Brain-Based Online Learning Design

Written by: Rob Kelly
Published On: November 2, 2012

Abreena Tompkins, instruction specialist at Surry Community College, has developed a brain-based online course design model based on a meta-analysis of more than 300 articles. In this study, she distilled the following elements of brain-based course design:How to Implement Brain-Based Learning Strategies in Your Courses

  • Low-risk, nonthreatening learning environment
  • Challenging, real-life, authentic assessments
  • Rhythms, patterns, and cycles
  • Appropriate chunking or grouping
  • Learning as orchestration rather than lecture or facilitation
  • Appropriate level of novelty
  • Appropriately timed breaks and learning periods
  • Purposeful assessments
  • Learning that addresses visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners
  • Active processing with mental models
  • The use of universal examples, analogies, and parallel processing

Tompkins offers the following succinct definition of brain-based: “instructional strategies designed for compatibility with the brain’s propensities for seeking, processing, and organizing information.”

Tompkins’ model uses the acronym IGNITE.

Intervals: Tompkins recommends using an interval of intense focus for approximately 15 to 20 minutes followed by a two- to three-minute break. “Physiologically, your neurons are keen and alert for no more than 20 consecutive minutes. At the end of those 20 minutes, your neurons have gone from full-fledged alert to total collapse, and it takes two to three minutes for those neurons to be completely recovered and back to the total alert state. If you break longer than three minutes, you’ve redirected your attention,” Tompkins says.

Shifting from intense focus need not be a radical change. It can be as simple as posting to a discussion board.

Grouping: Present information in groups of three or five. “The brain can process no more than nine items in a sequence, and it actually does this much more efficiently with three or five. Odd numbers work better than even numbers. If you’re going to give students a list of six things to do, make it one, two, three, whitespace, four, five, six. The brain responds to whitespace because the brain processes things in groups. Students will be better able to focus as they look at this group of information. You’re providing the same amount of content. It just makes it more learner-friendly,” Tompkins says.
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Novelty: When students are bored they tend to not pay attention to information that is present. Tompkins recommends injecting novelty to prevent boredom. “If there’s no announcement to make, post a good joke for the day. If you’ve got a header picture, change it once a week. Insert pictures with each unit. Do something to get their attention. You want students to go in and say, ‘What’s new today?’”

Interconnectedness: Learning needs to be connected to students’ reason for taking the course. Tompkins recommends making these connections by providing experiences and demonstrations and revisiting those experiences. Constant review is essential because people learn through two mechanisms: repetition and connecting to prior knowledge, Tompkins says.

Technology and time: Select the appropriate technology to suit the needs of your students. For example, podcasts may be effective for master’s-level students, but they are not a good choice for teaching developmental-level students. 

It's important to provide enough time for students to process what they’ve learned. “Don’t put so much work in there that there’s no time to process what you’re asking them to learn. I think sometimes instructors fill their courses with all kinds of things that there’s no way students will have time to do everything,” Tompkins says.

Environment: Keep the affective aspects of the online learning environment in mind. Welcome student emails. Understand your learners’ needs.

This model does not require sophisticated high-tech solutions. “It can all be done with a very simple course design,” Tompkins says. “I recommend using visuals all you can because over 90 percent of us are visual learners.”

 Rob Kelly is the editor of Online Classroom. 


This article originally appeared in the newsletter Online Classroom (November 2011): 1, 2. The Online Classroom newsletter helps you stay current with the latest trends in online learning by offering ideas and advice for the new trailblazers in higher education.