Erik Peper, PhD and Vietta Wilson, PhD
Adapted from: Peper, E. & Wilson, V. (2021). Optimize the learning state: techniques and habits. Biofeedback, 9(2), 46-49. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-49-2-04
Long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, online learning will continue to increase as better methodologies and strategies are developed to implement and integrate it into our lives. This post provides suggestions on how to enhance the learner’s ability to engage while online with the use of pre-performance routines or habits.
Facilitating online learning requires coordination of the teacher, technology, student, environment and the topic. Teachers can enhance engagement (Shoepe et al., 2020) online through different types of prompts: intellectual (associated with instructor interaction, academic challenge, active learning), organizational (associated with enriching academic experiences by directing students, selecting topics and summarizing or redirecting), and social (associated with supportive campus environments by encouraging social interaction, using informal language and affirming student comments).
The student can enhance the satisfaction and quality of the online experience by having a good self-regulated learning style. Learning is impacted by motivation (beliefs about themselves or the task, perceived value, etc.), and metacognition (ability to plan, set goals, monitor and regulate their behavior and evaluate their performance) (Greene & Azevedo, 2010; Mega et al., 2014). While critical for learning, it does not provide information on how students can maintain their optimized performance long term, which is increasingly necessary during the pandemic but will possibly be the model of education and therapy of the future.
Habit can enhance performance across a life span.
Habit is a behavioral tendency tied to a specific context, such as learning to brush one’s teeth while young and continuing through life (Fiorella, 2020). Habits are related to self-control processes that are associated with higher achievement (Hagger, 2019). Sport performance extensively values habit, typically called pre-performance routine, in creating an ongoing optimized state of performance (Lautenbach et al., 2015; Lidor & Mayan, 2005; Mesagno et al., 2015). Habits or pre-performance routines are formed by repeating a behavior tied to a specific context and with continued repetition, wherein the mental association between the context and the response are strengthened. This shifts from conscious awareness to subconscious behavior that is then cued by the environment. The majority of one’s daily actions and behaviors are the results of these habits.
Failure to create a self-regulated learning habit impedes long-term success of students. It does take significant time and reinforcement to create the automaticity of a real-life habit. Lally et al. (2010) tracked real world activities (physical activity, eating, drinking water) and found habit formation varied from 18-254 days with a mean of 66 days. There was wide variability in the creation of the habit and some individuals never reached the stage of automaticity. Interestingly, those who performed the behavior with greater consistency were more likely to develop a habit.
The COVID pandemic resulted in many people working at home, which interrupted many of the covert habit patterns by which they automatically performed their tasks. A number of students reported that everything is the same and that they are more easily distracted from doing the tasks. As one student reported:
After a while, it all seems the same. Sitting and looking at the screen while working, taking classes, entertaining, streaming videos and socializing. The longer I sit and watch screens, the more I tend to feel drained and passive, and the more challenging it is to be present, productive and pay attention.
By having rituals and habits trigger behavior, it is easier to initiate and perform tasks. Students can use the strategies developed for peak performance in sports to optimize their performances so that they can achieve their personal best (Wilson & Peper, 2011; Peper et al., 2021). These strategies include environmental cueing and personal cueing.
By taking charge of your environment and creating a unique environment for each task, it is possible to optimize performance specific for each task. After a while, we do not have to think to configure ourselves for the task. It is no different than the sequence before going to sleep: you brush your teeth and if you forget, it feels funny and you probably will get up to brush your teeth.
Previously, many people, without awareness, would configure and reinforce themselves for work by specific tasks such as commuting to go work, being at a specific worksite to perform the work, wearing specific clothing, etc. (Peper et al., 2021). Now there are few or no specific cues tied to working; it tends to be all the same and it is no wonder that people feel less energized and focused.
Many people forget that learning and recall are state-dependent to where the information was acquired. The Zoom environment where we work or attend class is the same environment where we socialize, game, watch videos, message, surf the net and participate in social media. For most, there has been no habit developed for the new reality of in-home learning. To do this, the environment must be set up so the habit state (focused, engaged) is consistently paired with environmental, emotional, social and kinesthetic cues. The environment needs to be reproducible in many locations, situations, and mental states as possible. As illustrated by one student’s report.
To cue myself to get ready for learning, I make my cappuccino play the same short piece of music, wear the same sweater, place my inspiring poster behind my screen, turn off all software notifications and place the cell phone out of visual range.
