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Why Teaching in a Virtual Space is Draining

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “‘Zoom Fatigue’ Is Taxing the Brain. Here’s Why That Happens” by Julia Sklar in National Geographic, April 24, 2020,

In this National Geographic article, Julia Sklar reports that many K-12 and university teachers are finding remote instruction more exhausting than in-person teaching. Cognitive scientists say that virtual interactions are more taxing on the brain – because we’re trying to make up for the copious information we get, without knowing it, during face-to-face interactions.

When we’re physically with others, we’re listening to the words, but also picking up dozens of non-verbal cues – facial expressions, whether the person’s body is facing us or slightly turned away, their fidgeting, perhaps a quick inhalation as a prelude to an interruption. “These cues help paint a holistic picture of what is being conveyed and what’s expected in response from the listener,” says Sklar. “Since humans evolved as social animals, perceiving these cues comes naturally to most of us, takes little conscious effort to parse, and can lay the groundwork for emotional intimacy.”

During a video call, seeing people from the shoulders up, very few of these cues can be perceived, which puts much more cognitive load on listening to what’s being said. We search for non-verbal cues that can’t be seen, and eye contact on the screen can be disconcerting if held too long, which would seldom be the case in a face-to-face conversation.

“Multi-person screens magnify this exhausting problem,” says Sklar. “Gallery view – where all meeting participants appear Brady Bunch-style – challenges the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.” One psychologist called this attempt to multitask “continuous partial attention,” like trying to cook and read at the same time. A regular telephone conversation is much less taxing because we’re only expecting the voice and we’re not looking for visual cues.

Interestingly, says Sklar, video calls can be a boon for people for whom in-person conversations are challenging – for example, many with autism. However, for others on the spectrum, video calls can be disconcerting because of sensory triggers such as loud noises and bright lights.

It’s possible, concludes Sklar, that “Zoom fatigue will abate once people learn to navigate the mental tangle video chatting can cause.” In the meantime, one trick is turning off your camera and concentrating just on the words, saving video images for when they’re really necessary – or when we want warm fuzzies from a loved one. Another idea is using a phone for a chat and walking around. There’s evidence that meetings on the move can improve creativity.

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