COVID-19 has brought all sorts of challenges to college students across the nation, from financial burdens to lack of socialization. The abrupt transition to virtual learning has also caused an overwhelming sense of fatigue for students.
Whether classes and meetings are held through Zoom, WebEx or Google Hangouts, it all comes down to the same issue of extensive screen time that brings an overwhelming feeling of fatigue and a drain of mental energy.
According to the Harvard Business Review, Zoom fatigue occurs from the intense focus students must maintain during online classes in order to absorb the information they are receiving. This increased effort to focus in our virtual classes derives from the nature of human communication. In a physical classroom or traditional learning environment, students have the ability to observe both verbal and non-verbal signals the professor expresses during lessons. Hand gestures, breathing patterns, eye movements, standing positions and sitting positions all contribute to the communication engagement from professor to students, and vice versa.
However, video calls can greatly cut down non-verbal communication, since only the upper half of the body can be seen and not much body movement. It therefore may interfere with a student’s ability to fully understand and engage in class discussions or activities. In addition, poor video quality and sound delays also contribute to a student’s reduced ability to detect facial expressions and verbal signals, which decreases overall engagement.
Even when engagement does occur during online classes, it often happens to be divided among numerous outlets instead of only the class. Students check emails, messages, reminders, and even social media on the very same computer they are using to attend class, until there comes a point where there is too much engagement and the mind cannot seem to focus on one single activity.
Furthermore, the Harvard Business Review stresses that the separation between a student’s personal life and educational life no longer exists when both are happening in the same environment. Many students live with family members, roommates, partners, or even pets that can make it more challenging to create an adequate learning environment. Attending classes from home no longer includes just teacher and student. Now, it also includes siblings, dogs, parents, noise and any other form of distraction that could take away attention from class.
With the pandemic still upon us and an unforeseen future, online learning seems to be the safest way to conduct classes and meetings. However, there are many small steps that both professors and students can take to reduce the impact of Zoom fatigue and create a better learning environment from home.
The most obvious option is to limit screen time as much as possible. If it is possible to cut a class short, both students and professors reduce their strain on their eyesight and decrease the chances of experiencing Zoom fatigue. It is important to keep in mind that once students log off class it does not mean they log off their computers. Classwork, emails and discussion boards can keep students staring at a screen long after class ends.
Although it can be difficult to schedule, it is of utmost importance that students set time between classes to stretch, drink water, grab a healthy snack or simply close their eyes and rest. It is not recommended to transition from a computer screen to a phone screen or television screen since that gives no relief. Turn off the electronics and engage with nature, even if it is in your own backyard.
Removing unnecessary tabs, turning off trivial notifications, and silencing cell phones and other unimportant electronics can also help decrease the distractions around you. Find yourself a space in your home where you feel closest to a traditional learning environment. By setting up a space and environment that reminds you of a study room or classroom, you trick your mind into thinking you are attending and leaving class like you normally would. You can change the lighting everytime you enter your learning space to make it feel more realistic or create a setup that resembles a desk in a classroom.
When it comes to class participation, the option that may have been the best fit before the pandemic may not be the most adequate for online learning. Discussion boards on Blackboard are great as long as the majority of students are actually participating. However, when less than half of the class is providing reading-worthy content, the discussion loses its purpose and practically disappears from students’ minds. Most students spend a good amount of their day reading off a screen and may not prefer their class participation to be in the same form as the rest of their daily activities. Instead, participation points can be given for verbal responses or breakout rooms where students can talk among themselves. This way no one is staring at a screen in silence.
Lastly and most importantly, faculty check-ins with students are essential to the learning productivity and engagement in the classroom. In order to create the most efficient learning environment, professors should pay attention to students’ needs and ask for feedback on class conduct, participation mechanisms and video call time frames. By communicating with students, solutions to issues like Zoom fatigue can come to the surface and facilitate the virtual learning semester.
After all, the well-being of students and professors is at the University’s best interest.