Erik Peper, PhD and Vietta Wilson, PhD
Adapted from: Peper, E. & Wilson, V. (2021). Optimize the learning state: techniques and habits. Biofeedback, 9(2), 46-49. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-49-2-04
Long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, online learning will continue to increase as better methodologies and strategies are developed to implement and integrate it into our lives. This post provides suggestions on how to enhance the learner’s ability to engage while online with the use of pre-performance routines or habits.
Facilitating online learning requires coordination of the teacher, technology, student, environment and the topic. Teachers can enhance engagement (Shoepe et al., 2020) online through different types of prompts: intellectual (associated with instructor interaction, academic challenge, active learning), organizational (associated with enriching academic experiences by directing students, selecting topics and summarizing or redirecting), and social (associated with supportive campus environments by encouraging social interaction, using informal language and affirming student comments).
The student can enhance the satisfaction and quality of the online experience by having a good self-regulated learning style. Learning is impacted by motivation (beliefs about themselves or the task, perceived value, etc.), and metacognition (ability to plan, set goals, monitor and regulate their behavior and evaluate their performance) (Greene & Azevedo, 2010; Mega et al., 2014). While critical for learning, it does not provide information on how students can maintain their optimized performance long term, which is increasingly necessary during the pandemic but will possibly be the model of education and therapy of the future.
Habit can enhance performance across a life span.
Habit is a behavioral tendency tied to a specific context, such as learning to brush one’s teeth while young and continuing through life (Fiorella, 2020). Habits are related to self-control processes that are associated with higher achievement (Hagger, 2019). Sport performance extensively values habit, typically called pre-performance routine, in creating an ongoing optimized state of performance (Lautenbach et al., 2015; Lidor & Mayan, 2005; Mesagno et al., 2015). Habits or pre-performance routines are formed by repeating a behavior tied to a specific context and with continued repetition, wherein the mental association between the context and the response are strengthened. This shifts from conscious awareness to subconscious behavior that is then cued by the environment. The majority of one’s daily actions and behaviors are the results of these habits.
Failure to create a self-regulated learning habit impedes long-term success of students. It does take significant time and reinforcement to create the automaticity of a real-life habit. Lally et al. (2010) tracked real world activities (physical activity, eating, drinking water) and found habit formation varied from 18-254 days with a mean of 66 days. There was wide variability in the creation of the habit and some individuals never reached the stage of automaticity. Interestingly, those who performed the behavior with greater consistency were more likely to develop a habit.
The COVID pandemic resulted in many people working at home, which interrupted many of the covert habit patterns by which they automatically performed their tasks. A number of students reported that everything is the same and that they are more easily distracted from doing the tasks. As one student reported:
After a while, it all seems the same. Sitting and looking at the screen while working, taking classes, entertaining, streaming videos and socializing. The longer I sit and watch screens, the more I tend to feel drained and passive, and the more challenging it is to be present, productive and pay attention.
By having rituals and habits trigger behavior, it is easier to initiate and perform tasks. Students can use the strategies developed for peak performance in sports to optimize their performances so that they can achieve their personal best (Wilson & Peper, 2011; Peper et al., 2021). These strategies include environmental cueing and personal cueing.
By taking charge of your environment and creating a unique environment for each task, it is possible to optimize performance specific for each task. After a while, we do not have to think to configure ourselves for the task. It is no different than the sequence before going to sleep: you brush your teeth and if you forget, it feels funny and you probably will get up to brush your teeth.
Previously, many people, without awareness, would configure and reinforce themselves for work by specific tasks such as commuting to go work, being at a specific worksite to perform the work, wearing specific clothing, etc. (Peper et al., 2021). Now there are few or no specific cues tied to working; it tends to be all the same and it is no wonder that people feel less energized and focused.
Many people forget that learning and recall are state-dependent to where the information was acquired. The Zoom environment where we work or attend class is the same environment where we socialize, game, watch videos, message, surf the net and participate in social media. For most, there has been no habit developed for the new reality of in-home learning. To do this, the environment must be set up so the habit state (focused, engaged) is consistently paired with environmental, emotional, social and kinesthetic cues. The environment needs to be reproducible in many locations, situations, and mental states as possible. As illustrated by one student’s report.
To cue myself to get ready for learning, I make my cappuccino play the same short piece of music, wear the same sweater, place my inspiring poster behind my screen, turn off all software notifications and place the cell phone out of visual range.
A similar concept is used in the treatment of insomnia by making the bedroom the only room to be associated with sleep or intimacy (Irish et al., 2017; Suni, 2021). All other activities, arguing with your partner, eating, watching television, checking email, texting, or social media are done at other locations. Given enough time, the cues in the bedroom become the conditioned triggers for sleep and pleasure.
