Erik Peper and Amber Yang
“Instead of zoning out and being on my phone half the time. I felt more engaged in the class and like I was actually learning something.” -21 year old college student
Before the pandemic, roughly, two-thirds of all social interactions were face-to-face—and when the shelter-in-place order hit our communities, we were all faced with the task of learning how to engage virtually. The majority of students reported that taking online classes instead of in person classes is significantly more challenging. It is easier to be distracted and multitask online—for example, looking at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, texting, surfing the internet, responding to notifications, listening to music, or drifting to sleep. Hours of watching TV and/or streaming videos have conditioned many people to sit and take in information passively, which discourages them from actively responding or initiating. The information is rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appears. Effectively engaging on Zoom requires a shift from passively watching and listening to being an active, creative participant.
Another barrier to virtual engagement is that communicating online does not engage all senses. A considerable amount of our communication is nonverbal—sounds, movement, visuals, physical structures, touch, and body language. Without these sensory cues, it can be difficult to feel socially connected on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet to sustain attention and to focus especially if there are many people in the class or meeting. Another challenge to virtual learning is that without the normal environment of a classroom, many students across the country are forced to learn in emotionally and/or physically challenging environments, which gets in the way of maintaining attention and focus. The Center for Disease Prevention (CDC) reported that anxiety disorder and depressive disorder have increased considerably in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic (Leeb et al, 2020; McGinty et al, 2020). Social isolation, stay-at-home orders, and coping with COVID-19 are contributing factors affecting mental health especially for minority and ethnic youth. Stress, anxiety and depression can greatly affect students’ ability to learn and focus.
The task of teaching has also become more stressful since many students are not visible or appear still-faced and non-responsive. Teaching to non-responsive faces is significantly more stressful since the presenter receives no social feedback. The absence of social feedback during communication is extremely stressful. It is the basis of Trier Social stress test in which a person presents for five minutes to a group of judges who provide no facial or verbal feedback (Allen et al, 2016; Peper, 2020).
The Zoom experience especially in a large class can be a no win situation for the presenter and the viewer. To help resolve this challenge, we explored a strategy to increase student engagement and reduce social stress of the teacher. In this exploration, we asked students to rate their subjective energy level, attention and involvement during a Zoom conducted class. For the next Zoom class, they were asked to respond frequently with facial and body expressions to the presentation. For example, students would expressively shake their head no or yes and/or use facial expressions to signal to the teacher that they were engaged and listening. Other strategies included giving thumbs up or thumbs down, making sounds, and changing your body posture as a response to the presentation. Watch the superb non-judgmental instructions adapted for high school students by Amber Yang.
When college students purposely implement and increase their animated facial and body responses by 123% during Zoom classes, they report a significant increase in frequency of animation (ANOVA (F(1,70) = 30.66, p < .0001), energy level (ANOVA (F(1,70) = 28.96, p < .0001), attention (ANOVA (F(1,70) = 16.87, p = .0001) and involvement (ANOVA (F(1,69) = 10.70, p = .002) as compared just attending normally in class (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Change in subjective energy, attention and involvement when the students significantly increase their facial and body animation by 123 % as compared to their normal non-expressive class behavior (Peper & Yang, in press).
“I never realized how my expressions affected my attention. Class was much more fun” -22 year old college student
“I can see how paying attention and participation play a large role in learning material. After trying to give positive facial and body feedback I felt more focused and I was taking better notes and felt I was understanding the material a bit better.” –28 year old medical student
These quotes are a few of the representative reports by more than 80% of the students who observed that being animated and responsive helped them to stay present and learn much more easily and improve retention of the materials. For a few students, it was challenging to be animated as they felt shy, self-conscious and silly and kept wondering what other students would think of them.
Having students compare two different ways of being in Zoom class is a useful assignment since it allows students to discover that being animated and responsive with facial/body expression improves learning. So often we forget how our body impacts our thoughts and emotions. For example, when students were asked to sit in a slouched position, they reported that it was much easier to recall hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories and more difficult to perform mental math in the slouched position. While in the upright position it was easier to access positive empowering memories and easier to perform mental math (Peper et al, 2017; Peper et al, 2018).
Experience how body posture affects emotional recall and feeling (adapted from Alda, 2018).
1) Stand up and configure your body in a position that signals defeat, hopelessness and depression (slouching with the head down). While holding this position, recall a memory of hopelessness and defeat. Notice any negative emotions that arise from this.
2) Shift and configure your body into a position that signals joy, happiness and success (standing tall, looking up with a smile). While holding this position, recall a memory of joy and happiness. Notice any positive emotions that arise from this.
3) Configure your body in a position that signals defeat, hopelessness and depression (slouching with the head down). While holding this position, recall a joy, happiness and success. Do not change your body position. End this configuration after holding it for a little while.
4) Shift and your body in a position that signals joy, happiness and success (standing tall, looking up with a smile). While holding this position, recall a memory of hopelessness and defeat. Do not change your body position. End this configuration after holding it for a little while.
When body posture and expression are congruent with the evoked emotion, it is almost always easier to experience the emotions. On the other hand, when the body posture expression is the opposite of the evoked emotion (e.g., the body in a positive empowered stance while recalling hopeless defeated memories) it is much more difficult to evoke and experience the emotion. This same concept applies to learning. When slouching and lying on the bed while in a Zoom class, it is much more difficult to stay present and not drift off. On the other hand, when sitting erect and upright and actively responding to the presentation, the body presence/posture invites the brain to focus for optimized learning.
In a Zoom environment, it is easy to slouch, drift away, and become non-responsive—which can exacerbate zoom fatigue symptoms and also decrease our capacity to learn, focus, and feel connected with the people around us. Take charge and actively participate in class by sitting up, maintaining an empowered posture, and using nonverbal facial and body expressions to communicate. The important concept is not how you show your animation, but that you actively participate within the constraints of your own limitations. For example, if a person is paralyzed the person will benefit if they do the experience internally even though their body may not show any expression. By engaging our soma we optimize our learning experience as we face the day-to-day challenges of the pandemic and beyond.
I noticed I was able to retain information better as well as enjoy the class more when I used facial-body responses. At times, where I would try to wonder off into bliss, I would catch myself and try to actively engage in the class with body movements even if there is no discussion. Animated face/body was a better learning experience. –21-year old college student.
Leeb, R.T., Bitsko, R,H,, Radhakrishnan. L., Martinez, P., Njai, R., & Holland, K.M. (2020). Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep, 69,1675–
McGinty, E.E., Presskreischer, R., Anderson, K.E., Han, H., &Barry, C.L. (2020). Psychological distress and COVID-19–related stressors reported in a longitudinal cohort of US adults in April and July 2020. JAMA. Published online November 23, 2020.
Peper, E., Wilson, V.E., Martin, M., Rosengard, E., & Harvey, R. (unpublished). Avoid Zoom fa