Combating Zoom Fatigue

Intense and constant engagement with others through video conferencing tools can create unexpected challenges and barriers to learning for students. By focusing in on the causes of so-called Zoom fatigue, we can begin to identify strategies to help alleviate the problems.

“There is this ‘Zoom fatigue’ where it becomes very difficult to watch and listen to a lecture after a certain period of time. …I’ve had a hard time prioritizing and mapping out what I need to do.”
~Madeline J. Bruce, Student, St. Louis University (source)

“Zoom fatigue” is a type of cognitive fatigue brought on through prolonged use of virtual communication platforms. Over time, the demands of virtual engagement can incite a decrease in cognitive resources, compromising our ability to retain information, bypass irrelevant information, and/or focus our attention. Similar to the decrease in cognitive resources resulting from trauma, Zoom fatigue can create learning environments in which both students and instructors experience reduced capacity and motivation. (Massar et al, 2018; Wolf, 2020).

When impacted by Zoom fatigue:

  • Students may have difficulty focusing during class sessions, making connections among topics and concepts, or engaging meaningfully with course content. They may also experience decreased motivation to attend and participate in class sessions. (Barr, 2018; Chaudhuri & Behan, 2000).

  • Instructors may feel worn out, overwhelmed, and hopeless as they struggle to meet the needs of students and learn new instructional methods and technologies (McMurtrie, 2020).

  • Teaching assistants may have trouble keeping track of their assigned duties and/or balancing the demands of teaching and their own mental and emotional wellbeing (Willis & Topal, 2020). 

What Causes Zoom Fatigue?

The primary mechanism responsible for Zoom fatigue can be explained by Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, 2011). Simply put, before information can be embedded in long-term memory, it has to be sufficiently processed by the working memory. Under the best learning conditions the working memory is limited in capacity, and can be easily overloaded. When overloaded, learning decreases.

Click on each item below to read more information about the specific ways in which ongoing and excessive use of virtual communication can lead to Zoom fatigue.

“Our brains dislike ambivalence. With Zoom, we both have too much and too little. We have too much of the illusion of presence and too little of the information that comes with physical presence.”
~Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior (source)

Communication is an interplay of movement, timing, gestures, and words. During video calls, verbal and non-verbal communication is reduced, restricted, delayed, and (sometimes) distorted by technological limitations and glitches. In addition, when using “active speaker view”, we simultaneously process and interpret the non-verbal communication of multiple people at once, while also attempting to identify and focus on the important information being communicated by the speaker.

The cognitive demand of simply navigating the virtual classroom significantly reduces the mental energy and working memory available to the learner, leaving them with reduced capacity to engage in the learning process (Stein, Smith, Henningsen & Silver, 2000).

“I am watching the eyes, listening for completion, listening for that intake of breath that indicates readiness to talk. I am continually repressing my lifelong, trained habit of uttering simultaneous encouragement through “continuers,” those back-channel cues that encourage the speaker to go on. Mmm-hmm, yeah, I know. None of that works; the platform is made for a single speaker at a time.”
~Susan Blum, Professor of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame (source)

Research has shown that students who can make eye contact have larger learning gains, are able to master more complex concepts, and are better able to transfer learning to new problems and environments (Schneider & Pea, 2013). Further, continual micro-interactions between students and with the instructor – such as nodding, smiling, quick glances and eye contact – support, encourage and re-enforce the value of learning activities (Walker, 2020). The inability to engage in mutual gaze and exchange quick glances of affirmation, comprehension, understanding handicaps the learning process, particularly during group work and collaborative learning.

“It is not an easy thing to stare at my Zoom self, meeting after meeting, day after day. This unflattering yawn, that stray wisp of hair I cannot touch again without seeming nervous or vain... Watching ourselves is exhausting but also compelling.”
~Sarah Dunphy-Lelii, Associate Professor in Psychology, Bard College (source)

Video conferencing platforms show you an image of yourself, either in the corner as the presenter/speaker or as one of several talking heads. These ‘mirror’ images reflected back to us are often at odds with our mental image of self. We have become accustomed to curating how others perceive us through the lens of our own mental image. The resulting disconnect can create significant psychological stress, including decreased self-recognition, body dysmorphia, and more. (Caputo, 2014; Krol et. al., 2020).