Create different environments that are unique to each category of Zoom involvement (studying, working, socializing, entertaining).
Pre COVID, we usually wore different clothing for different events (work versus party) or visited different environments for different tasks (religious locations for worship; a bar, coffee shop, or restaurant for social gathering). The specific tasks in a specified location had conscious and subconscious cues that included people, lighting, odors, sound or even drinks and food. These stimuli become the classically conditioned cues to evoke the appropriate response associated with the task, just as Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate when the bell sound was paired with the presentation of meat. Taking charge of the conditioning process at home may help many people to focus on their task as so many people now use their bedroom, kitchen or living room for Zoom work that is not always associated with learning or work. The following are suggestions to create working/learning environments.
- Wear task-specific clothing just as you would have done going to work or school. When you plan to study or work, put on your work shirt. In time, the moment you put on the work shirt, you are cueing yourself to focus on studying/working. When finishing with working/studying, change your clothing.
- If possible, maintain a specific location for learning/working. When attending classes or working, sit at your desk with the computer on top of the desk. For games or communication tasks, move to another location.
- If you can’t change locations, arrange task-specific backgrounds for each category of Zoom tasks. Place a different background such as a poster or wall hanging behind the computer screen—one for studying/working, and another for entertainment. When finished with the specific Zoom event, take down the poster and change the background.
- Keep the sound appropriate to the workstation area. Try to duplicate what is your best learning/working sound scape.
Learning to become aware of and in control of one’s personal self is equally or more important than setting up the environment with cues that foster attention and learning. Practicing getting the body/mind into the learning state can become a habit that will be available in many different learning situations across one’s lifespan.
- Perform a specific ritual or pre-performance routine before beginning your task to create the learning/performing state. The ritual is a choreographed sequence of actions that gets you ready to perform. For example, some people like to relax before learning and find playing a specific song or doing some stretching before the session is helpful. Others sit at the desk, turn off all notifications, take a deep breath then look up and state to themselves: “I am now looking forward to working/studying and learning,” “focus” (whatever it may be). For some, their energy level is low and doing quick arm and hand movements, slapping their thighs or face, or small fast jumps may bring them to a more optimal state. For many people smell and taste are the most powerful conditioners, and coffee improves their attention level. Test out an assortment of activities that get your body and mind at the performance level. Practice and modify as necessary.
Just as in sport, the most reliable method is to set up oneself for the learning/performance state, because a person has less control over the environment. For example, when I observed the Romanian rhythmic gymnasts team members practice their routine during the warmup before the international competition, they would act as if it was the actual competition. They stood at the mat preparing their body/mind state, then they would bow to the imaginary judge, wait for a signal to begin, and then perform their routine. On the other hand, most of the American rhythmic gymnasts would just do their practice routine. For the Romanian athletes, the competition was the same as their rehearsal practice. No wonder, the Romanian athletes were much more consistent in their performance. Additionally, ritual helps buffer against uncertainty and anxiety (Hobson et al., 2017).
- Develop awareness of the body-mind state associated with optimum performance. This can be done by creating a ritual and an environment that evoke the optimum mental and emotional state for learning. As you configure yourself and your environment, explore how you physically feel when you are most focused and engaged. Identify what your posture, muscle tension, and body position feel like during these times, and identify what you are paying attention to. If your attention wanders, observe how you bring your attention back to the task. Does it help focus you to write summary notes or doodle? Do you flag important statements in your head and then visibly nod your head when you understand the concept? Or do you repeat an important cue word? Find what you do when you are optimally functioning. Then try to reproduce that same state that can be triggered by a key word that tells you what to focus on (e.g., listen to teacher, look at slide, etc.).
In summary, by becoming aware of and controlling one’s environment and personal states that are associated with productive learning, and then practicing them until they become a routine or habit, one can maximize all learning opportunities. This blog presented a few tips, techniques and cues that may help one to maximize attention and increase performance and learning while online.
