Not what it seems – counterintuitive ways to learn online better

The picture-perfect online studying setup is one of the many ways to learn (Source:

In this article, we invite you to challenge some common assumptions about digital learning. Some of these ideas might already sound familiar, but as you go through them try to think how could your materials and courses integrate or test these concepts?


Can we go faster, please?


Does your course include lots of lecture-type content? Do you often catch students discreetly yawning out of the corner of your eye?

If you answered yes to both, here are two points to consider. First, turning your lectures into video lectures can be a win-win decision. Your students can watch the videos when it best suits them, they can review the content, pause and take notes, etc, plus you will be able to re-use the video materials in your future courses. But this you probably already noticed.

A second advantage of video lectures is that they are good at adjusting to individual differences in the students’ learning pace. Those who need to take their time, will do it, but those who would otherwise get easily bored, distracted or just skip the lesson altogether, can instead speed up the video and still benefit from the material. A recent paper [1] showed that even doubling up the video speed does not have significantly negative effects on learning, when controlling for language issues and content level.


Now let’s switch OFF our cameras


When you ask your students to switch on their cameras, it is a good idea to ask yourself what exactly are you trying to achieve. Would you maybe like to ensure that you are talking to a real and awake audience? While this is a very valid concern, it also raises the question: what is the added value to the students?

You might have heard before about (and probably recognized yourself in) the concept of “Zoom Fatigue”. The term is used to describe the weariness caused by frequent videoconferencing and it seems to be closely tied to keeping your camera on [2], which increases self-awareness and might actually function as a stressor and distractor rather than as an engagement tactic.

Having the camera on adds in the pressure of self-presentation and limits the freedom that participants have to self-adjust and interact with their own environments, e.g. taking a stretching or walking break mid meeting. “Cams-on” also assumes that people can sustain attention in remote sessions the same manner they would in a live meeting, which is not necessarily true.

There are different ways combat the coldness of all those empty squares in your online meetings. Try asking your students to add pictures to their Zoom profiles – it will not take them more than 1 minute, and it will add a personal feel to the session. You can also invite the students to create “participation rules”, including defining the moments when cameras should be switched on.

A more effective way to keep students’ eyes on the screen (if that is really what you need to achieve your learning outcome) is to give them hooks of interaction along your lecture – quizzes, polling, randomized participation, etc.  If your goal is to enhance motivation by bringing in a social component to your session, breakout room activities are still a better option – a smaller group imposes a lower threshold to show your face and encourages more students to add their inputs to the conversation.

Either way, it is always good to remind the students in the beginning of the session what will be expected of them.


Multitasking is not all bad


When planning a lesson, it is common to assume that the audience will be sitting in front of the screen, taking notes and available to participate at any given point – but, in our own experience as learners and remote workers, we know that uninterrupted online sessions/meetings are not necessarily the rule.

So, if you can’t beat them, join them. Distractions are a nearly inevitable part of online learning and designing materials that demand the students’ focused attention for long stretches of time can be a recipe for frustration. However, not all “distractions” are created equal – movement breaks and other simple physical tasks, such as doodling or performing minor home chores, might in fact enhance the student’s ability to focus on content – and that is probably what they are already doing [3].

Planning course materials that mobilize different learning strategies can give that “breathing space” to the learner. For example, including podcasts and adding the supporting materials as files for consultation to your course, as an alternative to video lectures, will give the students the freedom to have more “walking lectures”.




[1] Murphy, D. H., Hoover, K. M., Agadzhanyan, K., Kuehn, J. C., & Castel, A. D. (2022). Learning in double time: The effect of lecture video speed on immediate and delayed comprehension. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 36( 1), 69– 82.

[2] Shockley, K. M., Gabriel, A. S., Robertson, D., Rosen, C. C., Chawla, N., Ganster, M. L., & Ezerins, M. E. (2021). The fatiguing effects of camera use in virtual meetings: A within-person field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(8), 1137–1155.

[3] Vähäsarja, S., Siirilä, M. (2021). Opiskelijat paljastivat Ylelle, mitä kotona tapahtuu etäluentojen aikana – multitasking on aivotutkijan mukaan aina haitallista, mutta tässä ei ole kyse siitä. Yle.

Author: Veruscka Xavier Filgueira