The impact of this ‘mirror effect’ on students’ ability to learn is profound. Not only does a portion of the working memory become dedicated to the continual monitoring of the ‘objective self,’ but the added psychological stress can cause the learner to be overly concerned with avoiding errors –  which are an important part of the learning process (Metcalfe, 2017; Wu, et. al., 2019). Ultimately, the constant self-awareness involved in video conferencing is unnatural; being on camera causes us to feel pressure to perform, to be on, engaged, and responsive all the time. The freedom we have in face-to-face meetings to stare into space or swivel in our chair while thinking is restricted during video calls. If we do the former, we look like we are not paying attention, the latter and our video could look awkward. Not to mention that constantly seeing oneself can lead to increased feelings of self-consciousness.

“Any novel situation imposes cognitive load on our brains”
~Samuli Laato, Researcher, University of Turku (source)

After years of engaging in face-to-face instruction, we are well-versed in the ‘rules’ of that engagement: we know what is expected of us (behaviorally), and we know what to expect of others. Even familiarity with a certain form of engagement may not help, as the use of this form of communication for instruction may be less familiar – and students may also find they have to adjust their understanding of expected behavior in each class they are taking. Consistent engagement through less familiar means can result in increased anxiety about the interaction, and more energy spent trying to figure out how to behave along the way. (Smith & Stewart, 2011).

“The brain doesn’t multitask. It engages in sequential tasking or unitasking, where we are shifting rapidly from one thing to another without realizing it.”
~Daniel Levitin, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, McGill University (source)

In the online environment there are increased opportunities for distraction, and there is more danger that participants – both students and instructors – will engage in multitasking. Even leaving your email alerts on while teaching can contribute to this draw on your cognitive energy. This distraction and multitasking leads to states of continuous partial attention, where the brain is continuously switching attention from one thing to another – thus increasing cognitive load and decreasing ability to engage fruitfully in the teaching and learning opportunity at hand. (Varakin, Levin, & Fidler, 2004).

“Having back-to-back Zoom classes is draining. My brain has already used up most of its capacity, and I am required to switch to completely different subjects with barely 10 minutes of breathing room in between each class.”
~Victoria Oakes, Student, Goshen College (source)

During the familiar face-to-face college experience, students and instructors benefit from brief transition periods as they travel to class, chat with those around them, and settle in. This gives the brain a break, and allows both instructor and student to re-focus their attention on their new context (a.k.a. your class session). This transition also offers an opportunity for moderate physical activity, which can also positively impact the brain’s ability to focus and learn (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014). In the world of online engagement, however, we tend to simply end one task and start another, without a break and without a real opportunity to transition either our bodies or our brains from one activity to the next. And this can contribute significantly to increased Zoom fatigue.

How Can I Decrease the Impact of Zoom Fatigue in My Teaching?

Click on each item below to read more information about specific ways you can combat Zoom fatigue and increase student learning in the virtual classroom.

“While nothing can replace in-person connection, there are a variety of effective approaches to still create a real sense of intimacy and inclusion, even across the barrier of a screen.”
~Pamela O’Leary, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Strategist (source)

Although it requires planning, building community in the virtual classroom need not be difficult or time consuming. These are some quick and easy ways to build community intentionally in a virtual classroom or remote learning environment.

  • Mingle: For scheduled Zoom sessions, invite students to arrive 10-15 minutes before the class meeting starts so that they can talk informally. You can also remain in the meeting for 10-15 minutes after class ends for those who would like to stay!

  • Use names: Ask students to rename themselves on Zoom with the name they would prefer to be called. Use student names often and encourage students to call each other by name as well. Referring to individuals by name creates a feeling of being seen, valued, and included.

