Have you ever been in the middle of doing something, and something happens and breaks your concentration? Like, I’ll be in the middle of doing homework, and my husband will do something really cool in his video game, and I’ll lose my train of thought, because video games are easier to pay attention to than my homework (especially for this class, and that’s literally happening right this second). Or I’ll be reading something important, and my kid will call me, and I will completely forget the thing I just read, so when I go back to reading it, I’ll have to read it all over again and hope like hell this time it clicks. Sometimes–and this is the really fun part–I’ll have the ability to sit down and just hammer out my work, and I’ll open my computer, read what I have to do for the week, try it a bunch of times and break down in tears because I just. Don’t. Get. It. So trying to pick that topic back up is ridiculously hard.
Apparently, all of these things are researched aspects of cognitive science. The idea of emotions screwing up your work? There was an entire study done regarding the relationship of emotions in psychopathology–essentially, that it doesn’t matter how motivated you are, and it doesn’t matter whether that motivation is internal or external, sometimes emotions just screw you up. Motivation is important to getting things done. Let me open up to you here. But first, here’s a video about motivation (I love these guys!).
I suffer from clinical depression and general anxiety disorder–things I was diagnosed with very early on in my college experience (I think I was about 17?). I have always been an extremely motivated individual–I’ve never needed my parents to bribe me or otherwise motivate me to do well; I do that all on my own. And generally speaking, I’m pretty good when things are challenging, because it means I’m learning something. This class, on the other hand, is ridiculously difficult for me. Like, tears inducing, contemplating quitting the program because I’m obviously not smart enough for this difficult for me. I don’t understand…probably half of what we learn about the first time we read it, and the other half not at all. It doesn’t matter how motivated I am, this class causes a significant amount of anxiety and defeated feelings, which in turn reduces my motivation by an order of magnitude (i.e. I start crying and telling my husband I can’t do this). Crocker et al. (2013) posited that depression and anxiety causes dysfunction in cognitive processing, which then leads to the breakdown of motivation in regards to achieving an end goal; specifically, that “deficits in specific EFs [executive functions] are at least partly responsible for key cognitive, emotion, and motivation features…including cognitive biases [and] motivation-related dysfunction (Crocker et al, 2013, p5). Or, in plain terms, the higher my anxiety gets, the less my brain works, the stupider I feel, the less motivated I am.
This whole idea of internal versus external motivation comes into play a lot in online learning. I see it inside myself, and I see it with my own students–many of whom are in school for the very first time, trying to balance school with work and the full time obligations of taking care of a family. Some of them are working two jobs–many of them are in the military, with all the stress that goes along with that. It doesn’t matter how motivated you are; when life gets in the way, it’s hard to pay attention to the schoolwork you should be doing at that moment. Attention is, essentially, defined as the ability to selectively process information in an environment (Fougnie, 2008). It’s expected that students will be able to pay attention to their work when it’s an online environment.
Realistically, though, as online educators, we need to be aware that life happens, and that will, by default, cause students to pay attention to something else entirely. The goal at that point is to hope that the students’ working memory is strong enough so that when they come back to the work, they remember what they’d learned beforehand. What is working memory? Essentially, working memory is the ability to take what you’ve just read about/done and keep it as something that you’ve learned, something you can refer back to. You can also call this short-term memory, I guess, but it’s not…quite. But, whatever works. There was going to be a picture here, but this video is so much better. (Seriously, the CrashCourse guys are AMAZING).
It’s at this point that you need to consider that students’ working memory is…less than stellar. As a general rule, people only tend to remember things for no more than 20 seconds unless they apply the information in some way (Doolitle, 2013). So, if I’m reading something about attention and memory, and my child calls me away to check her own homework, I have about 20 seconds to apply what I’ve just read so I can recall that information later. Simpler things are, obviously, easier to keep. Harder concepts (like pretty much everything we learn about in this class) are significantly more difficult to apply or keep in mind when jumping from one thing that needs attention back to schoolwork.
The connection between attention and working memory is obvious to me–mostly because my working memory is atrocious. Which might explain why every module I think that my students will absolutely get it this time, and then I’m surprised and somewhat disappointed when they don’t get it. There’s this idea in Making Learning Whole that really clicks for me. Perkins (2009) talks about the ideas of “near transfer” and “far transfer” in regards to how students make connections between information they already know and something I want them to learn. The concept of “bridging,” in which students make deliberate thoughtful connections between two separate concepts, really spoke to me, and caused me to think about how I can connect things that my students already know, or have already learned about, or have read about in current events, with past events (Perkins, 2009). There are also a few insights into how to combat the the concept of presentism, in which people look at historical events through the lens of today’s attitudes and knowledge that will absolutely help me teach smarter, not harder, and not blame the online program or the curriculum for why my students just aren’t getting it.
As a historian, I understand the need to take myself out of 21st century mindsets and attitudes and think about how the events played out for 16th and 17th century people. My students have a very hard time with this, and I’ve been trying to teach them harder. I will own that I sometimes blame the program, as there are places I think it can be improved to help me out with this, but honestly? It’s on me to ask better questions of my students to get them to think outside of a very narrow box that they’ve been living in for quite some time.
I wish I could show you the image in the Perkins book that connects how to teach the trouble spots, and differentiating between blame, focus, and explain (essentially teaching the same way, teaching harder, or teaching smarter). If you’re an educator reading this, and you haven’t read Making Learning Whole by David Perkins, then you’re missing out. It helps give you ideas on how to get your students to perform better in a very personable and easy to read way. I highly, highly recommend it no matter who you are. Maybe you’ll get some ideas too.
Crocker, L. D., Heller, W., Warren, S. L., O’Hare, A. J., Infantolino, Z. P., & Miller, G. A. (2013). Relationships among cognition, emotion, and motivation: implications for intervention and neuroplasticity in psychopathology. Frontiers in Human Neuroscienc, 1-19. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00261
Doolitle, P. (2013, November 22). Peter Doolittle: How your “working memory” makes sense of the world. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/peter_doolittle_how_your_working_memory_makes_sense_of_the_world
Fougnie, D. (2008). The Relationship between Attention and Working Memory. In N. B. Johansen (Ed.), New Research on Short-Term Memory (pp. 1-45). Happauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers. Retrieved from http://visionlab.harvard.edu/Members/darylfougnie/Daryl_Fougnie_%28Academic%29/Home_files/Fougnie-in%20press-chap%201.pdf
Perkins, D. N. (2009). Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.