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  • Matthew Tsui

Dealing With Virtual Learning Fatigue

As we approach the summer much of the Northern Hemisphere has already finished the first pandemic year. Accurate with this year's trend, the coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed this school year. Back in March, when the first coronavirus wave hit, under the CDC's guidance, the US government imposed a social distancing mandate, which forced the closing of schools, workplaces, and public spaces. While many couldn't even fathom the idea of a localized virus outbreak growing to a point where daily life would have to be stopped, the lasting impact that pandemic would have on our lives soon became ever so apparent as the cases continued to climb even as we isolated ourselves at home. However, back in September, the coronavirus cases had seemed to be on the decline, and thus the country's primary school systems, including New York City Public Schools, decided to implement a partially in-person system.[3] Precisely, to balance the need to reduce the spread of coronavirus with aiming to give the students the optimal learning experience, education officials developed remote, hybrid, and full-in person models.

Over the past year, America's coronavirus cases seem to be increasing without bounds. The pandemic has caused schools' shuttering, sending thousands of children back into their homes for remote learning. The zoom call clearly characterizes remote education. While the zoom call tried to create an environment that would make synchronous learning as effective as possible, people soon began to feel tired and restless during these calls. Furthermore, Eichler-Levine, a professor, suggested that people are "emoting more since they're just a little box on a screen," going on to state that he was "just so tired." These symptoms were soon deemed "zoom fatigue" and greatly hindered the student's ability to learn thoroughly.[1] Thus, while constant electronic stimulation may prove detrimental to our mental focus, there are some steps we can take to mitigate these negative symptoms.


While zoom calls try to mimic everyday human interactions, the technology inhibits social communication circuits, thus disrupting our learning or working experience. Specifically, from the California School of Physical Psychology, Dr. Wiederhold conducted research finding that even the smallest factors of a zoom call may throw the brain off. For example, our brain picks up the call's lag or delay, thus drawing our attention away from the actual conversation or lesson. Furthermore, while zoom calls are far superior to text messaging at communicated facial expressions, it fails to convey body language, making it far harder for our brains to pick up full expressions essential to a true interaction. Periods of prolonged eye contact with that massive face on the screen causes excess amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone, to be released. While we're not truly in any danger, the subconscious fight or flight reaction breaks our brain's rhythm.[1] This is in great contrast with face to face interactions, in which dopamine, the "happiness" hormone, is released from a cue in the subconscious brain.

The gallery view of zoom, where we can see the screens of numerous participants of the zoom, produces an array of visual stimuli that fill up our field of view. These excess stimuli place immense stress on the brain's central vision and make it hard for any of these stimuli to be fully absorbed. Instead of delegating our full attention to one specific subject, which is essential if we want a practical learning session, the brain is focused on multitasking to a point where it never entirely devotes itself to any specific task. Each stimulus is directly competing for neural representation in a complex interaction of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in the human visual cortex.[2] Thus, the effects caused by having everyone's face plastered onto your zoom screen is essentially the same as having a classroom filled to the brim with distracting clutter. Finally, one advantage that a traditional phone call might have over a zoom call is that it only conveys one stimulus, the voice!

The zoom call format takes away from positive associations of face-to-face interactions and often has been associated with the "zoom fatigue syndrome." These negative attributes of zoom calls make the learning and working experience far harder for students, teachers, and business people alike. Students find synchronous learning strenuous and aren't absorbing as much information as possible to succeed in the class. Furthermore, teachers are no longer receiving the "rewards" they get from the in-person teachers; they especially enjoy watching their student's reactions, which increases dopamine levels through biochemical pathways and allows them to pick up on clues that can aid their lessons.[1]


Thankfully, numerous adjustments can be made to reduce the fatigue and stress currently associated with zoom lessons. Propping up your screen a few inches such that it is at eye level creates a straight line that makes micro-expressions easier to take in and increases the overall sense of connectedness. Turning off that huge monitor and switching onto a phone or a smaller screen will reduce the stress and cortisol rush. Furthermore, be sure always to take breaks between each zoom meeting; this will reset your baseline and prevent you from getting immediately overwhelmed. A brief workout, a couple of mindful minutes, or even diaphragmatic breathing will do wonders to your stress and keep you energized as you power through your busy day. While this may seem obvious, your self conscious forces you to spend the most time looking at yourself, so be sure to take your face off the screen. Finally, be sure to treat an online lesson or meeting the same way you would treat an in-person lecture or meeting. Don't multitask, be sure to remove all stimuli from your workspace, and don't let yourself be eased into checking your phone throughout the lesson. This will only decrease the effectiveness of the task at hand, and researchers at the University of Michigan found that multitasking can cost you as much as 40 percent of your productive time. Thus, during these trying times, even the zoom call, which seemed like the ideal solution to America's shutdown, came with unwanted negative impacts. Luckily, we can make slight adjustments that will drastically improve our learning experience or work from home.


1. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/cyber.2020.29188.bkw

2. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xhp274763.pdf

3. https://nypost.com/2020/08/04/principal-of-elite-bronx-science-retiring-at-the-end-of-august/#:~:text=Another%20top%20city%20specialized%20high,of%20August%2C%E2%80%9D%20Donahue%20wrote.


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