A similar concept is used in the treatment of insomnia by making the bedroom the only room to be associated with sleep or intimacy (Irish et al., 2017; Suni, 2021). All other activities, arguing with your partner, eating, watching television, checking email, texting, or social media are done at other locations. Given enough time, the cues in the bedroom become the conditioned triggers for sleep and pleasure.
Create different environments that are unique to each category of Zoom involvement (studying, working, socializing, entertaining).
Pre COVID, we usually wore different clothing for different events (work versus party) or visited different environments for different tasks (religious locations for worship; a bar, coffee shop, or restaurant for social gathering). The specific tasks in a specified location had conscious and subconscious cues that included people, lighting, odors, sound or even drinks and food. These stimuli become the classically conditioned cues to evoke the appropriate response associated with the task, just as Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate when the bell sound was paired with the presentation of meat. Taking charge of the conditioning process at home may help many people to focus on their task as so many people now use their bedroom, kitchen or living room for Zoom work that is not always associated with learning or work. The following are suggestions to create working/learning environments.
- Wear task-specific clothing just as you would have done going to work or school. When you plan to study or work, put on your work shirt. In time, the moment you put on the work shirt, you are cueing yourself to focus on studying/working. When finishing with working/studying, change your clothing.
- If possible, maintain a specific location for learning/working. When attending classes or working, sit at your desk with the computer on top of the desk. For games or communication tasks, move to another location.
- If you can’t change locations, arrange task-specific backgrounds for each category of Zoom tasks. Place a different background such as a poster or wall hanging behind the computer screen—one for studying/working, and another for entertainment. When finished with the specific Zoom event, take down the poster and change the background.
- Keep the sound appropriate to the workstation area. Try to duplicate what is your best learning/working sound scape.
Learning to become aware of and in control of one’s personal self is equally or more important than setting up the environment with cues that foster attention and learning. Practicing getting the body/mind into the learning state can become a habit that will be available in many different learning situations across one’s lifespan.
- Perform a specific ritual or pre-performance routine before beginning your task to create the learning/performing state. The ritual is a choreographed sequence of actions that gets you ready to perform. For example, some people like to relax before learning and find playing a specific song or doing some stretching before the session is helpful. Others sit at the desk, turn off all notifications, take a deep breath then look up and state to themselves: “I am now looking forward to working/studying and learning,” “focus” (whatever it may be). For some, their energy level is low and doing quick arm and hand movements, slapping their thighs or face, or small fast jumps may bring them to a more optimal state. For many people smell and taste are the most powerful conditioners, and coffee improves their attention level. Test out an assortment of activities that get your body and mind at the performance level. Practice and modify as necessary.
Just as in sport, the most reliable method is to set up oneself for the learning/performance state, because a person has less control over the environment. For example, when I observed the Romanian rhythmic gymnasts team members practice their routine during the warmup before the international competition, they would act as if it was the actual competition. They stood at the mat preparing their body/mind state, then they would bow to the imaginary judge, wait for a signal to begin, and then perform their routine. On the other hand, most of the American rhythmic gymnasts would just do their practice routine. For the Romanian athletes, the competition was the same as their rehearsal practice. No wonder, the Romanian athletes were much more consistent in their performance. Additionally, ritual helps buffer against uncertainty and anxiety (Hobson et al., 2017).
- Develop awareness of the body-mind state associated with optimum performance. This can be done by creating a ritual and an environment that evoke the optimum mental and emotional state for learning. As you configure yourself and your environment, explore how you physically feel when you are most focused and engaged. Identify what your posture, muscle tension, and body position feel like during these times, and identify what you are paying attention to. If your attention wanders, observe how you bring your attention back to the task. Does it help focus you to write summary notes or doodle? Do you flag important statements in your head and then visibly nod your head when you understand the concept? Or do you repeat an important cue word? Find what you do when you are optimally functioning. Then try to reproduce that same state that can be triggered by a key word that tells you what to focus on (e.g., listen to teacher, look at slide, etc.).
In summary, by becoming aware of and controlling one’s environment and personal states that are associated with productive learning, and then practicing them until they become a routine or habit, one can maximize all learning opportunities. This blog presented a few tips, techniques and cues that may help one to maximize attention and increase performance and learning while online.
