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Students and educators feeling effects of lengthy online meetings.

By Lauren Decker

Olivia Marsh, fourth-year at Western, waits to be admitted into a Zoom meeting. All Western classes went online on March 11, due to COVID-19. // Photo by Thomas Hughes.

“Zoom fatigue” is a new phenomenon experts and educators are cautioning students about. Experts said being aware of Zoom fatigue, practicing self care and taking precautionary measures to ensure full attention will help students with learning retention.

Dr. Laura Palmer, a fellow of the American Psychological Association, said Zoom fatigue stems from cognitive fatigue felt as a result of online meetings. 

“Our brains are fighting for a full picture of what is happening, which is a tax on the brain,” Palmer said. She noted that if someone is interacting through Zoom, they are typically viewing people from the waist up and potentially missing critical body language or hand gestures. “It’s a tax on the attentional system as well; we are fighting to stay engaged, to stay attentive. All of these things form individual taxes on cognitive ability.”

Palmer said that Zoom fatigue is affecting many people due to the switch to primarily remote interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All Western Washington University classes shifted online as of March 11, after Whatcom County declared its first case of COVID-19. The end of spring quarter and all summer quarter classes have been exclusively online, with plans to hold a mix of online and socially distanced in-person classes fall quarter. All fall quarter classes will be moved online after the Thanksgiving break, with fall commencement happening virtually.

“The [switch to online learning] is a shift that has been occurring, so it’s frankly not that new of a concept,” said Dr. Peter Economou, an associate professor at Rutgers University and board certified cognitive and behavioral therapist. “The newness is that now all learning is 100% in online content.”

There is a whole body of literature on how to provide effective distanced learning that includes diversifying assignments, mixing up lecture styles and providing information in ways that make the most sense to students, Economou said.

The switch to remote learning was entirely new for some students. Drake Pearisaeff, a third-year student at Western majoring in sociology and human services, had never taken an online course before.

“It’s a completely different style of learning, so adjusting to that was rough,” Pearisaeff said. “It’s still hard, I’m still adjusting. There’s a disconnect and it can be hard to engage with the professors.”

Pearisaeff said that when Washington’s stay-at-home order was put into effect, many of his friends would participate in Zoom group calls to hang out. He said as a result of spending so much time on his computer for classes and meetings, he is now interacting with social Zoom meetings less. He said many of his friends have expressed similar feelings.

Pearisaeff said in his experience Zoom lectures can feel very unstimulating, and he finds it easy to lose attention. He said that it is especially difficult to tune in if someone is in a shared living space.  

“There are various accommodations to help with long hours on a screen — blue light glasses, for example, can help — but that doesn’t solve the problem,” Pearisaeff said. “If it’s a long lecture or your second Zoom meeting of the day, it can be easy to kind of zone out.” 

Pearisaeff said he tries to stay engaged by taking detailed notes, having water available and keeping snacks at his side.

Heather Davidson, a communication professor at Western and Skagit Valley College, said that she sees exhaustion in her students.

“The shift that COVID-19 has brought to the service learning aspects of my curriculum have been traumatic,” Davidson said. “I think there is a possibility that learning retention will be impacted, but I think like with any challenge in the classroom it depends on how educators choose to face it.”

Davidson said it is important to establish a sense of community in the classroom, whether it is remote or in person, and thinks that students engaging in dialogue during a time when many are quarantined is beneficial to them. She said that her job as a teacher the last two quarters has been first to make her students feel safe, and second to make them feel taught.

“Self care is important because stress is not quantifiable, but we know stress kills,” Economou said. “Things are going to have to change, but I think for the better. I like change, and as a licenced practitioner we want change.”

Economou said in order to reduce stress, it is important for students to try to engage in activities they enjoy, while also creating structure in their schedule. Setting time limits for online activity, he said, will greatly benefit students.

“Technology is brilliant and amazing, but can create serious issues. It is something that is best in moderation,” Economou said.

Palmer said it is important to educate people from the young to the elderly about Zoom fatigue, since this unique kind of cognitive strain is affecting people globally. People right now are reliant on Zoom for a myriad of reasons including meetings, school, interactions with family and friends, medical appointments or therapy, or even attending funerals, Palmer said. 

“Paying attention to sleep schedules and actually getting a full eight to nine hours is important,” Palmer said. “It’s important to have a well-nourished and a well-hydrated brain. Make sure you are taking time away from the computer, perhaps with a small exercise break or for meditation between classes can help improve focus.”

Davidson said there are aspects of Zoom that she has come to appreciate and value as an educator that she didn’t anticipate. Interacting through Zoom can allow students to feel connected to one another and to the curriculum, she said.

“What I’ve been trying to pay attention to, is asking students what the experience has been like for them,” Palmer said. “Depending on learning styles and factors like age or the environment you are in, the same instruction can have varying levels of relevancy to different students.” 

Palmer emphasized that it is essential for facilitators of Zoom meetings to ensure anyone requiring adaptive technology, such as those who may be visually or hearing impaired or may otherwise need additional accommodations, have the necessary devices before instruction begins.

Pearisaeff suggested professors post the content covered during Zoom lessons in an asynchronous platform for students to review after the fact to accommodate times when students may have lost focus.

“As educators, we need to be providing space to allow students to come and connect and not just be lectured at,” Davidson said. “Educators need to utilize the tools available on Zoom to answer questions, and to be receptive to messages they’re receiving. We need to watch for the raised hands, and laugh about the environment that we are all in together.”

Economou said he knows of many institutions currently working towards changing policies surrounding learning. Universities need to create practices that are best for the students, not the school, Economou said.

“Zoom has given me some insight [into student’s lives] that I wouldn’t necessarily get otherwise. It’s allowed me to have greater empathy for some situations students are in, and I can really appreciate that from a communication point of view, but it’s not all roses and I miss the classroom,” Davidson said. “I miss walking into the room and hearing the chatter before the teacher walks in. It is the evidence that [students] are all connected, whether by circumstance or something deeper. That’s what I miss the most, for sure.”


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