A couple weeks ago, the growing number of coronavirus cases on campus resulted in a mass exodus from Bates and some students shifted to remote learning early. Now, the student body has fully returned to online learning with the start of Thanksgiving break. A necessary evil, online learning has many drawbacks in comparison to in-person teaching, particularly pertaining to attention loss, WiFi issues, and home distractions. However, there may be a more fundamental conflict between remote instruction and our brains.
Harvard psychologist William Perry theorized that as college students mature, the way we prefer to learn changes. Most students start at the Dualistic stage where they prefer material to be explained with one completely right answer and no other valid interpretation. Eventually, after passing through the stages of Multiplism and Relativism, where students progressively learn better through considering a variety of equally valid perspectives, our brains prefer Commitment within Relativism where one answer is preferred over others, yet not held supreme. In short, as we age, our preference for being taught binary knowledge decreases.
A normal classroom environment, especially in mixed year courses, partially incorporates all of the different learning perspectives through curriculum design; for example, a teacher might interslice absolutist lectures with group discussions or presentations. Additionally, informal in-class discussions with either the teacher or other students can provide an outlet for students frustrated with the primary mode of instruction. However, given that online learning requires a highly structured platform, there are fewer opportunities for courses to accommodate differences in learning preferences. For example, “using online group collaboration to solve ill-defined problems may work well with upper-level and graduate students, but may lead to unintended distress and have limited effectiveness with freshman” (Evans and Ravert).
In short, online learning is less accommodating to the different psychological preferences brains’ have for effectively understanding information. While there are certainly many objections to this understanding of learning, the model can help explain why certain students struggle with online learning. So next time you are struggling to comprehend what your chemistry professor is saying on an 8 a.m. Zoom call, it might just be that your brain hates the way the course has to be taught.