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Numerous strategies can be used to take full advantage of the possibilities that online education allows for, while avoiding the risks it can cause. Richard Clark (2001) emphatically argued that the learning process is generated by the methods of instruction (the strategies), and not the means (online or face-to-face). If the best strategies are used, declines in learning can be avoided.

«Remember, it’s not the vehicle, but the instructional method used that influences achievement», Paul A. Kirshner & Carl Henrick, How Learning Happens, Routledge, 2020

By need or by choice, online learning is becoming more and more common. It can provide some benefits (Gernsbacher, 2015), but it may also have some negative effects (Bettinger et al., 2017). How should the positive effects be maximised, and how should the negative ones be minimised? The answer resides in using the learning strategies that were already identified as the ones which maximise learning in traditional classrooms – namely, by applying the learning strategies that are based on well-established psychological and pedagogical principles.

Retrieval Practice

Retrieving knowledge, which means testing knowledge and reproducing it in different contexts, increases learning in both traditional classrooms (McDaniel et al., 2011) and online classes (Thomas et al., 2018). Preparing quizzes and activities that lead students to practice retrieval should increase learning. However, it is necessary to ensure that students actually retrieve the knowledge from memory while responding to retrieval activities, instead of feeling tempted to use all the information they have available at home and in their computers. But how can that be prevented? Researchers have proposed some solutions. First, and differently from evaluation tests, practice tests should not substantially count for a final grade. Second, in order to motivate students, they can receive credit for simply completing the task. Third, these retrieval activities can be 'evaluated' by the other students; this will both motivate students to complete the tasks, and provide them with another learning opportunity, while they assess their colleagues’ responses. Fourth, it is crucial to give feedback to the students – not necessarily about their individual performance, but about the correct answers.

Spacing and Interleaving

Besides programming tests online, they must be spaced in time and focusing different themes in an interleaved form (Brunmair & Richter, 2019). This can be easily done online: different activities can be programmed so as to become available to students, each of them with a specific time window for its completion.

This strategy is also valid for the way in which the content – the classes – are prepared and “dosed.” It is well known that shorter and more frequent learning sessions tend to increase learning (Underwood, 1961). Thus, preparing short expository videos followed by testing activities should foster more learning than preparing longer expository videos. For instance, if a traditional class was 50 minutes long, the instructor can prepare five videos of 5 minutes each and 5 short and varied activities, and ask students to practice in an interleaved fashion. Whenever possible, the student can even interleave tasks from different courses.

Facilitating active learning and deep processing

Encouraging students to be active towards learning, searching, and interpreting information can foster learning (Prince, 2004). In addition, promoting student autonomy can increase their motivation (Reeve, 2002), which can improve academic performance.
Preparing activities that take advantage of the large quantity of information available on the internet, and of how quickly one can access different sources of information may increase motivation and facilitate active learning, by leading students to make choices. The abundance of information may also be explored to make students research the topics more deeply than they would in a traditional classroom. Yet, the instructor must take some precautions because too much information available may, paradoxically, difficult students’ choices. Therefore, the proposed activities must be structured in a way that may guide students’ choices, and whenever possible the instructor should exemplify how a good internet search may be executed (e.g., using Wikipedia may provide more correct information than a general Google search).

Preparing videos and other media

As mentioned above, short videos and activities should benefit learning. But there are some general principles for the preparation of effective multimedia materials. Richard Mayer (2008) describes a set of principles that can be useful for selecting or creating online activities, expository videos, educational games, or even PowerPoint presentations: coherence, signalling, non-redundancy, spatial contiguity, temporal contiguity, segmentation, previous organisation, and modality (see image below). The application of these principles, which are based on scientific research, allows students to focus their processing abilities on the essential information.

Fostering the sense of belonging and community

This might be one of the biggest challenges in online education. How can a teacher stimulate the sense of community, which is so important for students’ learning and development (Reeve, 2002), while students themselves are working individually, from their homes, and possibly at different paces? Creating interactive online classes is the first step to avoid the lack of social learning aspects in online education. This can be implemented by using virtual projects that require group work and by including brief moments of interaction between instructors and students. The discussion between students should not be eliminated, but rather transferred to online discussion boards, which may even facilitate the participation of students that usually do not participate in more traditional classroom settings. Another solution can be using more informal communication channels, such as Facebook. Other platforms also facilitate communication – Zoom is a free app used for video calls with a maximum length of 40 minutes and 100 users; Flipgrid is another free app that facilitates short discussions in video format (see how the instructor and researcher Pooja K. Agarwal uses Flipgrid for retrieval practice exercises). These are only two examples of free and easy-to-use apps that may facilitate student participation and avoid drastic decreases in the sense of community when classes are transferred from a traditional format to an online format.


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.

Brunmair, M., & Richter, T., «Similarity matters: A meta-analysis of interleaved learning and its moderators», Psychological Bulletin, 145(11), 2019, 1029.

Clark, R., «Learning from Media: Arguments, Analysis, and Evidence», Greenwich, Connecticut: Information Age Publishing, 2001.

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.

McDaniel, M. A., Agarwal, P. K., Huelser, B. J., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger III, H. L., «Test-enhanced learning in a middle school science classroom: The effects of quiz frequency and placement», Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(2), 2011, pp. 399-414.

Mayer, R. E., «Applying the science of learning: Evidence-based principles for the design of multimedia instruction», American Psychologist, 63(8), 2008, 760.

Prince, M., «Does active learning work? A review of the research», Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 2004, pp. 223-231.

Reeve, J., «Self-determination theory applied to educational setting», In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research, University of Rochester Press, 2002, pp.183-203.


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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