When the pandemic struck in March, teaching in business schools moved from horseshoe-shaped classrooms to a rectangular Zoom screen. While professors struggled to master the new technology, students tried to stay engaged. Now online teaching seems to have become an important part of life at business school — at least for now.
In 1983, the educational psychologist Richard E Clark studied evidence about computer-based learning and concluded “that media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition”. More than 30 years later, Will Thalheimer took another look at the evidence and came to the same conclusions: students seem to learn just as much online as in the classroom.
Although many people are upbeat about online learning, students’ experiences are very different. Students say they miss out on the social interaction they get in the class and the informal encounters that happen after a lecture. Karel Kreijns from the Open University of the Netherlands found that when working online, students struggled more to socially interact with other class members. Educationalists also know, historically, students are much less likely to complete online courses than those in class. Often people taking online courses can feel isolated and lonely, which make it difficult, given the demands in the rest of a student’s life.
When students struggle with online courses, they fall back on routines such as restudying a textbook and underlining important passages. Although these might make them feel they are familiar with the material, researchers have found this is the least effective way to learn. Fortunately, there are some specific study habits that the evidence shows will help students to get much more out of online education.
While online learning may offer greater flexibility, don’t let that seduce you into putting things off until the last minute. Rather, work on your module as soon as it opens. When the University of Michigan’s Le Quan Nguyen examined clickstream data, he found the most successful students were usually the ones who started early. In the world of online learning, it seems the early bird gets the worm. This is because learning takes time — not only to study, to practise, and re-practise, but also to rest.
Instead of restudying videos and books, put them away and write a paragraph about what you just learnt. Or map out how ideas relate to each other. The memory researchers Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke have found students who tested themselves from memory outperformed those who just restudied material that they had already covered. Although it may feel strange starting this habit, you will remember more and have a more realistic sense of how much you know.
While you are listening to a video or webinar, it’s best to make notes with pen and paper. Princeton’s Pam Mueller and Carnegie Mellon’s Daniel Oppenheimer found when people took notes using a computer, they often just transcribed the content. When they took notes by hand, they paraphrased what they heard. This meant they had to process what they learnt more deeply, making it more likely they would remember it. The other advantage of using pen and paper is that you are less likely to get distracted.
While listening to a lecture, it’s easy to think you can check your social media feeds without missing much. In fact, a study of students at Westpoint Military Academy found students who used laptops while studying had “non-course related software open and active” 42 per cent of the time. It turns out such multitasking is harmful to our learning and the students who had lots of distractions tended to perform worse academically. Nearly 100 years ago, the psychologist Arthur Jersild found humans are poor at multitasking, particularly when it comes to complex activities such as learning. UCL’s Simon Li found even just pausing while doing a task reduces our chances of completing it.
Not being in a classroom might make it seem more awkward to ask questions. But researchers have found that questions not only help to clarify things you don’t understand, but also enable you to make connections. A study published in the Applied Cognitive Psychology found people who asked questions about facts while studying them were more likely to remember them when tested. To harness that power, students learning online can question themselves — and their peers via the chat-function. Even just posing a question helps.
Students often see drawing as a distraction. Creating diagrams and infographics are a great tool to help you to learn. Cognitive scientists have long known our working memory can process through two channels. One takes in semantic information such as words, and the other visual information. If you can get words and images working together, it gives you two ways to remember what you have learnt. This adds up to what the educational psychologists Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neelen call “double-barrelled learning”.
Develop the right habits
Working in your bedroom instead of in the classroom can be hard. You may miss the social interaction but if you develop some of the right habits, it means you will not miss much of the learning. Just like any transition, one of the hardest things is building those habits and ensuring they stick.
There are a couple of easy ways you can do this. One is planning to do the right thing. Before you study, identify what you are going to do. Once you begin to study, you don’t have to think too much, you just follow the plan. Secondly, think about your environment. Get rid of potential distractions and make sure what you need is within reach. Finally, have someone to hold you to account. You could get a study-buddy who you check in with to see where you have been doing well, and where you could improve. Having that support can help keep you driven even when things seem hard.
Leonard Houx is senior instructional designer at The Business School (formerly Cass). André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at The Business School