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How to learn effectively from online lectures

Thanks to the current corona pandemic, most lectures are now delivered online. It seems that this is the new normal for a while. There are many advantages to online lectures, as is apparent in the popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs). However, learning from online lectures also provides its own set of challenges and requires a different approach to learning than traditional in-person lectures. In the article, I will share my top tips for learning effectively from online lectures.

Be engaged

Imagine the following scenario: You finally managed to get out of bed around noon. After a leisurely breakfast and a relatively short Netflix session, you remember that you were supposed to study. You put on the video lecture and watch it all the way through. Great, done for the day! Unfortunately, this kind of passive learning is very ineffective. Watching the lecture may make you feel like you learned something, but actually learning from it requires active engagement. According to psychological theory, learning means that you need to change your representation of the world. The most effective way to do this is to activate your current understanding before you start the lecture. For instance, note down what you think about the topic before you start: How does the topic relate to other topics in the course? What is your intuition about the concept that is being taught? How important is the topic for your life, society, the planet? Then, during the lecture note how your initial thoughts may clash with what you hear during the lecture. These moments provide an opportunity for actual learning.

Similarly, many students take copious notes during a lecture. With online lectures, you may even type a verbatim transcript. Having transcribed the lecture, you may think that you have learned what you were supposed to learn. Unfortunately, all the note-taking may prevent you from actually processing the content. While note-taking is a great way to keep your mind from drifting off, learning requires active processing and selection. Online lectures may actually be helpful in this regard. If the lecture is pre-recorded, you can pause the video at any point. For instance, you could focus on the lecture for 10 minutes, then pause the video and summarise the content of that segment in your own words. Alternatively, you can formulate a question at the beginning of a section and then pause the video at the end of the section to write down an answer.

After you watched the lecture, you need to make sure that the new information is well integrated within your own representation of the world. You can experiment with different ways of doing this. For instance, you can identify questions about the content of the lecture and try to answer them without using your notes. If you get stuck, you can review the relevant part of your notes or re-watch part of the lecture. Alternatively, you can try to teach the content of the lecture to someone else (see Feynman technique). In my experience, cats are an excellent audience. Or, you can try to come up with exam questions for the lecture. If you are part of a learning community, you can also engage with others, e.g. via discussion forums or online study groups. Sometimes, it is the most helpful to read questions that other learners have to test your own understanding of the topic.

Be focussed

It is very tempting to drift off during online lectures to just briefly check Twitter, WhatsApp, or Instagram. Perhaps, the lecture seems so boring that you are tempted to put on some music or put on the TV at the same time. Or, perhaps, you put the lecture on in the background while writing an essay that is due next week. This multitasking may seem very efficient, but research shows that it is actually not working well. Humans cannot really multitask. Instead, we are constantly switching our attention. There is a cognitive cost involved when we are trying to switch between very different sources of information. That means that were are not processing each source as deeply and that we are getting more tired because of the additional effort that is required. Consequently, you may not learn much from the lecture, nor get satisfactory entertainment from your distractions. Admittedly, it is challenging to completely devote oneself to a boring lecture when there are so many more interesting or entertaining distractions within easy reach. There are several approaches to this conundrum. You can make it easier to concentrate on the lecture and you can make it harder to get distracted.

Most lectures are quite long, usually between 1 and 2 hours. It is difficult to keep fully focussed for such a long time. Thanks to online lectures, you don’t have to sit through the entire lecture in one go. Short bursts will probably work better. For instance, you could watch 15 minutes, take notes for a few minutes, and then give in to your FOMO for a minute or two. You can use the so-called Pomodoro technique for this (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro\_Technique). Simply set a timer for the time you want to focus, e.g. 15 minutes. During this time, you need to focus and cannot do anything else. When the timer rings, set it for a break duration, e.g. 5 min, and take a breather. You can experiment with the timing to adjust it to your own liking and the task at hand. Timing aside, you can also make it easier to follow the lecture by being actively engaged. You can follow the tips above to improve your engagement.

There are also several ways to reduce distractions that range from the simple to the technologically sophisticated. For a simple solution, put your phone on silent mode and put it away during your study time — use the Pomodoro technique to avoid a complete cold turkey. Then, close all open browser tabs that you won’t need during your study time, i.e. social media, news, sports, and entertainment websites. If you are tempted to open these websites again, log yourself out of the account to make accessing them a little bit harder. If these simple solutions fail, you can install special software that can block websites or apps on your computer and phone for a set period, e.g. ColdTurkey (https://getcoldturkey.com) and Forest (https://www.forestapp.cc).

Hopefully, these tips will help you to get the most of your online learning. If you have tips that you found useful, feel free to add them in the comment below.

I’m a lecturer in psychology specialised in cognitive neuroscience. My research investigated brain development in young people who struggle in school.

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