Biological lifestyle factors related to cognition and learning performance in adults in distance education

Jérôme Gijselaers, Renate De Groot, Paul A. Kirschner

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    An important part of learning performance is influenced by individual characteristics. One of those are the environmental influences determined by lifestyle. We call these influences biological lifestyle factors (BLFs). Physical activity, sleep and nutrition are such BLFs and they contribute to brain health, cognitive performance and learning performance in traditional education in children and adolescents. Little research, however, has been conducted concerning these BLFs in adults participating in distance education, despite that this type of education is more and more in favor because of the freedom it offers that allows combining it with the demanding work life, family responsibilities (e.g., a partner and/or children) and the need for ongoing development in adult life. Knowledge on how lifestyle could contribute to learning performance in adults is highly desirable as it could increase the success of adults participating in distance education. Besides, advice on lifestyle changes are relatively cheap interventions of which benefits could be substantial (Ribeiro & Stickgold, 2014). Maintaining a healthy lifestyle does not only result in a better physical and mental health state (Busch, Van Stel, Schrijvers, & de Leeuw, 2013), but also leads to better cognitive performance (Small et al., 2006). Research indicates that a healthy lifestyle is beneficial for cognition and learning, as suggested by research in the domain of physical activity (PA) (e.g., Hillman, Kamijo, & Scudder, 2011), sleep (e.g., Dewald, Meijer, Oort, Kerkhof, & Bögels, 2010; Philip et al., 2012) and nutrition (e.g., Burkhalter & Hillman, 2011; Deliens, Clarys, De Bourdeaudhuij, & Deforche, 2013). These examples provide the theoretical framework for the execution of this PhD project as PA, sleep and nutrition are all three factors that influence the body in a biological way. They exert influence on the regulation of the body’s physiological parameters and the subsequent processes. We will not go into detail on these underlying processes in this proposal because of briefness, but we refer to the following literature (cf., Gómez-Pinilla, 2008; van Praag, 2009; Winter et al., 2007; Wright et al., 2013). These, by lifestyle induced, physiological changes influence processes among which are synaptic pruning, synaptic plasticity and neuronal proliferation. These all contribute to brain plasticity, which is believed to be the basis for better cognitive and learning performance (e.g., Barenberg, Berse, & Dutke, 2011). This led us to investigate the following main research questions in an educational setting different than traditional education for children, namely adult distance education: What are the characteristics of adult distance education with respect to dropout and success? What is the relation(s) between behavior on BLFs on the one hand and cognition and learning performance on the other? The objectives of the PhD project were: (1) to elaborate on the relation of the variables within each BLF with learning performance, but also combining these relations into one model predicting learning performance; (2) to elaborate on the relation of the variables within each BLF with cognitive performance, but also combining these relations into one model predicting cognitive performance; (3) to investigate whether cognitive performance was a mediator in the relation between the BLFs and learning performance. The research proposed to be presented here, stems from a PhD project that will be finished at the time of the conference. The results from the first five, already available, empirical research articles will be presented in a concise but clear manner. One more research article is expected to follow in the future and will most likely be available at the conference and included in the paper presentation.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages4
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2015
    EventECER 2015: Education and Transition - Contributions from Educational Research - Budapest, Hungary
    Duration: 8 Sept 201511 Sept 2015


    ConferenceECER 2015
    Abbreviated titleECER 2015
    Internet address


    • sleep
    • nutrition
    • physical activity
    • cognition
    • learning performance
    • distance education


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