I noticed when I took the time to prepare and ready myself to be focused and be present during the class, I no longer had to actively work to resist distractions; I was focused in the moment and not worried about emails, other assignments, what to make for dinner, etc…
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Peper, E., Wilson, V., Martin, M., Rosegard, E., & Harvey, R. (2021). Avoid Zoom fatigue, be present and learn. NeuroRegulation, 7(1).
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Adapted from: Peper, E., Wilson, V., Martin, M., Rosegard, E., & Harvey, R. (2021). Avoid Zoom fatigue, be present and learn. NeuroRegulation, 8(1), 47–56. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.8.1.47
After a while, it all seems the same. Sitting and looking at the screen while working, taking classes, entertaining, streaming videos and socializing. The longer I sit and watch screens, the more I tend to feel drained and passive, and the more challenging it is to be present, productive and pay attention.
Overnight, the pandemic transformed college teaching from in-person to online education. Zoom became the preferred academic teaching and learning platform for synchronous education. Students and faculty now sat and looked at the screen for hours. While looking at the screen, the viewers were often distracted by events in their environment, notifications from smartphones, social media and email, which promoted multitasking (Solis, 2019). The digital distractions causing people to respond to twice as many devices with half of our attention—a process labeled ‘semi-tasking’- meaning getting twice as much done half as well.
For many students synchronous online learning was more challenging, especially after teaching was shifted to a Zoom environment without adapting the course materials to optimize online learning. During polling of 325 undergraduate university students at a metropolitan university who were all taking synchronous online Zoom classes, the vast majority reported that learning was somewhat to extremely difficult, with only the minority of students (approximately 6%) preferring online learning as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Survey of 325 Undergraduates comparing Zoom online learning compared to the previous in person classes. Approximately 94% had moderate to considerable difficulty with on line learning.
The increased self-report on difficulty experienced in synchronous Zoom online learning may also affect academic achievement. At the same time, many people have reported an increase in physical, behavioral and psycho-emotional problems (e.g. backache, headache, stomachache, eye-strain, sore neck and shoulder pain, over or under eating, over or under sleeping, over or under exercising, ruminative thoughts related to categories of anxiety/fear, boredom/numbness, depression/sadness, anger/hostility, etc) (Fosslien & Duffy, 2020; Lee, 2020; Intolo, 2019; Leeb et al, 2020; McGinty et al, 2020; Peper & Harvey, 2018; Peper, Harvey and Faas, 2020).
This post explores factors that contribute to zoom fatigue and offers practical suggestions to optimize learning during synchronous Zoom online education. The concepts are derived from our teaching athletes to sustain peak mental and physical performance, with the implication that the same concepts can help students towards sustaining on-topic attention during online learning (Wilson & Peper, 2011). In sports, the coach can help guide the athlete; however, the athlete needs to be present and motivated. Faculty have a responsibility to support, encourage, and engage students while students have the responsibility to configure themselves into an optimum learning state.
Part 1: Factors that contribute to Zoom fatigue
Differences in communication between live and computer communication
Until the 20th century, almost all communication included non-verbal expressions. The speaker used verbal and nonverbal expressions while the respondent would immediately show a reaction to the speaker. There was a continuous dynamic verbal and nonverbal exchange. The listener would respond to the speaker. If they agreed they nodded their head. If they disagreed or were intimidated they would provide alternative body movements (e.g., shake their head) or facial expressions (look away or frown). During normal conversations, both the speaker’s facial expression and body language are noticed and responded to, which are in turn, can be used as feedback by the other person. In large group sessions with many participants, the visual feedback is reduced and facial responses are difficult to distinguish especially the gallery view.
In a Zoom environment, both the sender and receiver are watching the computer screen without awareness that nonverbal cues are essential for the purpose of understanding not only what is being said but also for the implied meaning and its importance. These non-verbal cues are usually processed without awareness in live person-to-person exchange. While sending and receiving are usually simultaneous, there can exist a disconnect between the attached meanings of the encoded information and that of the decoded information due to the inconsistent existence of important nonverbal components. In a Zoom environment, the end-result could mean multiple images of receivers providing the sender with little or no non-verbal cues with which to interpret the meaning they have attached to your message. The person may appear to look at you; however, you do not know whether they are attending to you, have a neurological disorder and cannot respond, are reading their emails, watching YouTube videos, or texting on their phone. Additionally, the nonverbal cues they are sending may not be related to your message but to their reaction to other media, people or distractions not seen by the presenter.
