Facing a full year of remote classes, students and teachers are learning how to keep ‘Zoom fatigue’ at bay
Two weeks into the final year of her undergraduate degree, Anne Cabildo is already playing catch-up.
The fourth-year psychology major likes pre-recorded lectures for the flexibility they offer, but is finding out they are easy to postpone or evade. Conversely, she likes live lectures for how they motivate her to engage in discussion, but less for how they sometimes require her to peer into a camera for three straight hours.
“I already have to go back and watch the lectures from last week,” said Cabildo, who spends roughly 10 hours per week on Zoom calls. “Learning online is still taking some getting used to.”
Cabildo has an important year ahead of her—she is starting an undergraduate thesis, she is enrolled in advanced cognition seminars and she is starting the application process for graduate schools. Like everyone else, she will navigate these ventures in an imperfect and evolving virtual setting.
Now that the university has announced that classes will continue to be offered remotely through the winter semester, it is in Cabildo’s—and in all students’—best interest to get comfortable on Zoom, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams.
In the psychology department, one professor’s research is helping inform best practices for this new kind of learning. Karl Szpunar, a researcher in memory and learning who teaches two upper-year sections of cognitive psychology, said a long confinement to virtual learning presents the perfect opportunity to apply new research. The professor won a four-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) earlier this year to study interventions for improving attention and learning from video-recorded lectures.
Szpunar said a major barrier to any kind of learning is a lack of engagement and focus, which can be exacerbated when all teaching is delivered remotely.
“At some point, our minds will start to wander,” he said. “And when our minds wander, it impairs learning.”
Szpunar has made amendments to his course delivery to keep his students focused. He integrates small and frequent tests inside virtual lectures. While recurrent testing can be stressful for some, his research shows that test-taking is the best way for students to commit information to memory.
“Students are not incentivized to pay attention when the midterm is months down the road, and that can inhibit learning,” he said. “But when you’re expected to express what you’ve learned in a few minutes, it can reduce the occurrence of mind wandering and boost the level of learning.”
Szpunar also separated his weekly three-hour classes into two pre-recorded, one-hour sessions, and one hour-long live question period. He said he hopes the shorter time blocks help keep Zoom fatigue—a newly coined term referring to the feelings of lethargy and weariness that result from too much time spent on virtual calls—at bay.
“Our brains did not evolve to sit still and watch someone drone on about facts on a screen for two hours.”
Szpunar said that, while he hopes his interventions can benefit his class, many unknowns still accompany an enduring virtual curriculum.
“I think a challenge for students could be to navigate a wild assortment of ways people are approaching their teaching.” The contrary, he said, could be equally difficult. “If there is no variability and if every class is the same, then that Zoom fatigue could kick in. Either way I sympathize with the students.”
Avishag Frank, a fourth-year psychology major, likes the fact that the professors of her four classes all have different approaches to teaching. One of Frank’s classes is completely delivered live on Zoom, two others are in parts live and pre-recorded and a final one is delivered in meetings every second week or once a month.
“The mix works best,” she said. “It helps that I am not always needed on Zoom. But having those live discussions are helpful in understanding and hearing what other students think about the material.”
At times, Frank has found that being away from the classroom makes it more difficult to concentrate and find motivation. For her to learn, she said, engagement is the key.
“Getting students involved so they aren’t just reading or listening, but they are actively working to learn the material,” she said, “even if it’s not for marks, that’s been working.”