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How Brain Modes Affect Online Learning

How brain modes affect online learning

Why does it matter how the brain works? I should be able to create the steps to learn something and my online course is done, right?

When I first began teaching, I started out teaching steps. I would lose students’ attention halfway through. I was doing something wrong. But I couldn’t figure out what.

I shortened my lessons and sprinkled in activities, like reflection and brainstorming, but I still wasn’t getting the results I needed. I felt like I was doing my students a disservice.

Then I learned how to learn. Seriously. I took a course and learned how to learn. If I had known some of this stuff when I was first teaching, I could have helped so many more students!

The one bit I learned right off that helped me turn my classes around is that the brain has two modes, focused and diffuse. Those two modes changed everything for me. This post shows you how to take advantage of this information.

Our Brain Has Two Modes

Our brains have a single switch. We are either in focused mode or diffuse mode.

How Focused Mode Affects Learning

Focused mode is when we are intently focused on something, like taking a course, following a recipe, or reading. This is the mode our brain is in when we’re learning something new.

Focused mode is one of our two brain modes. It's where we are concentrating on something, like learning new material
Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Focused mode uses working memory. That is the memory in the front of your brain. It’s temporary and it can hold about four pieces of information at a time. That’s not a lot.

If you try to fit a fifth piece of information into your working memory that is not connected to the other four pieces, you run the risk that one of your other four will drop off without having time to get into long-term memory. This is where I was going wrong when teaching my classes. I was putting too much information in one lesson and students were on overload. There was no processing time.

Focused mode is not something our brain can do continuously. It’s exhausting.

When I was studying for a certification exam recently, I watched video after video trying to fit in all the material around my day job. There was one section where I hit a brick wall. The material was new to me, networking in the cloud, and I couldn’t seem to wrap my head around it. I felt incapable and frustrated. I decided that was enough learning for the night and went to bed. And that’s when diffuse mode kicked in.

Our brains can handle only so much of focused mode before it needs a break. Staying too long in focused mode can hurt your learning.
Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

How Diffuse Mode Affects Learning

Diffuse mode is when we are thinking about other things, daydreaming, or sleeping. This is where autopilot lives. I know that I do some stuff on autopilot, like driving, and my brain is thinking about other things.

Diffuse mode is not distracted. Distracted is losing focus. Diffuse mode is not trying to focus but letting the mind wander while you do something familiar, like washing dishes.

Diffuse mode is the brain mode where we are doing something familiar. The brain is using paths it knows well, so it's able to work on other things, like making connections between new information and old.
Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash

In diffuse mode, the brain is working hard making connections in the background. It’s moving knowledge from working memory to long-term memory. That’s super important to learning

Have you ever worked hard on a problem that you just couldn’t figure out? Then you get up out of frustration, go do something else and bam! the answer pops into your head when you’re not thinking about it? That’s what diffuse mode is good for.

If you don’t give your brain a break from focused mode, what you’re learning doesn’t get a chance to get moved to long-term memory. This is why your course design is so important.

That night that I was having trouble understanding a concept, I went to bed having just watched a series of videos that I didn’t really understand. That made that networking information the most recent thing in my working memory as I slept. The next evening, I was bound and determined to understand the information, so I watched the videos again from the beginning. It was like night and day. I couldn’t even remember why I was having trouble with it. I understood it all clearly.

Diffuse brain mode allows our brains to make connections for us while we are doing other things.
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I don’t know if it was too much focus or reviewing the material before I went to bed, but diffuse mode came to my rescue.

Diffuse mode is crucial for all learning. But it may be one of the harder strategies to get your students to use in an online course. This is because there is no one to stop them from continuing on as long as they like.

Using Focused and Diffuse Modes in Your Course Design

When you’re developing your online course, build in activities that get the learner away from long bouts of absorbing content. Assign an activity that is physical or that requires a night’s sleep.

For example, if you’ve been teaching about design, you may have your students collect photographic examples of a specific type of design before they can move on to the next section. That may take a couple of hours, or a day or two. Make sure the next section depends on the photographs (or your chosen activity). If you don’t, students may decide they can skip the activity altogether.

That is one way you can take advantage of diffuse mode in your students without them having much choice in the matter.


Want more information on designing for online courses? Check out my post What’s the difference between online classes and traditional classes? for five important differences and how to handle them when creating an online course.

If you want to learn more about learning, I recommend the Coursera course Learning How to Learn. It’s one of the best courses I’ve ever taken, online or traditional.


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Want help creating an online course or have a course you want to be reviewed? I’d be happy to talk with you to see if I can help. Contact me for more info.

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