This mode of communication is different from communication patterns that evolved through natural selection and allowed the human species to thrive and survive. For the first time in human history we learn, teach, work, socialize, and entertain in front of the same screen. In many cases, communication in the era of smartphones has been reduced to texting, writing digital responses or reacting to media content on any screen. Over the past few decades, it is possible for people to communicate through more disembodied, off-topic and external modes of interaction. So many types of learning activities vie for our attention and can occur without leaving our chairs, thus, it may be difficult to stay on-topic online Zoom classes (Keller, Davidesco, & Tanner, 2020).
Normal communication typically involves whole body movements (face, head, arms and hands) which tends to energize or sometimes distract the speaker or listener (Kendon, 2004). When communicating with friends-we often move our bodies dynamically and responsively during the discussion. With synchronous large online lectures, students tend to be passive and just sit and watch. This state of sitting and just watching the screen is similar to watching video entertainment where we sit for a long time and are covertly conditioned not to act.
Unknowingly, we have trained ourselves not to initiate action since the screen does not provide feedback to our responses- a process so different from talking and responding spontaneously in groups of participants.
When communication is safe, people interact, respond and chime in. In large groups, just like large lectures, Zoom tends to inhibit this process because it delays social feedback since most people mute their microphone to avoid extraneous noise. This is usually the rule for large groups although for small groups, people often unmute themselves. The physical act of unmuting is an additional barrier to spontaneous verbal responses. This shift of attention induces a delay before responding. From a communication perspective, a delay before responding reduces the spontaneity and is may be interpreted more negatively by the listener (Roberts, Margutti, & Takano, 2011).
Facial Expressions and Auditory Processing
Facial expressions are a critical part of non- verbal feedback and signals to the other person that they are being listened to and provide cues that the interaction is safe. We unknowingly react to facial expressions–processed unconsciously through neuroception (Porges, 2017)–to indicate whether the person is signaling safety or danger. Usually when the person is facially responsive and shows expression, it signals safety and allows communication and intimacy to be developed. If the person shows no facial expressions (a still/flat face), we unconsciously interpret this as a signal of danger (Porges, 2017). The importance of responsive feedback is illustrated in the study by Tronick et al (1975) where mothers were instructed not to respond with facial and body cues to their infant. The babies rapidly became highly disturbed when the mother stayed nonresponsive as dramatically illustrated in the YouTube video, Still Face Experiment: Dr. Edward Tronick (Tronick, 2007). In adults lack of verbal and nonverbal feedback during social evaluations is extremely stressful (Gruenewald, Kemeny, Aziz, & Fahey, 2004; Birkett, 2011).
The absence of social facial and body feedback often makes teaching and learning more challenging. Namely, are the receivers–the invisible, (only their picture or name is shown), partially visible (facial features are indistinct due to backlighting) or ghosting (those whose picture and name are shown but are physically absent from the session)–understanding the information the way the sender intended?
Unlike traditional classroom settings where one has the benefit of seeing/sensing nonverbal cues, the Zoom gallery view often, the speaker may not know what how the audience is responding and this contributes to Zoom fatigue. In addition, the communication bond is often reduced when the speaker does not look at audience and the listener does not respond to the speaker with facial expressions. Zoom fatigue can also be reduced when online teaching tools are used appropriately by involving active feedback responses through polls, chat, etc. as well as asking specific participants to speak and give feedback.
What is unique to the synchronous online environment is that the speakers and participants view themselves. This is the first time in human history that people are seeing themselves while speaking. For some people, seeing themselves may increase anxiety and negative self-judgement- a process that is even more prevalent in teens. Some are self-conscious and some have social anxiety and do not want their face to be shown (Degges-White, 2020). In the past, most of us had no idea how we looked when others or ourselves are communicating—it is totally novel experience to see yourself while talking and communicating.
Reduced physical activity and increased near vision stress.
Before sheltering in place, I would walk from my house to the BART station, take the train to Daly City station and then walk to the university. At the university, I would climb stairs to go to my office, meet with other faculty and walk to the classroom. At the end of the day, I would walk back to the Bart station and eventually walk home. Without any thinking or trying to do any exercise, I usually would do 12,000 steps and about 25 stairs. Now, I am lucky if I do 3000 unless will myself to do more exercise. –Erik Peper
The move to a Zoom environment and sheltering in place meant that we sit more and more which tends to increase mortality, decrease subjective energy and contributes to an attitude of passive engagement, more as an observer than as a participant (Stamtakis et al, 2019; Patel et al, 2018; Oswald et. al., 2020; Yalçin, Özkurt, Özmaden & Yagmur, 2020). While sitting, we also tend to slouch as we look at the screen that may be a covert factor in the increasing rates of depression and anxiety.
