Zoomed out

As online learning continues, students are starting to experience the symptoms of “Zoom fatigue,” a phenomenon new to many in the age of video calls and COVID-19.


Xiaoyi Zhu

Learning via video call has unexpected side effects for students.

By Alice Meng, West High School

It’s seventh period, but somehow you’re still sprawled in bed. Your head is throbbing and your back aches. A voice drones on from your laptop on the other side of the room. If it wasn’t for the  fear that your teacher might call on you, you’d be fast asleep. This is the new reality for many online students experiencing “Zoom fatigue.”

In the first trimester, 44.7% of students enrolled in the online learning program. Those students have attended synchronous classes over Zoom for half of the school day and completed work asynchronously for the remaining portion. However, the hours spent on Zoom have added up, leaving students feeling drained. 

Online student Ida Behnami ’21 has been having trouble staying engaged during Zoom classes. 

“When I have my camera off, which is really tempting to do, sometimes I’ll just go off and do my own thing, or I’ll go on my phone,” Behnami said. “It’s kind of hard. The audio will disconnect from the teachers, or they’ll get kicked out [of the Zoom meeting], and so then there’ll be a disruption in the class, and then it just makes me not focus for the rest of class.”

Teachers who have opted to teach from home have noticed this lack of engagement from students. Math teacher Julie Kennebeck has struggled to connect with her students and understand their needs in a virtual setting. Since only a couple of her students turn their cameras on during class, she finds it difficult to adjust her teaching pace as needed. 

“It would be great to have more of the cameras on when I’m talking to them, just so I can make the eye contact and get the nods and have that reassurance … as a math teacher, I want to know that we’re getting the nods and the clicking, and if I’m not, that guides what I talk about next. I don’t get that on [Zoom],” Kennebeck said.

Kennebeck has been trying to encourage student participation by utilizing breakout rooms and the chat feature on Zoom but is still not receiving as much feedback compared to in-person classes. Online social studies teacher Alexei Lalagos has also been facing a disconnect with his students and is missing the typical classroom dynamic he had enjoyed before. According to Lalagos, during in-person classes, he could facilitate an interactive environment and create collaborative group projects. With online classes, however, Lalagos finds it difficult to emulate the energy levels of previous years.

“It’s a lot different when you’re just staring at 20 black boxes. Maybe they’ll talk to you, maybe they won’t,” Lalagos said. “As we try to chat directly to students or say their name, or ‘Are you there, are you there?’ We don’t know if they’re making a sandwich or having internet troubles or whatever. It’s sort of defeating, and I don’t know what’s going on behind there.”

It’s sort of defeating, and I don’t know what’s going on behind there.”

— Alexei Lalagos

According to Christopher Anders, a counseling psychology doctoral student at the University of Iowa, virtual communication can contribute to confusion and disconnect between students and teachers. He attributes this to the fact that crucial nonverbal communication cues are often missed online. 

“You’re only getting like 10% of someone [on Zoom]. If someone gets overwhelmed or stressed, they might be bouncing their leg, they might be crossing their arms and sort of closing off. You lose a lot of those important [cues] from the shoulders down … so you lose a lot of that information,” Anders said. “All the normal nonverbals that we have are just gone, which might cause us to engage in a lot of extra effort in order to actually be paying attention and focusing in.”

He believes this leads to a disruption in the natural rhythm of conversations and can cause anxiety among speakers. With an unfamiliar platform of communication, Anders notes navigating a new set of social norms can be mentally taxing. The inability to recognize social cues and responses after speaking over Zoom can cause uncertainty and discomfort.

“That leaves us often guessing as to how [we are] being received by others, especially when you’re in the middle of a Zoom class or something and everyone’s mics are muted,” Anders said. “Can you imagine in a normal everyday conversation in a group saying something and then everyone just sits there silently staring at you?”

As online students learn virtually, screen time has skyrocketed, and many no longer get physical activity throughout the day. Aidan Ohl ’22 takes seven classes online and has had to take more time reviewing material outside of class than normal, leading to even more time spent on his computer.

“I think really just having to stare at one place while staying in one place, it’s a combination of a psychological thing of not moving, not going between different classes. Everything kind of feels the same, and you’re looking at a screen for four hours straight,” Ohl said.

As a result, some online students and teachers have been experiencing physical symptoms like eye strain and back pain. Along with muscle fatigue and poorer eyesight, Kennebeck has been suffering from neck pain and had to get a larger computer monitor to encourage better posture.

A sedentary lifestyle and excessive screen time have also made it difficult for Behnami to stay motivated and focused during class.

“I have started to get migraines … so I have to take an aspirin or something every time before class and then it’s hard to focus, but then I don’t want to turn off my camera or my computer because I have to listen to what the teacher says,” Behnami said. “It’s just kind of finding that balance between ‘Do I want to watch the computer and have a worse headache?’ or ‘Do I just want to kind of quit?’”

It’s just kind of finding that balance between ‘Do I want to watch the computer and have a worse headache?’ or ‘Do I just want to kind of quit?’”

— Ida Behnami '21

Anders believes another factor contributing to fatigue is technological distractions and overexertion. Endless possibilities for multitasking online and many faces displayed at once in gallery view can be mentally overwhelming.

“There’s so much stimulus that’s constantly coming in all day … that we don’t have a break from,” Anders said. “That in itself can be exhausting because it forces us to pay attention for a really long time and try to hyperextend our focus.”

Lalagos has been struggling with focusing on only one task while teaching and ensuring he is accessible to all his students during class through many different forms of communication. 

Xiaoyi Zhu

“I have my computer here, I’ve got windows open on here, Zoom has a chat feature that your students are interacting with there … there’s all of these constant things coming all the time, and it’s really tiring to deal with all of that,” Lalagos said.

With online students and teachers working from home, some have been finding it challenging to maintain a work-life balance. According to Anders, the lack of a separation between a workspace and relaxation place creates a constant reminder of stress and work deadlines.

“We just don’t have much of a break from it and where we can take those breaks ends up being the same place … We’re constantly plugged in or constantly in the space that we’re working, [and] that stress doesn’t necessarily go away,” Anders said.

As a result of this never-ending fatigue, some students have reported low motivation levels. Behnami has been finding she doesn’t put as much effort into learning and schoolwork and believes feeling disconnected with her teachers and classmates has further contributed to her lack of motivation.

“[Zoom] just doesn’t connect us in the way that we’re used to … It often leaves us feeling more lonely and disconnected … and so it ends up being less rewarding,” Anders said. “There’s also the reason for why we’re doing this and why we’re here … Zoom might even be a reminder that we are sort of stuck in this world and a little bit helpless or out of control on that.” 

This story was originally published on West Side Story on November 22, 2020.