The Body in Online Learning

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session Best in Track

Brief Abstract

Learning occurs through the medium of the body. Explore the neuroscience of how learning is embodied, and find out why you should care! Learn how professors who teach online can integrate experiential and body based practices in math, science, psychology, business and liberal studies courses. Leave with resources for faculty.  


Dr. Laura Douglass is currently serving as Dean of Professional Studies at the Van Loan School at Endicott College. She currently works with faculty to integrate the body into their Criminal Justice, Liberal Studies, Psychology, and Business Management courses. She is dedicated to learning, the body and enhancing the experience of online learning for students and faculty. Her publications can be found in Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice, Journal of Online Education and Religion & Education among others.

Extended Abstract

Learning occurs through the medium of the body. This concept has gained gradual acceptance in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, business and education. Higher education’s embrace of the body is felt in the increased use of experiential and internship based projects. Yet, in the last decade the body can be seen as a key pedagogical tool that enhances course design, and more importantly, enhances student engagement across diverse curriculum (Adams & van Manen, 2006; Cohen, 2006; Counihan, 2007; Dall'Alba & Barnacle, 2005; Duvall et al., 2007; Shapiro, 1999; Sinclair, 2005). This presentation will explore the neuroscience on how learning is embodied, and how professors of online classes can capitalize on and excel in integrating experiential and body based practices.

Most educators would agree that they are committed to facilitating the learning process and that their curriculum reflects their unconscious and conscious assumptions about how learning best occurs. Most educators would also agree that while the bodies of our students are present, they are often unengaged. Whether in online or face-to-face classes, the body is often treated as an “accessory to a crime, like the restless body of a hyperactive student, or the listless posture of a sleeping, bored or exhausted student” (Peters et al., 2004, p. 171). In online learning the body can be disengaged, absent or captured only in the fleeting image of a profile picture, video chat or on conferencing features such as Big Blue Button. Participants will learn why the bodies of their students matter and how to most effectively integrated embodied learning into all aspects of your classes.

Every educator is intuitively aware that the state of the body directly affects learning. For example, we know that a malnourished student will have difficulty concentrating; a student in chronic pain may find their ability to connect with other students in the class diminished. Bodily well-being directly affects our thoughts and ability to successfully engage in learning. While we are intuitively aware of this process, many educators are less familiar with exactly how the body’s neurobiology can be used to enhance learning and concentration in the classroom.  

Central to embodied education is the idea that learning is heavily dependent on “the ability of normal individuals to take in sensory information derived from the environment and from movement of their bodies, to process and integrate these sensory inputs within the central nervous system, and to use this sensory information to plan and organize behavior” (Fisher, Murray, & Bundy, 1991, p. 4).  Sensorimotor approaches to learning challenge the idea that the brain is the only part of us that gathers and processes information. Bodily sensations are now known to influence our cognitive decision making and thought processes (Damasio, 1999).

Professors may stay focused on content based methods of imparting knowledge – in part because the educational community is just beginning to think through the body. At the Van Loan School in Endicott College we attempt to integrate the body in as many classes as possible. In “American Court Systems” students literally attend a court room in their city and write up a case study. In “Addiction and Society” students attend an AAA or NA meeting in their local neighborhood to understand the value of community in treatment. Science classes integrate labs from our E-science partner to get a felt sense of the tools of forensics and microbiology. Statistics professors integrate hands on activities using bags of M & Ms to understand general distribution. We have found that as we encourage professors to tend to the body in their classes that student participation has soared and our registrations have increased.    

