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Zoomed out? Zoom In: Simple Tips for Improving the Zoom Room Experience

By Annette Finley-Croswhite

Here we are back at it again. A new semester has dawned, and it resembles the last one, with COVID-19 raging and restrictions imposed on classroom formats. Most of us are facing more courses online and communicating with our students via Zoom. For some, the transition last year was difficult; for most, it was new territory. Now, we've been teaching with Zoom for almost a year, and our students have learned what to expect. With familiarity, however, comes further hardship. Some of us and our students are already experiencing Zoom fatigue and Zoom overload, and the semester has just begun.

Fortunately, ITS has given us a marvelous Course Collaboration Tool, making it technically much easier to operate within the online environment. In addition, we offer some basic Zoom tips to keep in mind as you start the semester, along with suggestions on how to avoid or minimize Zoom fatigue.

  1. Pre- and post-class Zoom rooms: Allow students to talk ahead of scheduled class time. Open the Zoom room 10-15 minutes early so that students can arrive and get to know each other and you. Students report that they appreciate this option because, during the pandemic, some of them have little informal interaction with their classmates. Alternatively, keep the Zoom room open 10-15 minutes after a class for the same purpose and to allow students to communicate with you directly. Students comment that post-class conversation is more important than ever given pandemic restrictions.

  2. Office hours: Publish your virtual office hours and reference them during the first class so that students know how to meet with you. Welcome them to your virtual office; otherwise, they might not come. This suggestion may seem obvious, but evidence indicates that many faculty, while posting virtual office hours on their syllabi, don't necessarily indicate to students that they should come.

  3. Use the chat: Begin class with an activity. Start with a question and have students respond in the chat or via conversation. This is a low-stakes assignment that encourages collective thinking, and by using the chat box students are writing as well. Control the chat box by giving students time to reflect, but don't have them hit enter until you tell the whole class to do so. This way their thinking is not distracted by how quickly some students answer, and they do not see other responses until everyone is finished.

    The chat box is an excellent tool for gauging student learning. Pause the lesson from time to time and invite students to use the chat box to comment on the course content. You can also monitor their questions and determine whether they understand the material or are confused. If the course is large, a TA can help monitor the chat and let you know when you need to slow down. The polling tool in Zoom is also an excellent way to collect information about student learning and helps break up the class format as well.

  4. Breakout rooms: By now we are all familiar with breakout rooms. Use them early on — even the first day of class — to build community. Students want to make connections, not just with ideas but with each other. They can do this via breakout rooms. Group dialogue also promotes critical thinking and communication skills, especially when students are given a specific task they can work on together. It's best to use breakout rooms in the beginning or middle of class. If you wait until the end, the activity may not be taken as seriously as you would like. Students tend to "pack up" near the end of class, even if this packing up is merely mental. Some might even use that point to leave the class early.

    Make sure the prompt that students are given for a breakout room assignment is designed to encourage them to discuss rather than simply tell what they know. Additionally, consider the size of breakout rooms. Smaller groups work best, as large groups can become unwieldy. Most educational professionals recommend breakout rooms with three to five students. Depending on your class size, that may not be possible, but do try to keep the size of groups small.

    Breakout room activities help students engage in active learning and take charge of their acquisition and use of knowledge. Make sure that students in a breakout room know exactly what they are supposed to do. Give specific instructions and explain expectations in writing; students indicate that breakout rooms can be awkward if no one talks or if discussion wanders from the topic. Ask for a summary of their work, generated in the form of a shared document, such as a Google Doc.

  5. Avoid Zoom fatigue: We all know that Zoom Fatigue is real for our students and ourselves, a by-product of the coronavirus pandemic. It can be hard to focus on listening when so many of our interactions these days are on Zoom and similar virtual platforms. Many users report a sort of "Zoom fog" that comes from overuse. In face-to-face encounters, humans rely on all kinds of visual cues to comprehend what is being said. With Zoom, where we are limited to a small box essentially from the shoulders up, viewers miss the hand gestures and body language that convey vital information. For that reason, we might just be working harder at sending out visual messages while on Zoom, and it is certainly more difficult to read cues when a whole class is before us in self-contained cubes. Students report wondering who their classmates really are but have only the images in the boxes for clues. Our working environments cause problems as well, forcing us to try to shut out noisy work-from-home settings or anticipate interruptions before they happen. All of this is taxing on the brain and involves multitasking, which can in fact limit learning. Moreover, researchers have revealed that videoconferencing doesn't fire reward circuits in our brains the way face-to face encounters do, making social bonding harder to achieve. The effect is one of brain drain and gaze exhaustion.

    To prevent or reduce Zoom fatigue, researchers say that it is important to avoid multitasking and reduce stimuli in the Zoom room itself. This means encouraging students to close out programs that might distract them and dissuading them from sending emails or texts during class (advice we might give them in a face-to-face class anyway). Build in breaks to Zoom sessions as well. In longer classes have students stand up and stretch, have them walk away from the screen, even briefly, and/or have them sit quickly and take a few deep breaths. Encourage students to use plain backgrounds when their cameras are on, because fancy backgrounds are distracting and may cause viewers' eyes to work even harder. Finally, researchers indicate that on Zoom we tend to spend most of our time looking at ourselves. It would be good to share this information with students and suggest that they use the Zoom function to hide their own image from their view during class to better focus on the course.

Several resources on Zoom challenges and suggestions for effective use are found below.

Boland, Linda M. and Claire Howell Major. "Simple Tips for Engaging Students in Zoom." The Teaching Professor. January 11, 2021. Tips for Zoom.

Fosslien, Liz and Mollie West Duffy, "How to Combat Zoom Fatigue." Harvard Business Review. April 29, 2020.

Lee, Jena. "A Neuropsychological Exploration of Zoom Fatigue." Psychiatric Times. November 17, 2020.

Sklar, Julia. "'Zoom fatigue' is taxing the brain. Here's what happens." National Geographic. April 24, 2020.

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