  • Incorporate social-emotional activities: Ask students to share one high and one low since the previous course meeting, to represent their mood with an emoji, bitmoji, or selfie, or to fill out a quick (perhaps anonymous) poll about how they’re doing.

  • Establish check-in groups: Organize students into pods of 3 – Ask each pod to pick a group/team name and encourage them to meet informally outside of class once a week to check-in. Keeping these groups consistent throughout the semester will provide students with a smaller community in which they can safely discuss their questions and concerns about course content and mastery. You can even ask them to nominate a group leader to report back concepts and skills they are struggling with.

“You need to give your brain time to consolidate all the information that’s come in.”
~Daniel Levitin, Professor of Psychology, McGill University (source)

Providing students (and yourself) with a structured virtual learning environment helps to reduce cognitive overload and facilitate learning. Being intentional about how you structure the learning in a virtual classroom does not need to be time-intensive. A few simple, intentional practices can help deepen student learning and promote engagement.

For example:

  • Establish class norms: Spend time during your first class meeting to talk through the expected and acceptable ways of engaging and learning in the virtual classroom. Make sure to include concrete expectations of what participation means for this space, what can students expect from you each class meeting, what you expect from them, and what they should expect from each other.

  • Suggest breakout room roles: Provide students with a clear sense of purpose or task to be accomplished during small group breakout room interactions (or build a list with your class). Suggest roles or allow students to elect team members to function as time-keeper, scribe, facilitator, presenter, etc.

  • Avoid popping in and out of breakout rooms: Avoid the temptation to see how students are doing in their breakout rooms by popping in and out while students are working. Doing so pulls the students’ working memory away from the learning task and increases cognitive load. Instead, ask students to use the ‘Ask for Help’ feature in Zoom to alert you to questions or problems.

"Seemingly small (and sometimes unconscious) choices about the technologies we use can have a big impact on how inclusive and effective our teaching is."
~Daniel Stanford, Director of Faculty Development and Technology Innovation, DePaul University (source)

Balance content delivery and participation in the virtual classroom to include both synchronous and asynchronous activities, and both video-dependent and non-video-dependent activities. Providing options and multiple types of engagement in the virtual learning space encourages all students to engage and makes the course more accessible and inclusive.

These are a few simple ways to create an accessible learning environment for all students.   

  • Turn the video off when it is not essential: Encourage students to turn the video off when you are sharing your screen or during lectures. Not only will this reduce cognitive overload and allow students to focus on what is being said, but it also encourages all students to attend synchronous class meetings regardless of technological limitations. If you prefer to look at something other than blank screens, ask students to create an avatar or image to represent themselves during video-free times.

  • Create low-bandwidth activities: Low-bandwidth does not have to mean asynchronous learning. For example, rather than a video lecture, you might provide students with slides and/or lecture notes in advance of class meetings and use an online synchronous chat tool during class meetings to discuss content.

  • Work in shared documents: By directing attention to a specific activity, you will draw attention away from the distractions of shared videos. Students will remain engaged, but without the need for added concentration to process the visual stimuli from videos.

  • Build screen-free time into class meetings: Designate some time during every class meeting that is screen and video free. Even a five-minute break allows students time to consolidate new information, reduce cognitive load, and free up working memory.
Additional examples of dynamic low bandwidth learning activities can be found here.

“We are not very tech savvy coming into college. Other than playing games and basic Microsoft Office, there are many things we don’t know.”
~Ramish Saaed, Student, Saint Louis University (source)

Avoiding unnecessary complexity can positively impact student learning and decrease extraneous cognitive load. In addition to keeping learning activities simple and straightforward, providing learners with resources to better navigate the virtual classroom and successfully complete learning activities reduces the cognitive load of virtual learning.

The following strategies are easy to implement and will help you reduce unnecessary cognitive load in your virtual classroom.

  • Provide support for navigating technology: Despite the fact that our students are usually familiar with programs and technologies they are using, many of them are not comfortable or proficient in their use. Take some time to ensure that all students have the technical skill and knowledge to effectively and efficiently use the technologies essential for success in your classroom. You might, for example, create a technology scavenger hunt during the first week of class in which they demonstrate that they can navigate all the relevant features of Zoom or eLC.