This slouching position tends to decrease access to positive memories and allow easier access to negative memories (Peper et al, 2017) as well as interfere with academic performance. Peper et al (2018) found that students have more difficulty performing mental math in the slouched as compared to upright sitting position. To reduce the impact of sitting, Peper & Lin (2012) found that when student perform some physical activities (e.g., skipping in place) for just a minute they report a significantly increase subjective energy and attention levels.
When looking at the screen our eyes only focus on the screen, which is different from in-person communication where you look at the person and then look at behind or to the side of the person. Only looking at the screen means that to focus on the screen the muscles of the eyes tighten so that the eyes can converge and the ciliary muscles around the lens contract so that the lens curvature is increased which results in near visual stress. This continuous looking at a near object is different from normal eye function in which we alternately focus on nearby objects and then look far away which allows the muscles of the eyes to relax.
Numerous students reported that it was much easier to be distracted and multitask, check Instagram, facebook, TikTok, or respond to emails and texts than during face-to-face classroom sessions as illustrated by two students’ comments.
“Now that we are forced to stay at home, it’s hard to find time by myself, for myself, time to study, and or time to get away. It’s easy to get distracted and go a bit stir-crazy.”
“I find that online learning is more difficult for me because it’s harder for me to stay concentrated all day just looking at the screen.”
Students often reported that they had more difficulty remembering the materials presented during synchronous presentations. Most likely, the passivity while watching Zoom presentation affected the encoding and consolidation of new material into retrievable long term memory. The presented material was rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appeared and competed with the course instructor for the student’s attention. We hypothesize that the many hours of watching TV and streaming videos have conditioned people to sit and take in information passively, while discouraging them to respond or initiate action (Mander, 1978; Mărchidan, 2019). Learning requires engagement, which means a shifting from passively watching and listening to being an active, participant shareholder in synchronous online classes. However, in most cases, students have not received information/education or training on HOW TO be a more active/engaged participant in a synchronous Zoom class.
Instructors also have many of the same issues when presenting classes online. They engage in multiple simultaneous roles: presenter, director, and producer. While teaching, they need to engage students, monitor the chat for feedback and look at the screen for facial responses. At the same time, they may face similar technical issues as those experienced by students such as internet connectivity, limited bandwidth, and mastering the technical features of synchronous online learning technology. At times, instructors feel that students expect each presentation to be as captivating as a TED talk. Thus, teaching has shifted from education to edutainment.
Part 2: Practical suggestions to optimize learning
To optimize learning in the synchronous online environment, teachers have the responsibility to reconfigure their teaching so that it incorporates active student involvement and students have the responsibility to be present and engaged. The following practices may facilitate learning:
Be present to learn
Mastering media presence is becoming even more important for everyone. The skill implemented in attending an online learning class will also be useful for professional development. Although the pandemic shifted personal interviews to online interviews, most likely, synchronous and asynchronous video interviews are part of the first automatic screening level to assess candidates for a job (Rubinstein, 2020).
Be visible for the other person looking at you to create a positive impression
Adjust your camera and lights so that your face is visible and you are looking at the person to whom you are talking. Your screen presence is representing you. Does the camera show you engaged or distracted lying on bed? Be aware that you and your background together create an impression. The concept that looking directly at the audience– looking directly at the camera–is not new. Everyone working in media (newscasters, politicians, actors) have been trained to make their faces visible and expressive. This means arranging your webcam at eye level right in front of you and speaking to the camera as if it is the person. Avoid looking down at the person on the screen since the viewer would see you looking look down and away. Be sure your face is illuminated and there are no bright light sources behind you (Purdy, 2020). We recommend that in small group, participants unmute their microphones so that people can respond spontaneously to each other unless there is excessive background noise.
