Consider ways to counter attention fading and Zoom fatigue.
It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence.
Are you more tired at the end of a day of teaching than you were during pre-COVID times? Do you struggle to find rhythm and flow during class conversations? Do your students seem to be less engaged? When you’re not leading a web conference yourself, do you find it difficult to resist the urge to multitask?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it’s understandable—the human brain works in ways that aren’t 100% compatible with basic web conferencing practices. Let’s take a look at some underlying issues, then consider ways to work around them.
Have you ever started to switch lanes while driving on the highway, then were startled to find another car next to you? This happens because of what’s called “Troxler fading”: Our brains stop registering things that remain at the same point in our peripheral vision for an extended period of time. This phenomenon is also what makes it difficult for us to stay focused during long meetings. Basically, the human mind is naturally wired to be on the lookout for danger; if it perceives something to be non-threatening, it wants to divert attention from it to something else that might signal danger.
Yes, old-fashioned survival instinct is working against you when you participate in a web conference meeting.
To make things more challenging, being attuned to change makes us easy to distract. As our attention fades, it becomes difficult to resist the urge to surreptitiously multitask, which is easier to do while web conferencing than during an in-person meeting.
A simple solution exists for attention fading: Taking brief mental breaks can help us return to a discussion or task with a higher level of focus (Ariga & Lleras, 2011). But how frequent should your breaks be? In the literature on teaching and learning, you’ll often find 20 minutes listed as the point at which students’ ability to pay attention starts to fade (Bradbury, 2016), and trade magazines for business cite a similar figure for web conference-based meetings: 30 minutes (Thomas, 2010). However, this is the point at which you should switch topics or activities, not when you should take breaks; recommendations for optimal length and frequency of breaks are typically made when discussing a newer phenomenon, “Zoom fatigue.”
One reason faculty often cite for preferring to teach students face to face is the ability to read their facial expressions and body language so they know when they’ve stopped following along or have become confused. It’s highly likely that students also pick up meaning from your gestures and facial expressions. Therefore, body language plays a silent but vital role in learning experience that we may have previously taken for granted.
In web conference meetings, we have to work overtime to track the more limited physical cues that are available to us (Jiang, 2020; Sklar, 2020). We’re often watching several meeting participants’ faces on a screen at once (as we try to avoid being distracted by a lot of extraneous activity going on in their backgrounds), while at the same time, we’re following along with discussion in the chat panel. All of this activity leads to a state called “continuous partial attention” (Sklar, 2020), and we end up having to work harder to glean what typically ends up being far less information than what we’re able to absorb in a face-to-face meeting.
The other challenge is that when we’re constantly on camera, we’re more self-conscious, i.e., we feel as though we’re being “watched” (Jiang, 2020). We don’t ever really relax during the meeting and may feel tempted to look at ourselves in the participant panel—yet another distraction.
This list of challenges represents only a few—what has been left out? Are there others that you’ve experienced? Share them with me below in the comments.
How can you maintain focus during a web conference session and avoid becoming fatigued? Listed here are some possible solutions.
Center your focus.
Instead of jumping into a class session right at its start time, plan for about 10 minutes to get ready. Make sure your workspace is set up, then log in. This will allow you to run required software updates, test your hardware, then clear your mind and center your focus.
Once students start joining your web conference session, focus on their faces and greet each one of them individually to acknowledge their presence. If you have a high-enrollment course, you may not be able to do this with all students at the start of each class session, but try to welcome as many students as possible individually before things get too busy.
Plan for shorter segments.
Chunk your session’s topics or activities into 20-30 minute time blocks as much as possible, and plan for student interaction and breaks. Using your web conferencing platform’s breakout rooms and polling features are a great option for this—they enable you to provide students with ways to actively participate during your web conference session.
Schedule regular breaks.
You could plan for what Clinical Psychologist Steven Hickman (2020) calls the “50-minute hour,” i.e., take a 10-minute break after every 50 minutes of engaged meeting time. Some faculty have expressed concern that if breaks are longer than 5 minutes, students will wander off and not return, but studies have shown that breaks of 17-20 minutes are optimal (Patel, 2014). While this is likely too long for most class sessions, 10 minutes is a good middle ground that gives students adequate time to get up, use the bathroom, and grab a drink without feeling rushed.
