing to nurture emotional engagement and foster environmental engagement.

  2. Virtual classroom facilitators need to be able to create a virtual space with the perfect balance of challenge and safety. We know from the InQuire Engagement Framework that learners must feel emotionally engaged and we know from brain research that they need to feel safe. In addition, we know that learning is enhanced by challenges. For this reason, facilitators must also provide learners with opportunities to stretch their skills and try new things as part of the virtual training strategy.

  3. Virtual classroom producers need to be able to keep the technology in the background so that learners and facilitators can focus on the content that the brain-based activities support, rather than the technology being used to deliver them.

  4. Virtual Learning Leaders need to know the impact brain-based activities have on learners so that they can support the instructional team. This allows teams to incorporate brain-based activities into learning in a virtual classroom.

Learn More about Brain-Based Activities for Virtual Classrooms

Master the art of maximizing your learners’ intellectual engagement during virtual classroom learning with brain-based activities that are instructionally sound. Brain-based activities are instructionally sound because they are based on facts about cognition, brain science, and neuroscience.

Learn More: The Brain-Based Virtual Classroom Workshop