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Helping Students Focus With Insights From Learning Science

  • 7 Min Read

Lynn Thomas, secondary school English teacher at the Grand Erie District School Board, explains how a combination of learning science and technology makes her courses more engaging, inclusive and accessible.

Coco Wang
Coco Wang

Customer Advocacy Manager, D2L

topics

As a child, Lynn Thomas thought she wanted to be an architect—but sometime during her school years, she realized that words were her true passion. Her enthusiasm for English and a desire to share the joy of language with others led her to a career in education. And 28 years later, she’s still helping new generations of students develop a love for language and literature. 

Teaching today is a world away from the classrooms of 28 years ago, and Lynn is equally enthusiastic about recent advances in both technology and learning science. As a D2L Champion, Lynn was keen to share how she’s using D2L Brightspace to increase social-emotional learning, reduce cognitive load, improve accessibility and increase engagement with her students. 

From Teacher to Tech Expert 

About seven years ago, our board decided to create a new group called the digital lead learner group, and teachers could volunteer to become the digital lead learner for their school as part of their professional development. I’ve always been interested in technology, so I took on the role and I’ve been part of the group since its inception.  

Throughout that whole period, we’ve been using Brightspace as our learning management system, and one of the most rewarding parts of my role is experimenting and trying out new things with the platform. When D2L introduces something new—like the dynamic elements and templates that our board has recently adopted—I dive right into it, because I love that stuff.  

I’m also passionate about learning science and how we can combine it with technology to make education more accessible, engaging and impactful for our students. 

Lessons From Learning Science 

When you look at how people learn, cognitive load is a huge factor. If you have students learning online, the very act of using a computer to access course content is a big cognitive load. Then, if you have a site where the navigation is confusing or inconsistent, if the pages are cluttered and there’s not enough white space, or if there’s too much going on, the cognitive load gets even heavier. How can you expect students to learn anything when so much of their mental energy is spent on just using the platform? 

As a teacher, you wouldn’t have a classroom where the desks are scattered everywhere, the chairs are all over the place and it’s all chaos. But when you’re teaching online, that course page is your classroom. You need to create an environment that helps students learn rather than working against you to distract and confuse them. 

I think it’s clear that the Brightspace templates have been designed with cognitive load in mind, because they give you a way to organize content in a clear, regular hierarchical structure that’s easy to navigate. They’re designed with consistent white space, they use fonts that are easier to read for students with dyslexia and they’re fully accessible to screen readers.  

The dynamic elements are good for accessibility too. For example, they make it easy to add charts and tables that screen readers can interpret, instead of using an image. And if you do use images, the templates automatically prompt you to provide alt text to ensure that everyone can engage with your content. 

Designing for the Digital World  

My students appreciate the fact that the interface is designed for the digital world they live in. The fact that I can bring in all kinds of videos, multimedia and interactive elements makes the virtual classroom more engaging and exciting. Good design is not a trivial thing, because it sends a message to students: “I value you because I take the time to make sure your classroom looks good.” That feeds into social-emotional learning and building a community with your students too. 

Last year, when we first introduced the new templates and dynamic elements, I was building a brand-new unit based on the book The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole. I used it as my learning curve for the new features and really tried to use every single template and dynamic element I could! I got lots of great feedback from my board and our tech-enabled teacher consultants, but more importantly, my students thought it was pretty cool! 

The thing that really worked was the interactivity. I used flip cards, quiz questions, anything that would make my students realize that they needed to actively engage with the content, instead of just skimming over it.  

That’s another lesson from learning science: As humans, we ignore 90% of the information that’s coming at us, so it’s really important to make sure students are focusing the remaining 10% on what they need to learn. If it’s all just a big block of text, they’ll turn off and shut down. So instead, you need to break it up with “Here, watch this video,” “Here, do this activity,” or “Here, look at this Jumbotron; this is the really important part.” It’s not just for visual appeal—it makes content more accessible and directs students’ focus to keep them engaged. 

Learning That Lives in the Memory 

One other learning science tip that Brightspace can help with is retrieval practice. That’s the idea of getting the mind to transfer information from short-term memory to long-term memory and then trying to retrieve it from long-term memory again at a later point. It’s a really important part of getting what you’re learning to stick. 

What I do is embed quick assessments and tiny little quizzes in the course content to encourage retrieval practice of something we learned earlier in the course. It’s important to link back from the quiz to the original content so students can go there to review it—not only as a self-check of “Did I understand the material?” but also as one to check “Am I remembering it correctly?”  

A couple of my students have specifically commented that they like this approach because it gives them confidence that they are understanding and retaining what they’ve learned. 

Building Communities  

It’s exciting to be a part of the D2L Champions community because I get to see what other people are building with Brightspace and it’s such a good source of ideas. For example, I’ve started using a third-party tool called ThingLink, which makes it really easy to create interactive pictures and maps that you can embed into your Brightspace templates. 

And one thing I’ve seen that I’d love to do is use Brightspace to make an escape room—I think that would just be loads of fun for me and for my students. I love the whole idea of gamifying the course content and turning what might be very dry material into something that really increases students’ energy and engagement levels. 

Finally, I’d love to see more ways to give praise to students in an online scenario. It’s much more difficult to make people feel welcomed and part of a community when you are not all in the same room. Awards and badges might not appeal to everyone, but I think we need some way of showing that we recognize and appreciate student contributions. That positive feedback could go a long way in supporting social-emotional learning and encouraging students to play an active role in their community—whether that’s a physical classroom or online. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Learn More About Our D2L Champions Program 

The D2L Champions program is designed to recognize you as the innovative learning leader that you are. We want to celebrate your achievements, broaden your impact and empower you to shape the future of learning technology. Champions who participate in advocacy activities can earn passes to D2L-sponsored events, creative and advisory services, and more. 

Sign up today and start sharing your experience with D2L. 

Written by:

Coco Wang
Coco Wang

Customer Advocacy Manager, D2L

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Table of Contents
  1. From Teacher to Tech Expert 
  2. Lessons From Learning Science 
  3. Designing for the Digital World  
  4. Learning That Lives in the Memory 
  5. Building Communities  
  6. Learn More About Our D2L Champions Program