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The closing of schools to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 has placed online education in the limelight. In a time when online classes have become a forceful option, two relevant questions arise: How can students learn remotely, and what are the advantages of online education?

The recent preventive measures against the new coronavirus have shut down schools and suspended in-person classes around the world, leaving teachers and parents with new challenges ahead. Online education may be a temporary solution; however, not necessarily an easy one. In some countries, such as the United States, almost all universities are equipped with proper tools to teach and assess students remotely. However, this practice is not as common in primary and secondary schools, which means that there is limited knowledge both about the effects of distance learning and the best tools and strategies to adopt in these school levels. Let us then see how research can help us make the most of online schooling.

In an article published in 2015, Morton Ann Gernsbacher maintained that online education could be beneficial if it was based on fundamental learning principles. An idea that has been widely accepted.

For example, shorter and more frequent online learning sessions can help students master new concepts. Classic research on memory indicates that frequent spaced repetitions increase learning (Underwood, 1961), a notion that is in line with the idea that practice distributed in time is more beneficial for learning than massed practice (Benjamin & Tullis, 2010). Distributed practice appears to benefit students of all ages (Seabrook, 2005), which means that shorter and more regular classes can favour students’ learning.

Another advantage of online education is the fact that students can choose, within certain limits, when they want to study. This allows them to view a recorded class or study their classroom materials at a time of day that is more beneficial to them. Several studies have shown that attention, memory and comprehension are sharper at different times of day for different people (May, 1999; Natale & Lorenzetti, 1997). Teenagers, in particular, appear to benefit more from learning sessions in the evening, after the traditional end of school day (Kim 2002, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014).

According to Gernsbacher (2015), online education can also help students study topics in greater depth, when compared to regular in-person classes, since they have a plethora of online information immediately at their disposal. The availability of a wide range of information, if properly channelled, can stimulate students’ critical thinking as they must learn to select relevant and accurate information and resort to learning strategies to grasp new concepts. However, teachers’ guidance is crucial to help students develop these skills and harness the potential of Internet technology.

Resorting to videos and videoconferences may help reduce some of the disadvantages of distance learning, by maintaining a certain degree of the much-needed classroom social interaction. Gernsbacher (2015) gives an example of how she involves her students in her online Psychology classes: each student submits approximately 85 posts per semester (the equivalent of a 5-page paper per week, during 15 weeks). Some posts are reviewed by the teacher, but the majority are reviewed by peers. In this way, online education can increase students’ writing output and reading frequency (Gernsbacher, 2014), while also prepare them to write for diverse audiences and enhance their written communication skills. Interestingly, writing for the web appears to improve grammatical and syntactic accuracy (Gaddis et al., 2000).

All these online education benefits are linked with fundamental learning principles. They show how teachers and students can take advantage of a situation that, at first sight, seemed to hinder learning and transform it into the most positive experience possible.

However, let us not deceive ourselves, as online education is not all roses. Several studies have identified the disadvantages of distance learning (e.g., Bettinger et al., 2017). All in all, the need to adopt a distance learning system, even if for a limited time, raises new challenges. When planning their online classes and activities, teachers should try to apply fundamental learning principles (i.e., general principles that are valid in both online and in-person classes) while also trying to maintain their students engaged and motivated. Students, in turn, must learn how to plan their scholar activities and keep a steady workflow more autonomously. Most importantly, in the context of distance learning, both teachers and students must strive to maintain a sense of community and responsibility.


1 If, on the one hand, the abundance of information on the internet can be daunting, on the other, we tend to underestimate how correct this information is - for example, Wikipedia has been at least as correct as the book version of Encyclopedia Britannica (Giles, 2005).

American Academy of Pediatrics, «School start times for adolescents», Pediatrics 134, 2014, pp. 642-649. 

Benjamin, A. S., & Tullis, J., «What makes distributed practice effective?», Cognitive psychology, 61(3), 2010, pp. 228-247.

Bettinger, E. P., Fox, L., Loeb, S., & Taylor, E. S., «Virtual classrooms: How online college courses affect student success», American Economic Review, 107(9), 2017, pp. 2855-75.

Gaddis, B., Napierkowski, H., Guzman, N., and Muth, R., «A Comparison of Collaborative Learning and Audience Awareness in Two Computer-Mediated Writing Environments», 2000.

Gernsbacher, M. A., «Internet-based communication», Discourse processes, 51(5-6), 2014, pp. 359-373.

Gernsbacher, M. A., «Why internet-based education?», Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 2015, 1530.

Giles, J., «Internet encyclopaedias go head to head», Nature 438, 2005, pp. 900-901.

Kim, S., Dueker, G. L., Hasher, L., & Goldstein, D., «Children's time of day preference: age, gender and ethnic differences», Personality and individual differences, 33(7), 2002, 1083-1090.

May, C. P., Hasher, L., & Stoltzfus, E. R., «Optimal time of day and the magnitude of age differences in memory», Psychological Science, 4(5), 1993, pp. 326-330.

Natale, Vincenzo, and Roberta Lorenzetti, «Influences of morningness-eveningness and time of day on narrative comprehension», Personality and Individual differences 23, no. 4, 1997, pp. 685-690.

Seabrook, R., Brown, G. D., & Solity, J. E., «Distributed and massed practice: From laboratory to classroom», Applied cognitive psychology, 19(1), 2005, pp. 107-122.

Underwood, B. J., «Ten years of massed practice on distributed practice», Psychological Review, 68(4), 1961, 229.


Ludmila D. Nunes is the Senior Director for Science Knowledge and Expertise at the American Psychological Association (APA). She holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Lisbon, and has conducted research in human memory and learning at Washington University in St. Louis, Purdue University, and the University of Lisbon. In addition to her research, she has taught classes in Cognitive Psychology and Human Memory at Purdue University, has been a reviewer for several scientific publications, and a science writer.

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