We learn about ourselves through movement not only of the body, but in the body. When we come in contact with our environment the interior of the body is constantly changing: hormonal shifts, digestion, movement of fluids or ligament and bone. These sensations are the result of “interoceptors” or sensory nerve receptors “that receive and transmit sensations from stimuli originating in the interior of the body” (Ogden, Minton, & Pain, 2006, p. 15). For example, in an online class information is received by the brain from the muscles and joints (called proprioception) as a result of sensory receptors that are sensitive to stretch or pressure in the tissue that surrounds them (Bundy, Lane, & Murray, 2002). Professors teaching online at Endicott College try to help students understand and interpret the different sensations they are experiencing by giving verbal cues as to what may be transpiring in the body. For example, in our “Culture and Identity” class students learn to interpret the subtle cues that they are uncomfortable discussing racism – the tightening of their shoulders or the knot in their stomach. In our “Stress and Illness” class students learn how to meditate and practice yoga as a method to have an actual experience of stress reduction in the body to help illuminate the theories they are studying.  

While vocal intonation, facial expressions, hand gestures and postures are all believed to convey important information in the classroom (Blake, 2000), these aspects of learning are not unproblematic. Online education obscures the way that the body has been implicitly used to evaluate the scholarly potential of the individual. Age, gender, class, sexual orientation, race, and religion are all intimately linked with our physical presence. We will question whether the complaints regarding the lack of physical presence in online classes is really a discomfort that educators and students alike have with not being able to judge knowledge and scholarship based on these common markers of appearance.  We will explore how online learning can be used to enhance knowledge of implicit bias in traditional and online classes.   

Structure of session:

  1. Polldaddy to survey the challenges that participants anticipate facing in integrating the body into online learning.
  2. Content knowledge will be imparted in a 30 minute overview of the neuroscience research that supports embodied learning and how online methods of teaching can capitalize and integrate this knowledge. Yes, participants will learn through the body!
  3. The presentation will be followed by a robust 15 minute conversation. The class will be open to general questions from the audience. If there is time a series of guided questions will help solidify key concepts from the presentation.
  4. All participants will receive: copies of slides, an infographic overviewing the reason to integrate the body in education and a resource sheet that they can use with faculty and Deans.

Learning Objectives:

  • Develop an understanding of the neuroscience supporting body based learning.
  • Be able to discuss the important role of the body in learning, including the value of integrating hands on learning, experiential and tacit learning into online and classrooms.  
  • Articulate best practices as described by colleges and universities who are integrating the body into their classes.


Adams, C., & van Manen, M. (2006). Embodiment, Virtual Space, Temporality and Interpersonal Relations in Online Writing. College Quarterly, 9(4).

Blake, N. (2000). Tutors and students without faces or places. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 34(1), 183.

Bundy, A., Lane, S., & Murray, E. (2002). Sensory integration theory and practice. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company        

Cohen, J. (2006). The missing body- Yoga and higher education. The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives in Learning 12(winter), 14-24.

 Counihan, B. (2007). Using hatha Yoga breathing assignments: An essai. In S. Shelton-Colangelo, C. Mancuso, & M. Duvall (Eds.), Teaching with joy: Educational practices for the twenty-first century New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.  .

 all'Alba, G., & Barnacle, R. (2005). Embodied Knowing in Online Environments. Educational Philosophy & Theory, 37(5), 719-744. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2005.00153.x           

Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens. New York: Hartcourt, Brace.

Duvall, M., Mancuso, C., Donnelly, L., Counihan, B., Schmid, T., Shelto-Colangelo, S., . . . al., E. (2007). Teaching with joy: Educational practices for the twenty-first century. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.  .

Fisher, A., Murray, E., & Bundy, A. (1991). Sensory integration: Theory and practice. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.

 Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: WW Norton & Company.

  Peters, M., Bowman, W., Shusterman, R., Markula, P., Mans, M., Walsh, D., . . . Garioian, C. (2004). Knowing bodies, moving minds: Towards an embodied teaching and learning (Vol. 3). Boston: Klumer academic publishers       

Shapiro, S. B. (1999). Pedagogy and the politics of the body: A critical praxis (Vol. 16). New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 

Sinclair, A. (2005). Body and Management Pedagogy. Gender, Work & Organization, 12(1), 89-104.