  • Consolidate information: Reduce the number of places students need to look by including all the relevant information in the videoconferencing platform. For example, rather than asking students to turn to a particular page in their textbook, put the text of the sonnet onto a slide and share your screen.

  • Streamline technology: Think carefully before introducing a new learning modality in your virtual classroom. While there are many exciting tools and resources out there, they may not be necessary. You may be able to leverage a technology already familiar to your students. When a new technology will increase student learning and understanding, teach students how to navigate a new platform using familiar content, and stick to familiar learning technologies when teaching new content. This will help reduce extraneous cognitive load for students.

  • Incorporate cognitive “helpers”: Providing students with vocabulary and concept lists, assignment checklists, and module, lesson, or topic outlines enables their working memory to focus on learning rather than be distracted and preoccupied with due dates, definitions, and how concepts/topics relate to one another. An effective and simple way to incorporate cognitive helpers into your course is to use the Checklist feature in eLC. Checklists provide students with a concrete, external mechanism for staying on task and pace with the readings, assignments, and class meetings.
  • Less is more: When using slides or in-class images, avoid unintentionally introducing cognitive ‘noise’. For example, include only the most important and relevant information on your slides. Use fonts that are easy to read, and make sure the font size is large enough to be read easily. Keep animations to a minimum. Color can be helpful for emphasis, but enthusiastic use of color can create more rather than less cognitive ‘noise’. More suggestions for keeping slide design simple can be found here.

Attention is our state of grace, distraction the original sin. Get rid of the distractions, and attention will naturally return.
~James Lang, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, Assumption University (source)

By directing our students’ attention to the information relevant to specific learning activities, we enable them to block out or ignore irrelevant information and reduce cognitive load. We can focus attention on learning activities that are interactive without creating cognitive ‘noise’.

Here are few strategies and ideas for focusing student attention on learning activities.

  • Use ‘Active Speaker’ view: Although it seems counter intuitive, since in an in-person classroom setting you can see all of your students at one time, using the ‘Active Speaker’ view more closely simulates the experience of sitting in a lecture hall; you are still aware of the other people in the room, but attention is focused primarily on the person speaking. Although it isn’t perfect, it is a way to direct student attention to the information relevant for learning and help them ignore extraneous information and distractions.

  • Ask for non-verbal signals: Engage students during video lectures by asking them to use the nonverbal feedback tools. For example, students can signal agreement with the “thumbs up” reaction in Zoom, and with “yes” or “no” responses. Use these to check for student understanding and/or to quickly poll the class for agreement. If you want to have a bit of fun, you can even ask students to respond with emojis.

  • Create collaborative documents: Use shared documents for synchronous, ‘in-class’ discussion and interaction. Pose a question or share and image and have students comment and share their thoughts on each other’s contributions. Students can also use collaborative documents to work together in real time on problem sets and worksheets. You can even create a shared OneDrive or Google folder and ask students to share resources in that folder.

  • Use digital whiteboarding:  There are several options for engaging students with each other (and with concepts and content) in a virtual classroom. Zoom has a whiteboard feature that allows students to draw and write on a shared screen. For example, share an image and ask students to annotate the process being shown.  Microsoft Office365 also has a whiteboard feature that provides a free-form digital canvas for collaboration and interaction (it even allows students to post ‘sticky notes’). Microsoft Whiteboard can be used on the web or incorporated into a Microsoft Teams meeting. You can also annotate or draw on PowerPoint slides in real-time to walk students through the process of solving equations or annotating a text.

Although we cannot replicate the face-to-face experience when using videoconferencing tools, we can reduce the unintentional cognitive overload of communicating in this mode, and we can create genuine relationship and deep learning experiences. As instructors, it requires us to be intentional about building connection with and among our students, to structure the virtual classroom to promote productive interaction, and to keep things simple.

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