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7 Simple Steps to Becoming a Better Virtual Learner

By Grace Chang, Ph.D., and Hilary Hatch Copeland - December 10, 2020

In previous blogs, we focused on what organizations can do to create the best learning opportunities for their learners. We discussed how companies should focus on good content/experience design and facilitation regardless of whether the learning is delivered virtually or in person. COVID has made us change how we conduct learning programs; with everything going virtual these days, what can you do to ensure that you get the most out of learning programs to remain competitive in the current economy? Today, we flip the script to focus on the individual learner.

If you prioritize the learning before, during, and after the learning event, you will get the most out of it and ensure that your time is well-spent. So…how do you do this?


  1. Make physical space for learning.

Pre-COVID, companies often gathered participants in person for critical learning programs. In our “new normal” of virtual learning, it’s critical to set up a space that is conducive to learning. Establish a dedicated, functional area away from distractions and clutter. Furnish it with everything you need to participate in a learning event, such as a comfortable chair, spacious desk area, and appropriate office supplies. You may also want to make your space more aesthetically pleasing by adding plants, your favorite decorative items, and/or warm lighting.

  1. Make mental space for learning.

Neuroscience research has repeatedly shown that you need to pay attention to encode information, or “get it in” in the first place. That seems straightforward, but it’s surprisingly difficult to fully focus your attention when you might be contending with multiple distractions. These tips will set you up for success:

Amp yourself up for the learning. Research shows that people naturally pay more attention, and therefore are more likely to learn, when the learning event is relevant to them. Get excited for the program by thinking about how it fits with your short- and long-term goals. You will be more focused and engaged!

Prevent distractions. Pre-COVID, in-person workshop settings made it easier to focus and take the learning seriously, because it seemed more momentous. You silenced your phone and texts when you were in a big conference room with others. You turned on your out-of-office notifications and informed colleagues that you’d be unavailable during the learning event. And you didn’t allow your kiddos and animals to run around making noise.

Follow the same protocols when you’re learning from home, but amp it up a notch. Because you’ll be on your computer for the learning event, distractions will be more rampant. Close all programs except what you need for the event (yes, this includes email and chat!), and put your phone in the other room. Finally, make child and animal care arrangements. You’ll be amazed at how big the payoff is!


  1. Be deliberately present.

After setting yourself up to be physically and mentally present during the learning event, focus your undivided attention on the program. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is important for focused attention and critical thinking, can only focus well on one conscious thing at a time. If you’re thinking about everything you have to do outside of the learning, you won’t reap the program’s benefits.

If (when!) your attention wanders, bring it back to the program and remember that you carved out time to focus on only the learning. Consider sticking a note on your computer that says “Focus!” or that contains a personal catchphrase that helps you reset.

  1. Actively engage.

Research findings about the “testing effect” show that when people generate information, they are more likely to recall it later than if they simply studied the material. Additionally, people gain more from actively participating rather than passively listening or studying information. Follow these tips:

  • If a facilitator asks a question, put some effort into thinking about it—and then respond!
  • If a facilitator asks participants to quietly reflect, do so. Fight the urge to check your email or phone.
  • If you’re in breakout rooms with other participants, actively work with them. If you have an opportunity to explain a concept, do so.
  • If you’re doing self-study, don’t skip the knowledge quizzes. They aren’t just for evaluation; they actually help you acquire learning.

By being more active in and accountable for your learning, you’ll get more out of the experience.

  1. Take breaks.

Research also shows that regular breaks are critical for optimal prefrontal cortex performance, so it’s important to get away from the computer and take advantage of breaks. If you’re doing self-study, plan ahead to give yourself regular breaks, especially after a period of intense focus or if your focus is waning. Research shows that a short walk or meditation impacts mood and attention; they can help you reset and feel refreshed for the next part of the program. It will be tempting to check emails and texts, but you’ll do your brain a great disservice if you don’t allow it to rest.


  1. Look for opportunities to revisit/apply the learning.

With our everyday busy lives, rushing from one thing to the next, it’s easy to mentally “check the box” once you complete a learning program. However, if you don’t reinforce your learning over time, you will naturally forget much of it.

Learning is more likely to “stick” when you actively apply it in your career and personal life. For example, if you just took a program about project management, consider implementing some tools or principles from it not only at work but also at home. Perhaps you might create a spreadsheet for tracking your family’s budget, or you could use a Kanban board to assign chores.

There are also steps you can take on a broader level to help reinforce learning and reap the long-lasting benefits from the experience:

  • Team up with an accountability buddy. Just like with a new eating or exercise program, an accountability buddy helps you follow through with your commitments, because you don’t want to let them down! Share ideas and feedback with each other as you go along.
  • Write an action plan. Every Monday morning, set a weekly goal around executing on your plan—framing it around how you will use your learning and what you will do to apply it. Every Friday afternoon, record what you did to satisfy your plan.
  • Set up calendar reminders to revisit the learning over time. This capitalizes on the “spacing effect,” the well-established research finding that people are more likely to remember things long term if they reinforce the learning at spaced time intervals. The key is to revisit the material after it’s no longer that fresh in your memory but before you completely forget it.


  1. Optimize your abilities for the long term.

Finally, what you do in your “off time” can also improve both your physical and mental state. In addition to the short-term benefits of taking breaks, the following are good regular practices that lead to long-term benefits:

  • Sleep and nutrition: Getting adequate sleep and balanced nutrition is critical for cognitive functioning.
  • Regular mindfulness practice: According to research evidence, regular mindfulness practice can have a positive impact on attention.
  • Nature: Getting out in nature helps foster creativity.
  • Exercise: Exercise helps ease stress and anxiety.

Different techniques resonate with different people. Find what you enjoy, and you will soon notice the enhancements in your physical and mental state!

As you work toward implementing these seven habits, remember to be kind to yourself! We’re all working and learning during unusual times, and it’s often difficult to separate the demands of work and home life. It’s important to realize how this all impacts our ability to learn, but remember that it’s about learning and improving, not perfection. Anything you can do to apply these tips makes you a better learner and maximizes the value of the time you spend on learning.

Dr. Grace Chang is a cognitive neuroscientist focused on applying research knowledge to the business world. As Chief Scientific Officer for The Regis Company, she is driving initiatives in learning and assessment to enhance their neuroscience-based business solutions.

Hilary Hatch Copeland is an experienced learning designer and project manager focused on building strong client relationships and creatively solving complex client challenges. As a Manager for The Regis Company, she collaborates with the client and team to understand the goals and objectives necessary to execute leadership development solutions.

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