Be a responsive and interactive listener to configure your brain to be engaged
Shift from being a passive absorber to an active participant even if your camera is off or the speaker cannot see you. Imagine being physically with the speaker and activate yourself by increasing your face and body animation as you are attending a synchronous online class. Thus, when you watch a presentation, act as if you are in a personal conversation with the presenter or the material. This means that if you agree, nod your head; if you disagree, shake your head (do this naturally without making it a work task). Do this for the whole session. Our research has shown that when college students purposely implement animated facial and body responses during Zoom classes, they report a significant increase in energy level, attention and involvement as compared to just attending normally in class (Peper & Yang, in press). See Figure 2.
Figure 2. 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, 2021).
“I never realized how my expressions affected my attention. Class was much more fun”
-22 year old woman 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
Configure your body to attend and perform
Sit upright and adapt a position of empowerment. When we sit upright and expanded it is easier to have positive thoughts and detach from negative hopeless thoughts (Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017; Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018). Students also performed better in mental math when they sat upright as compared to collapsed. When students are provided ongoing feedback when they begin to slouch by an app that uses the computer camera to monitor slouching, they reported a significant decrease in neck and back symptoms (Chetwynd et al, 2020). As one of many students reported:
“Before when I didn’t use the app, I had a lots of shoulder and neck pain. Now when I use it, the pain went way down as I kept changing posture to the feedback signal. I had more energy and I was more alert. I did notice that when I would get the alert to sit up straight.”
Optimize concentration and learning
In the online environment, the structure more likely depends upon the person unlike the externally created structure of going to work or to class. Thus, purposely creating a time structure and scheduled time-periods to perform different tasks as time management skills are associated with improved school and work performance (Macan et al., 1990). Create an environment to promote concentration and reduce distractions.
- Stay on task and reduce interruption and practice refocusing on task. On the average we now check our phones 96 times a day—that is once every 10 minutes and an increase of 20% as compared to two years ago (Asurion Research, 2019). Those who do media multitasking such as texting while doing a task perform significantly worse on memory tasks than those who are not multitasking (Madore et al., 2020). Multitasking is negatively correlated with school performance (Giunchiglia et al, 2018). When working or attending a class or meeting, turn off all notifications (e.g., email, texts and social media). Then block out specific times when you work on Zoom and when you respond to email, phone or social media (Newport, 2016). Let people know that you will look at the notifications and respond in a predetermined time so that you will not be interrupted while working or studying. If you work where there are other people, arrange your workstation so that there are fewer distractions such as sitting with your back to other people. When students chose to implement a behavior change to monitor cellphone and media use and reduce the addictive behavior during a five-week self-healing project, many report a significant improvement of health and performance. One student observed that when she reduced her cellphone use her stress level equally decreased as shown in Fig 3.
Figure 3. Example of a student changing cellphone use and corresponding decrease in subjective stress level.
During this class project, many students observed that the continuous responding to notifications and social media affect their health and productivity. As one student reported,
The discovery of the time I wasted giving into distractions was increasing my anxiety, increasing my depression and making me feel completely inadequate. In the five-week period, I cut my cell phone usage by over half, from 32.5 hours to exactly 15 hours and used some of the time to do an early morning run in the park. Rediscovering this time makes me feel like my possibilities are endless. I can go to work full time, take online night courses reaching towards my goal of a higher degree, plus complete all my homework, take care of the house and chores, cook all my meals, and add reading a book for fun! –22 year old College Student
- Approached learning with a question. When you begin to study the material or attend a class, ask yourself questions that you would like to be answered. If possible, put your questions to the instructor. When you have a purpose, it is easier to stay emotionally present and remember the material (Osman, & Hannafin, 1994).
- Take written notes while attending a Zoom meeting or class. When participants take hand written notes versus on the computer they tend to integrate and remember the material much more than just watching passively (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Active note taking leads to focused attention and fewer distractions from social media content (Flanigan & Titsworth, 2020).
- Review materials. At the end of the class, meet with your fellow students on ZOOM or social media and review the class materials. As you discuss the materials, add comments to your notes and if possible, do a hierarchical outline to more easily remember the relationships among the ideas.
- Change your internal language. What we overtly or covertly say and believe is what we may become. When one says, “I am stupid”, “I can’t do math,” or “It is too difficult to learn,” one may become powerless which increases stress and inhibits cognitive function. Instead, change the internal language so that it implies that you can master the materials such as, “I need more time to study and to practice the material,” “Learning just takes time and at this moment it may take a bit longer than for someone else,” or “I need a better tutor.”
