How Can Students Best Synthesizing Learning Online

Recognizing there’s still a gulf between learning materials and actual educational experience, EduCast speaks with teachers about how to drive the most effective learning.

As web-based learning is both increasing in popularity and usability, so are its sometimes obvious problems. Some digital platforms are too difficult to navigate and find, and others provide little context about the material. How can students best getting an idea of where they should start and what they are studying?

Young people can sometimes get lost in coursework, which they often have little time for, and are not used to entering tasks that require cooperation or fact-finding. Additionally, users might lack accurate readings about a field of study to guide their research, as many of the online studies they see must be the sites of an instructor and not a textbook, translating into a very different learning experience than a traditional class.

How students learn best

In 2008, Jeffrey J. Charnas, a professor at Harvard Business School, studied the reasoning behind the results of Harris Interactive’s National Survey of Students’ Knowledge of College and Career Skills and showed that more than 70 percent of all workers fail to gain marketable skills, and that the most effective way to cultivate such skills was to view educational materials. The study was controversial because, while having a useful course of study can help cultivate useful skills, it requires a thorough understanding of the material, not to mention a great amount of time to accomplish that goal. Students who get their coursework done faster typically fail at the aforementioned tasks the least, by demonstrating a better comprehension of the material.

“My students always want to enter and finish their courses, and since we have pretty average grades, students would often send me an email saying they want to read more and I should be here teaching,” said Charnas. “If you were to ask me now if the time allotted for a college course was appropriate, I’d say no. But I’m a member of the behavioral sciences’ framework of differentiated instruction; students are asked to finish the course, but have to read what they should understand before they complete the course. So it actually works.”

Best ways to learn

Taking the time to study isn’t a bad thing, but spending all your effort focusing on getting a solid grade can make for a tough learning experience. Students sometimes might do best by getting much more information into their heads first.

When Charnas first looked at his findings, students were sending him simple web pages to be studied. But allowing students to immerse themselves in the material before they started their classwork gave them a more efficient experience overall. Charnas advised that students should focus on the information before they started studying it, especially in case an additional thought may be relevant.

The five steps of effective learning:

It’s good to let students get initial information about a subject, because it helps them begin to discover what kind of material will be useful.

Not all information can be processed by the brain. Not every thought is useful, so it might be better for a student to scan first before adding more reading into the equation.

Students can gauge what kind of information is available in advance through the results of consumer market research, so they can make a good choice based on that information.

Students need to absorb as much of the material before they begin a class and continue to digest more as necessary. This can be achieved by reading the material first.

In classes that require students to learn independently, knowing an important fact or a valuable insight will provide students with the context needed to enable them to succeed.

So where should students be focusing their attention and effort when they begin learning? Charnas mentioned having students take the time to absorb pages of a textbook during class. These students might not be given the time to brush up on all the material, but if they spend a large amount of time reading before class, they will usually be able to fill out the coursework.

Once the documents are complete, students can then work on integrating the information into their overall learning plan. Charnas also offers students one of his most valued tools, the HyperTextured Reading Index, which charts the flow of text in a book to help students see how much material they have already read, how much more is needed to fill in the details, and how much reading still needs to be done.

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