Zoom fatigue: A new way to be exhausted in college

Sunday, September 6, 2020 - 5:03pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

Walking briskly to my French class to escape the Michigan chill, I savor the blinding morning sun and let the autumn breeze tangle my hair as I weave through the bottlenecks of people in Angell Hall to arrive at my first class just a little bit early. My classmates line the narrow Tisch hallway, most of them scrolling mindlessly on their phones, some chatting about today’s homework — what they did not understand or failed to complete, fighting sleeplessness under a dim, dorm-room light. When 9 a.m. hits, I exchange smiles with the cute boy leaving the previous section, make a joke about being unable to speak French and head in for 50 minutes of the bittersweet pain that is LSA’s language requirement. A year later, these are little moments that I, that we, do not have this fall. Now, with approximately 78 percent of University of Michigan undergraduate credits taking place entirely online this fall, most of our education is entirely remote. Bright lecture halls and poorly painted discussion rooms with more bodies than desks have been replaced with our own homes, apartments and hours upon hours of Zoom meetings. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the rapid replacement of in-person gatherings with video calls sparked extensive discussion of “Zoom fatigue,” a widely-used label for the impacts of excessive virtual meetings on one’s well-being. Though some of us forgot the annoyance of sitting through an unfulfilling virtual discussion once winter classes ended, Zoom fatigue is making an unwelcome return in our student lives with the beginning of the fall term. Engineering junior Braden Crimmins commented on this phenomenon in an email to The Daily.

“I’m a computer science major, so I spend a lot of my time on the computer just to get my work done,” Crimmins said. “Having all of my classes over Zoom only adds to the time I spend looking at a screen.” 

Even if you find joy in not having to rush from Angell to your organization meetings, seize the opportunity to get ready only from the waist up or revel in the ability to leave the camera off, Zoom fatigue is one of the many new obstacles of our current, unfamiliar learning environment.

The situations in which we attend our virtual classes are stressful in new, profound ways for many of us. Student issues of housing, food security and internet access have been exacerbated by the pandemic, with many students experiencing the financial and emotional strain COVID-19 has created. On top of these stressors, there are also aspects of the virtual classes themselves that inspire the term Zoom fatigue. 

Grainy screens and unstable connections fail to provide us with a large amount of the nonverbal cues that help us learn and engage with our professors and peers. Priti Shah, professor of Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience and Educational Psychology at the University, explained in an email interview with The Daily the difficulties a lack of nonverbals can create.

“Face-to-face interactions rely a lot on visual cues. It is easy to tell if people are paying attention, whether someone wants to speak, whether they are agreeing or disagreeing and so forth. In a Zoom meeting, it is much more challenging to read people,” Shah said. “There is no eye contact, or shared eye gaze to provide these cues.” 

The nonverbal cues we are fortunate enough to observe are analyzed with more effort, energy and assumption, as much as can be gleaned from reading a person solely from the shoulders or head up.

“Even if people are explicitly nodding or raising hands, it takes extra effort to scan through all the people. … There is often a temporal delay,” Shah said. “All of these factors make it necessary to consciously think about things that normally would be fairly automatic.” The conscious attention to these little things is part of what makes hours of online classes and student organization meetings so exhausting. 

The ability to multitask during virtual meetings also opens the gates to a flood of distractions that are less acceptable (and oftentimes banned) during in-person classes, allowing us the opportunity to lose focus during class. 

“As an educational psychologist, I know that under the best of conditions, students’ minds wander while listening to lectures,” Shah said. “At least some studies have found that mind-wandering is more pervasive for online lectures than in-class lectures.”

In our Zoom lectures, we are tempted to text, wander into the alluring abyss of social media and respond to emails while trying to learn — actions many of us avoided during in-person classes to maintain our focus and avoid disapproving looks from our professors. Relatedly, Shah commented on how the ability of professors to be engaging may be affected by virtual classes, explaining that, “Students also tend to be motivated and attentive when they feel that the instructor genuinely cares about their learning … the caring may be communicated with eye contact, or smiles or a brief interaction.” 

For many of us, these seemingly trivial interactions help us feel more involved in a class, which would explain why their absence can create a less engaging setting, where the constant allure of seemingly higher productivity poses a threat to our focus and learning. 

With all these stressors and changes to our education in mind, it makes sense why so many of us are experiencing the tiring toll of Zoom fatigue. Even more daunting is the fact that virtual meetings are not only replacing our classes, but numerous other social interactions as well, making the onslaught of constant video calls overwhelming at times. Our student organization meetings are now via Zoom — even Festifall used Zoom to interact with potential new members instead of seducing open-mouthed, starry-eyed freshmen with its endless tables and scarily enthusiastic canvassers that are guaranteed by the usual, in-person format. 

On the personal side, FaceTime dinners, birthday parties and hangouts are now a larger part of our social lives than ever. But constant video calls are exhausting and a reminder of the fact that we are unable to experience the once-normal ebb and flow of last-minute plans and spontaneous, in-person connections that create some of the best memories. I miss watching my friend from across the hall eat eight cookies from the Mosher-Jordan dining hall after a night of surprisingly competitive pick-up basketball at the Central Campus Recreation Building more than anything (except Mo-Jo cookies themselves), but I try to be grateful that I can still see her over FaceTime.

There are greater issues of this time than Zoom fatigue, and while exploring the additional stressors virtual classes create for many of us, we ought to acknowledge the monumental benefits video technology provides. We are still able to receive a Michigan education (albeit, at an increased price), connect with our family and friends and continue our lives in many ways because of platforms like Zoom and FaceTime. LSA freshman Megan Mattichak explained some of the benefits of her virtual classes in an email to The Daily.

“Asynchronous lectures help me learn at my own pace, and move ahead of schedule earlier in the week, so that I can be free on days for extracurricular activities that I may have not previously been free during,” she said.

It is obvious this pandemic — prolonged by an ignorant presidential administration and many people unwilling to follow public health measures — will continue to change our world in profound ways, and the pandemic’s implications for the future of education are no different. I hope that in the future, we will once again have the luxuries of dreading a walk to class in an unpredicted Michigan snow, politely turning down canvassers at the front of Mason Hall and cramming onto a Blue Bus to get to our next class. 

But for now, I’ll continue in this new reality: starting each morning after savoring an extra half hour of sleep, watching the sun dance off the calleryana leaves shining through my childhood bedroom windows and wandering to my desk donning third day hair and sweatpants, grateful for another day and another 50 minutes of the bittersweet pain that is LSA’s language requirement.