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    How Real Is Zoom Fatigue

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    Distance learning is now the norm, at least for the remainder of this school year and for summer school. Now that many students, teachers, and communities have somewhat adapted to this “new normal,” we find ourselves engaging with screens and virtual platforms much more than we would have ever anticipated. Cue the new symptom or side effect of our post-pandemic circumstances—Zoom fatigue.

    How is this real?

    While it may sound melodramatic, this new form of lethargy can be scientifically explained. Zoom fatigue, as experts are calling it, happens when our day-to-day communications, whether they be for work, learning, or leisure, exist primarily in front of a screen and/or camera. These extended conversations and engagements on screen may seem like a passive form of communication. However, video chats, no matter what the purpose, involve much more than simply sitting in front of the screen.

    What causes the fatigue?

    Believe it or not, the “face time” can become exhausting. Consider this: In normal social settings and conversations, we do not maintain 100% front-facing, continuous eye contact. As social beings, even when attending a lecture or work conference, we have a tendency to glance around, examine the surroundings, check in and out of the speaker’s presence, whisper to our neighbor for clarification, take notes, etc. We are actively engaged and listening attentively, even when our gaze is elsewhere.

    However, with Zoom and other video conferencing platforms, the camera holds our gaze captive. Participants, with a desire to appear 100% engaged, overcompensate while on camera. Am I sitting up straight? Was that a joke? Should I be laughing? Can people see my half-eaten lunch? Are my kids screaming in the background? 

    Furthermore, since we are able to see ourselves during these calls, we become acutely aware of where we are looking, how we are looking, and how others are seeing us. It becomes a very inorganic way of communicating that consumes us with this idea that we are broadcasting ourselves in some sense. It is no different for students, either.

    In addition to the overwhelming sense of engagement that kids might feel compelled to present, Zoom fatigue is also caused by the multi-tasking nature that the platform affords. While semi-focusing on the teacher’s explanation or instructions, students are likely scrolling through email, responding to texts, chatting in the Zoom chat, eating a snack, and/or listening to the television in the background. This level of stimuli makes it nearly impossible for kids to be active listeners. They may be sitting in the camera frame, but their minds are elsewhere. This is especially the case when Zoom meetings run long or when students sit through multiple Zoom calls throughout the day.

    Because of the tendency for students and teachers to experience Zoom fatigue while attempting instruction and learning, its use requires a bit of strategizing in order to ensure full engagement. So what are we to do? Check out part II, where we will discuss strategies for warding off Zoom fatigue. We will also provide instructors and tutors with tips for checking for and maintaining engagement throughout classes and tutoring sessions.

    How to combat Zoom fatigue

    • If possible, limit Zoom meetings to 1-2 per day. If parents are finding that their children are attending Zoom meetings consistently throughout the day, it’s time to step in. As a guideline, teachers have been instructed to provide 1-2 hours of “live instruction,” aka Zoom meetings consisting of instructional content, per week. This means that I personally am “live teaching” for two, 30-minute sessions per week. If teachers follow this expectation, students will be spending more time with hands-on, experiential learning as suggested, and less time honed in on a screen or video chat.
    • Parents who notice that Zoom meetings are occurring back-to-back or for prolonged periods of time should reach out directly to teachers and copy administration if necessary.
    • Parents can also suggest that their child only spend as much time as necessary in the Zoom meeting to gain clarity, ask questions, and receive feedback.
    • Similarly, teachers should set the expectation that Zoom participation, while strongly encouraged, is not required for the entire session. This means that students should feel comfortable signing in and logging out as they please.
    • A good suggestion for teachers to make every so often during a Zoom meeting is to remind students that, if they don’t have any questions about the assignment or content being discussed, they shouldn’t feel as though they have to stay in the Zoom meeting. Keeping things fluid allows students to advocate for their needs, while ensuring that time on digital platforms is minimized when possible.
    • To spur engagement during Zoom instruction, teachers should suggest that students take free-flowing, unstructured notes while the teacher is reviewing material or answering questions. These notes, in the form of free writing, have several benefits:
      • Note-taking ensures that students are actively listening and grasping important concepts.
      • Note-taking also helps solidify important information into memory.
      • Students are able to hold themselves accountable with their notes; if the page is bare, they know that they weren’t paying attention.
      • Jotting down rough thoughts or questions during an instructional session allows students to keep track of questions that they want to ask or concepts that require more clarity.

    Teachers and tutors can also encourage engagement by enlisting an old classroom technique—random calling. Just as we would in the classroom, teachers can reach out for student comments and responses throughout the session to keep students on their toes and to check for understanding.

    Teachers should be sure to provide wait time for student answers and then open the question up to the group if a student falls silent. The point of random calling is to get and hold students’ attention, not to embarrass anyone or put them on the spot with a tricky question.

    Wendy Taylor, M.Ed has extensive experience working with students of all ages and abilities, with a focus on learning differences and disabilities. Prior to founding Learning Essentials, she served as a faculty member at Saint Petersburg College, a supervisor of pre-service teachers and a Montgomery County Public School teacher. A certified educator and qualified educational diagnostician, Wendy holds a B.S. in Social Science and Secondary Education from Frostburg State University and a M.Ed. in Special Education from George Mason University.

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