Give your brain a break!

Overflow by Paul Quinn Photography

This weekend an online learner wrote to me saying she was feeling a bit overwhelmed with a unit of study.  She’d set aside a day to complete one unit and came away feeling stressed. I know she isn’t alone in trying to do this – catch up with a week’s work in one day. I know I have tried this in the past. I’d like to share what I wrote to her (which she said helped) and then some research that I found today that backed up my suggestions:

Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with me.  Learning online can take some time to adjust to, and I hope you find the following to be useful to you: 

First of all, feeling overwhelmed is a universal experience for online learners. Part of it stems from the fact that in traditional learning settings, work is gradually assigned and spaced out whereas online, all the work is exposed . Our brains are goal-oriented, so when they see a whole pile of work, they want to tackle it all in one session and we end up feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.

When I started learning online I experienced this too, but talked to friends who shared the following advice: to keep from feeling overwhelmed (which I certainly did at times during the first online course I took), develop a strategy of skimming through the unit for the week and look at the readings and assignments, then break up the work into smaller chunks and create mini-assignments spaced throughout the week. As well, doing this at the start of the week helped me to identify any questions I needed to ask the course facilitator or to ensure I had time to learn any new tools I needed to use. 

For instance – for me, Mondays were scoping day, Tuesdays and Thursdays major reading days, Wednesdays were my night to cook, Fridays were social nights, Saturdays I did minor assignments and outlined the major assignment between housework chores and Sundays I’d tackle the major assignment for the week in the morning or afternoon and the other half of the day was free. That way I’d spread 9 hours or so hours of work over multiple days and give my brain a chance to absorb and reflect between sessions. (I’d like to add here that this also worked for courses taking 20 hours per week. I just had less free days…) 

Some weeks were easier than others due to my schedule and the nature of the work, but the “scoping” exercise at the start of each new week helped me feel more in control than when I would try to do an entire unit in a day.

The research I found this morning is Australian I’m happy to report.  Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Joel Pearson (UNSW) has published research findings saying that learners who give their brains a break during the course of learning allow for “wakeful consolidation”. While there are many studies that look at learning consolidation while sleeping, this study found that once you’ve done a certain amount of study, your brain goes into consolidation mode – so trying to push it to do more is not helpful. One hour seemed to be enough.

The study is available for download from the Royal Society of Biological Sciences web site in PDF form or you can download it here: When more equals less -overtraining

Photo “Overflow by Paul Quinn Photography CC (by)