I noticed when I took the time to prepare and ready myself to be focused and be present during the class, I no longer had to actively work to resist distractions; I was focused in the moment and not worried about emails, other assignments, what to make for dinner, etc…
Findlay-Thompson, S. and Mombourquette, P. (2014). Evaluation of a Flipped Classroom in an Undergraduate Business Course. Business Education & Accreditation, v. 6 (1), 63-71.https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2331035
Fiorella, L. (2020). The science of habit and its implications for student learning and ell-being. Educational Psychology Review, 32,603–625. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-020-09525-1
Greene, J. A., & Azevedo, R. (2010). The measurement of learners’ self-regulated cognitive and metacognitive processes while using computer-based learning environments. Educational Psychologist, 45(4), 203–209. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2010.515935
Hagger, M. S. (2019). Habit and physical activity: Theoretical advances, practical implications, and agenda. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 42, 118–129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2018.12.007
Hobson, N. M., Bonk, D., & Inzlicht, M. (2017). Rituals decrease the neural response to performance failure. PeerJ, 5, e3363. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3363
Irish, L. A., Kline, C. E., Gunn, H. E., Buysse, D. J., & Hall, M. H. (2015). The role of sleep hygiene in promoting public health: A review of empirical evidence. Sleep medicine reviews, 22, 23–36. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2014.10.001
Lally, P., VanJaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How habits are formed: Modelling habit formation the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998–1009. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674
Lautenbach, F., Laborder, S. I., Lobinger, B. H., Mesagno, C. Achtzehn, S., & Arimond, F. (2015). Non automated pre-performance routine in tennis: An intervention study. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 27(2), 123-131. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2014.957364
Lidor, R. & Mayan, Z. (2005). Can beginning learners benefit, from pre-performance routines when serving in volleyball? The Sport Psychologist 19(4), 243–263. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.19.4.343
Mega, C., Ronconi, L., & De Beni, R. (2014). What makes a good student? How emotions, self-regulated learning, and motivation contribute to academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 121–131. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033546
Mesagno, C., Hill, D. M., & Larkin, P. (2015). Examining the accuracy and in game performance effects between pre- and post-performance routines: A mixed methods study. Psychology of Sort and Exercise, 19, 85–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2015.03.005
Peper, E., Wilson, V., Martin, M., Rosegard, E., & Harvey, R. (2021). Avoid Zoom fatigue, be present and learn. NeuroRegulation, 7(1).
Shoepe, T. C., McManus, J. F., August, S. E., Mattos, N. L., Vollucci, T. C. & Sparks, P. R. (2020). Instructor prompts and student engagement in synchronous online nutrition classes. American Journal of Distance Education, 34, 194–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923647.2020.1726166
Suni, E. (2021). Sleep Hygiene. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-hygiene.
Wilson, V. E. & Peper, E. (2011). Athletes are different: factors that differentiate biofeedback/neurofeedback for sport versus clinical practice. Biofeedback, 39(1), 27–30. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-39.1.01
Erik Peper and Amber Yang
“Instead of zoning out and being on my phone half the time. I felt more engaged in the class and like I was actually learning something.” -21 year old college student
Before the pandemic, roughly, two-thirds of all social interactions were face-to-face—and when the shelter-in-place order hit our communities, we were all faced with the task of learning how to engage virtually. The majority of students reported that taking online classes instead of in person classes is significantly more challenging. It is easier to be distracted and multitask online—for example, looking at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, texting, surfing the internet, responding to notifications, listening to music, or drifting to sleep. Hours of watching TV and/or streaming videos have conditioned many people to sit and take in information passively, which discourages them from actively responding or initiating. The information is rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appears. Effectively engaging on Zoom requires a shift from passively watching and listening to being an active, creative participant.
Another barrier to virtual engagement is that communicating online does not engage all senses. A considerable amount of our communication is nonverbal—sounds, movement, visuals, physical structures, touch, and body language. Without these sensory cues, it can be difficult to feel socially connected on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet to sustain attention and to focus especially if there are many people in the class or meeting. Another challenge to virtual learning is that without the normal environment of a classroom, many students across the country are forced to learn in emotionally and/or physically challenging environments, which gets in the way of maintaining attention and focus. The Center for Disease Prevention (CDC) reported that anxiety disorder and depressive disorder have increased considerably in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic (Leeb et al, 2020; McGinty et al, 2020). Social isolation, stay-at-home orders, and coping with COVID-19 are contributing factors affecting mental health especially for minority and ethnic youth. Stress, anxiety and depression can greatly affect students’ ability to learn and focus.
The task of teaching has also become more stressful since many students are not visible or appear still-faced and non-responsive. Teaching to non-responsive faces is significantly more stressful since the presenter receives no social feedback. The absence of social feedback during communication is extremely stressful. It is the basis of Trier Social stress test in which a person presents for five minutes to a group of judges who provide no facial or verbal feedback (Allen et al, 2016; Peper, 2020).