Ask questions directly.
Consider calling on students individually to answer questions rather than just posing them to the entire group. Asking open-ended questions (in a high-enrollment class in particular) may lead to a long silence, followed by multiple people talking at once. If you’re concerned about putting students on the spot, try polling them to gather general responses, then use this data to identify which students to call upon.
Enable conversation rhythm and flow.
If you’re leading discussion or lecturing, make sure you pause long enough after asking a question. Counting to 7 before moving on, a.k.a. “the 7-second rule,” works really well.
If you’re in more of a participant role, bring attention to yourself before speaking by signaling with your hand physically (if your web cam is on), raising your hand in the participant panel, noting that you’d like to speak in the chat panel, or establish a conversational “safe word” that you’ll state briefly to indicate you’d like to have the floor. Also, consider directing your students to use one of these methods based on your web conferencing platform’s features and/or if you have a personal preference.
Build in thought-gathering and sharing activities.
Consider having students write down their questions or ideas on paper for 10 minutes, then spend 5 minutes sharing their responses with one another. (In an active learning classroom, this is sometimes referred to as a “quick write.”) Writing down things on paper first provides students with a chance to look away from an electronic screen for a short time and give their eyes a rest. For sharing responses, you could use your web conferencing app’s chat pane, a polling application, Google Jamboard, or a collaborative Google Doc.
Here are some things to consider about scheduling this type of activity:
Start of session: Prepare a list of key questions in advance and share them with students (similar to how you’d share an agenda before a business meeting). This approach typically works better than just sharing a list of topics or keywords because asking questions directly engages students in discussion instead of just communicating information to them (Rogelberg, 2020).
Middle and/or end of session: This gives students an opportunity to process information, make mental connections, and store what they’ve learned in longer-term memory (Huone, 2018). Consider that you could give directions for this activity right before a class break, so students have time to think about their response while they’re taking care of biological needs.
End of session: You could have students submit questions for future discussion. Which topics do they want to discuss further? What do they still have questions about? You could ask students to research these topics independently and present their answers to the rest of the class synchronously during your next session or asynchronously in a discussion forum.
If youcreate a Google Doc for your activity, encourage students to respond to each other by adding comments. After the meeting, you can review the document’s version history to see who actively participated in the activity.
Make time for personal/informal conversation.
In an online format, without participants in the room with us so we can read their body language and facial expressions, we might feel tempted to get right down to business (Davis, 2018). Consider, however, that informal, personal conversation is what builds connection between you and your students. Here are a couple of conversation-starter ideas:
Ask questions that lead to storytelling, like “How did you get your name?” Often, there’s a little story behind it based on family dynamics or traditions, which means it’ll naturally lead to more detailed responses than something like, “What are your hobbies?”
Ask students to set a video background to a place they’d like to visit or a scene from their favorite movie or TV series. This will let you take advantage of a feature that’s only available in while web conferencing.
Consider that taking the time to make personal connections during your class meeting will build trust with and among your students, which in turn means they’ll be more comfortable when contributing to discussions and answering questions.
Don’t change what you don’t have to.
If you keep your teaching practices as close to the same as possible, the switch to web conferencing will be less disorienting for students. Here are some you may want to replicate:
Show up early and stay late at your web conference session so that you can answer student questions, as you would in a physical classroom.
Encourage students to physically raise their hands when they have questions if you’re able to see all of them on your screen at once; this not only keeps in place a physical classroom practice but also has students move their bodies, which helps them stay focused (Kohn, 2020).
Begin and end your course in the same way, as this helps to create a consistent rhythm that’s reassuring for students.
Acknowledge the situation.
Don’t forget to remind yourself and share with your students that web conferencing is what Hickman (2020) called “a new place between presence and absence” (para. 15). We’re only beginning to learn to navigate and occupy it.