The problem with Zoom…confirmed!

I was complaining about the effect of Zoom on students — it doesn’t encourage engagement and leads to apathy — and oh, look, someone did a study on “zoom fatigue”.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, looked for physiological signs of fatigue in 35 students attending lectures on engineering at an Austrian university. Half of the class attended the 50-minute lecture via videoconference in a nearby lab and a face-to-face lecture the following week, while the other half attended first in person, then online.

Participants were monitored with electroencephalogram (EEG) and electrocardiogram (ECG) instruments that recorded electrical activity in the brain and their heart rhythms. They also participated in surveys about their mood and fatigue levels.

The researchers searched for physical changes correlated with mental fatigue, including distinctive brain waves, reduced heart rate and hints the nervous system might be trying to compensate for growing exhaustion during the lecture.

There were “notable” differences between the in-person and online groups, the researchers write. Video participants’ fatigue mounted over the course of the session, and their brain states showed they were struggling to pay attention. The groups’ moods varied, too, with in-person participants reporting they felt livelier, happier and more active, and online participants saying they felt tired, drowsy and “fed up.”

Overall, the researchers write, the study offers evidence of the physical toll of videoconferencing and suggests that it “should be considered as a complement to face-to-face interaction, but not as a substitute.”

I know, that’s a tiny n, tested on a yet another WEIRD group. I also think that for Zoom to work, you have to completely revamp how you teach, and this is obviously just presenting the same content in two different media. Given those problems with the study though, it aligns with my personal experience, and I’ll use it to further justify my decision to cut Zoom out of my life next semester.

Lectures are boring unless you can get some questions and other interactions during it, and I’ve noticed that, when I make my in-person lectures simultaneously available over Zoom, I get zero responsiveness from the online part of the class. I suspect I’ve put them all to sleep.


  1. wzrd1 says

    I’d be unsurprised if the fatigue factor wasn’t due to the medium, but its presentation locally.
    As an example, here, I have my HDMI outputs hooked up to my television screen, a nice 48″ model (I’m sane and avoided getting a larger screen, for which I’d then need a larger apartment, as I’m only 6 feet from the infernal thing). My computer screen is a small notebook, with a whopping 12″ diagonal screen and infamous for causing fatigue – especially to my aging eyes. When watching some videos, regardless of how interesting, on the small screen I’ve actually fallen asleep while rapt with attention! On the television screen, literally a drag and drop to the next workspace, I’m fine even with only a few hours sleep the night before.
    I’ve no idea how to resolve that quandary, as the logistics involved in acquiring larger screens for students dorms and apartments and ensuring that their computers could interface with them is, to put it mildly, daunting on a student or small college budget.
    Don’t get me started on workspace ergonomics…

  2. says

    Staring at a small screen isn’t really an immersive experience. My setup is twin 27″ monitors, and that helps a lot. I can run video full screen and still have a useful workspace. Headphones is also highly recommended. But even at it’s best it’s a poor substitute for real life interactions.

  3. Rich Woods says

    My anecdotal experience of Zoom meetings is that I was much more likely to drift off, mentally and also occasionally physically, rather than pay attention in the same way that I was obliged to do when sitting around a table in an actual meeting. It also helped that a low-resolution camera made the attentive eyes drawn on my eyelids look believable.

  4. billseymour says

    I don’t mind Zoom all that much.  Not everything requires my rapt attention, and I like being able to fidget, or take a biology break, without disturbing anyone else.  Also, because of my currently reduced mobility, during the C++ standards committee that I attended recently, I found it easier to just Zoom into the meeting from my hotel room; and I will definitely be Zooming into the meeting in March because I refuse to sit in an airplane long enough to get to Japan.

  5. DanDare says

    My work is largely remote now.
    We limit zoom to 30 minute segments.
    We have hour long audio only conversations.
    The rest is through shared digital documents.
    Seems fine.

  6. says

    I dunno about academic lectures, but when it comes to work meetings, teleconferencing sucks even worse than in-person meetings. I really don’t know anymore if time wasted on a 20-mile commute is really worse than sitting through a Zoom or MS Teams meeting in the comfort of my home.

  7. chrislawson says

    The more time I spend teaching, the more I think we should abandon lectures almost entirely. Save them for visiting guests of great interest and other special events, but for all foundational/reference learning students should be directed to textbooks and online resources. Face-to-face learning should be small group only. Unfortunately teleconferencing sucks for that. We had to do almost everything online for about a year during the worst of COVID, and it was terrible.

  8. robro says

    The lack of engagement is a two-way street. I’ve been working remote since the COVID lock down. When I’m in meetings with people that are in a meeting room together, it can be a struggle to gt their attention, much less engagement. They can even ignore simple things like the “raise hand” feature to get into the convo. We use WebEx which is better than it used to be, but still clunky. It’s possible that WebEx could improve the experience…or perhaps the team could get some training on best practices for partial remote meetings.

    I’m sure that a college class is a different beast, and as a teacher you tried to overcome that kind of limitation as best you could, PZ,

    A group of my friends used Zoom to get together once a week during the lock down. That was almost an OK substitute. I was even sad when it ended because one couple had moved out of the area so we weren’t going to see them at our regular places once we went back to in person…

  9. says

    It’s been decades since I’ve been in a classroom, but for work meetings I am a fan of using MS Teams because of the amount of traveling it saves. It also allows me to leave the meeting whenever my contribution is finished.

    The only things that bugs me are “ghost attendees”: people who are in the meeting with their camera and microphones off the whole time.

    But whenever I’m training colleagues, that’s always in person and small groups and preferably 1:1.

  10. billseymour says

    I don’t mind what rsmith calls “ghost attendees”, but I haven’t used Zoom in a classroom setting where I was expected to interact with the teacher.

    Back before I retired and was working from home, we’d use Zoom for meetings.  Everybody on the team already knew how ugly I am 8-), and I would certainly turn my mic on and speak up when I had something to say.  When it was one of those “meetings” where some corporate executive wanted to hear themselves talk…well…let’s say that the speaker did not always have my full attention.

    When we’re considering papers at ISO standards committee meetings, the best move is to keep one’s ears open and mouth shut anyway; and one can always raise a hand to ask a question.

    Another reason to keep the camera off is to not force the extra video bandwidth on other attendees.