The Zoom experience especially in a large class can be a no win situation for the presenter and the viewer. To help resolve this challenge, we explored a strategy to increase student engagement and reduce social stress of the teacher. In this exploration, we asked students to rate their subjective energy level, attention and involvement during a Zoom conducted class. For the next Zoom class, they were asked to respond frequently with facial and body expressions to the presentation. For example, students would expressively shake their head no or yes and/or use facial expressions to signal to the teacher that they were engaged and listening. Other strategies included giving thumbs up or thumbs down, making sounds, and changing your body posture as a response to the presentation. Watch the superb non-judgmental instructions adapted for high school students by Amber Yang.
When college students purposely implement and increase their animated facial and body responses by 123% during Zoom classes, they report a significant increase in frequency of animation (ANOVA (F(1,70) = 30.66, p < .0001), energy level (ANOVA (F(1,70) = 28.96, p < .0001), attention (ANOVA (F(1,70) = 16.87, p = .0001) and involvement (ANOVA (F(1,69) = 10.70, p = .002) as compared just attending normally in class (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Change in subjective energy, attention and involvement when the students significantly increase their facial and body animation by 123 % as compared to their normal non-expressive class behavior (Peper & Yang, in press).
“I never realized how my expressions affected my attention. Class was much more fun” -22 year old college student
“I can see how paying attention and participation play a large role in learning material. After trying to give positive facial and body feedback I felt more focused and I was taking better notes and felt I was understanding the material a bit better.” –28 year old medical student
These quotes are a few of the representative reports by more than 80% of the students who observed that being animated and responsive helped them to stay present and learn much more easily and improve retention of the materials. For a few students, it was challenging to be animated as they felt shy, self-conscious and silly and kept wondering what other students would think of them.
Having students compare two different ways of being in Zoom class is a useful assignment since it allows students to discover that being animated and responsive with facial/body expression improves learning. So often we forget how our body impacts our thoughts and emotions. For example, when students were asked to sit in a slouched position, they reported that it was much easier to recall hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories and more difficult to perform mental math in the slouched position. While in the upright position it was easier to access positive empowering memories and easier to perform mental math (Peper et al, 2017; Peper et al, 2018).
Experience how body posture affects emotional recall and feeling (adapted from Alda, 2018).
1) Stand up and configure your body in a position that signals defeat, hopelessness and depression (slouching with the head down). While holding this position, recall a memory of hopelessness and defeat. Notice any negative emotions that arise from this.
2) Shift and configure your body into a position that signals joy, happiness and success (standing tall, looking up with a smile). While holding this position, recall a memory of joy and happiness. Notice any positive emotions that arise from this.
3) Configure your body in a position that signals defeat, hopelessness and depression (slouching with the head down). While holding this position, recall a joy, happiness and success. Do not change your body position. End this configuration after holding it for a little while.
4) Shift and your body in a position that signals joy, happiness and success (standing tall, looking up with a smile). While holding this position, recall a memory of hopelessness and defeat. Do not change your body position. End this configuration after holding it for a little while.
When body posture and expression are congruent with the evoked emotion, it is almost always easier to experience the emotions. On the other hand, when the body posture expression is the opposite of the evoked emotion (e.g., the body in a positive empowered stance while recalling hopeless defeated memories) it is much more difficult to evoke and experience the emotion. This same concept applies to learning. When slouching and lying on the bed while in a Zoom class, it is much more difficult to stay present and not drift off. On the other hand, when sitting erect and upright and actively responding to the presentation, the body presence/posture invites the brain to focus for optimized learning.
In a Zoom environment, it is easy to slouch, drift away, and become non-responsive—which can exacerbate zoom fatigue symptoms and also decrease our capacity to learn, focus, and feel connected with the people around us. Take charge and actively participate in class by sitting up, maintaining an empowered posture, and using nonverbal facial and body expressions to communicate. The important concept is not how you show your animation, but that you actively participate within the constraints of your own limitations. For example, if a person is paralyzed the person will benefit if they do the experience internally even though their body may not show any expression. By engaging our soma we optimize our learning experience as we face the day-to-day challenges of the pandemic and beyond.
I noticed I was able to retain information better as well as enjoy the class more when I used facial-body responses. At times, where I would try to wonder off into bliss, I would catch myself and try to actively engage in the class with body movements even if there is no discussion. Animated face/body was a better learning experience. –21-year old college student.
Leeb, R.T., Bitsko, R,H,, Radhakrishnan. L., Martinez, P., Njai, R., & Holland, K.M. (2020). Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep, 69,1675–
McGinty, E.E., Presskreischer, R., Anderson, K.E., Han, H., &Barry, C.L. (2020). Psychological distress and COVID-19–related stressors reported in a longitudinal cohort of US adults in April and July 2020. JAMA. Published online November 23, 2020.
Peper, E., Wilson, V.E., Martin, M., Rosengard, E., & Harvey, R. (unpublished). Avoid Zoom fa