Create an environment to trigger the appropriate mental and emotional state for learning.
Learning and recall are state dependent. Without awareness, the learned content is covertly associated with environmental, emotional, social and kinesthetic cues. Thus, when you study in bed, the material is more easily accessed while lying down. When you study with music, the music becomes a retrieval cue. Without awareness, the materials are encoded with the cues of lying down or the music played in the background. When you take your exam in a different setting then you have studied, none of the covert cues are there, thus, it is more difficult to recall the material. Study and review the materials under similar conditions, as you will be tested.
To configure yourself to be ready to study, work, or socialize create different environments that are unique to each category of Zoom involvement (studying, working, socializing, entertaining). Pre COVID, we usually used different clothing for different events (work versus party) or different environments for different tasks (temple, churches, mosques, or synagogue for religious practice; bar or coffee shop to meet friends). Create a unique environment with each Zoom activity. The stimuli to be associated to the specific tasks can also include lighting, odors, sound or even drinks and food. These stimuli become the classically conditioned cues to evoke the appropriate response associated with the task just as Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate by pairing a sound with the meat. Taking charge of the conditioning process may help many people to focus on their task as so many students use their bedroom, kitchen or living room for Zoom work which is not always conducive for learning or work.
- Wear task specific clothing just as you would have done going to work or school. When you plan to study, put on your study T-shirt. In time, the moment you put on the study T-shirt, you are cueing yourself to focus on studying. When finishing with studying, change your clothing.
- Arrange task specific backgrounds for each category of Zoom task. Place a different background such as a poster or wall hanging behind the computer screen-one for studying and another for entertainment. When finished with the specific Zoom event, take down the poster and change the background.
Optimize arousal and regenerate vision
- The longer we sit the more passive we tend to become. Teachers will benefit by interrupting the passive transfer of information by guiding students in fun short movements to increase arousal. If instructors fail to put in movement breaks, students sitting in front of screens can remind themselves to move. The challenge is that we are usually unaware of how much time has passed as we are captured by the screen. It is often helpful to use an app such as StretchBreak to remind yourself to get up and move.
- Get up and move every 30 minutes. After sitting for 30 minutes stretch, wiggle and move. Do the movements with vigor or even dance, look up and reach up. When you stand up and move your legs and feet, you tighten and relax your calf muscles that pump the venous blood and lymph fluids that have been pooling in your legs back to your heart. The calf muscle is often called the second heart because in facilitates venous blood return.
- Regenerate vision. Our eyes tend to get tired and world looks blurry. Interrupt the near vision stress by allowing the eyes to relax and regenerate.
- Palming. Bring your hands to your face and cup the hands so that there is no pressure on your eyeballs. Allow the base of the hands to touch the cheeks while the fingers are interlaced and resting your forehead. Then with your eyes closed imagine seeing black. Breathe slowly and diaphragmatically while feeling the warmth of the palm soothing the eyes. Feel your shoulders, head and eyes relaxing and do this for five minutes (Schneider, 2016; Peper, 2021).
- Look at the distance. Interrupt near visual stress (convergence of the eyes and tightening of the ciliary muscle around the lens allows us to focus on the screen) by looking away at the far distance. Every so look at the clouds, top of trees or rooftops outside the window to relax the eyes.
By activating the evolutionary communication patterns that allowed us to survive and thrive and using known performance enhancement skills derived from peak performance training, we can enhance involvement and productivity. The instructor needs to stay current on methods that keep students attention. At the same time, students have a responsibility to configure themselves to optimize learning. We recommend practices 1) to be present and learn, 2) optimize concentration and learning, 3) create an environment to trigger the appropriate mental and emotional state for learning, and 4) optimize arousal and regenerate vision. By taking charge of your own teaching/learning process and configuring yourself to be present through active participation, learning is enhanced.
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 We thank Professor Jackson Wilson for his incisive comments.
 In this paper will use Zoom as the example for synchronous online teaching although the concepts may apply equally to other platforms such Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.
 Zoom and other synchronous online platforms provide tools to indicate that you would like to speak (e.g., electronic hand raising); however, it is an issue of how the class session is designed (e.g., do you use breakout rooms, are there structured requests for interaction).
 Zoom has a feature to hide yourself. Start or join a Zoom meeting. The meeting automatically begins in Speaker View and you can see your own video. Then, right-click your video to display the menu, then choose Hide Myself.
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