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How to help your child learn better in a Zoom classroom

While there may be no avoiding videoconferencing for school, there are ways to avoid the distraction and depression that can come with it

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Madeleine Choir School eighth grader Abbey Trewitt laughs with choir director Melanie Malinka as she attends her choir class via Zoom from the front porch of her Murray home on Friday, May 8, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

It’s been a long year of mandatory online school for many students. By March 25 of last year, Education Week reports all U.S. public school buildings closed to in-person learning. While each state had different requirements about what online school meant for students, nearly all of them have participated in virtual classrooms.

Anxiety, physical issues, self-consciousness and difficulty learning have been some of the negative effects videoconferencing has had on students according to a new study from San Francisco State University and York University in Toronto. But there are some fixes as well.

Researcher Erik Peper, a professor at the Institute for Holistic Health studies at SFSU said there have been lots of surveys showing kids are more depressed and anxious and this one is no different.

“College kids are saying it’s harder to focus their attention and stay present,” Peper said in a phone interview.

It can be especially difficult when students try to watch a lecture and do something else at the same time.

“Multitasking means you aren’t present,” he said. “When we multitask, we really are semi-tasking. We do twice as much, half as well.”

Another problem stems from the way kids (and I will add adults) often position their bodies while on a computer. Peper noted the data is very strong that posture plays a part in how well we retain information.

“If you slouch, it’s easier to evoke negative, defeated memories,” he said, explaining that it puts you in a defeated posture and the mindset that you won’t be able to remember concepts. 

SFSU did a study a few years ago that clearly showed participants could more easily complete math problems if sitting erect rather than in a slouched position. 

Additionally, when students participate in a class online, Peper explained they often feel as if they are viewing a movie, resulting in completely passive watching. 

“The concern here is that students sit back, energy drops and engagement is less,” he said. 

Eighty percent of respondents reported a significant difference in attention and engagement for online learning. Part of the issue is that students expect to be entertained, not simply educated (something Peper calls “edutainment”) and as a result often watch flat-faced, showing zero outward interest.

But for kids to get engaged and show it with facial expressions and comments, there’s a big hurdle many of them need to overcome. “For our younger students, the image of how you look is a big issue,” Pepper said. Some students participating feel very self-conscious about the way they look or sound on a computer screen and are hesitant to pipe up.

But Peper showcased some solutions to many of these problems that have led to Zoom fatigue.

  • Adjust the camera

A student’s face should be clearly visible with no backlight. It will help teachers and students to have a clear view of each other’s faces. Kids should engage more, use facial expressions and nonverbal cues as if they are speaking to the teacher one-on-one.

  • Unmute

If possible, especially in groups of 20 students or less, have everyone open up their mics. If someone has a comment or question, it seems to take a long moment for them to unmute and speak. “If you pause before answering, it can be awkward,” Peper explained. Turning off mute buttons allows people to be more spontaneous.

  • Look into the camera

Treat the webcam like a person in a face-to-face conversation. Learners should look directly into it and then feel comfortable glancing away periodically, just like a normal exchange. Constantly staring at the speaker (or themselves) on the screen gives the appearance of looking down and possibly being otherwise engaged. If kids have a tough time not watching themselves during a class (there’s that self-consciousness again), have them hide themselves on Zoom. To do so, hover over the video and click the three dots to show the menu>choose Hide Self View. While they will no longer see the video of themselves, everyone else in the class still can.

  • Sit up

Make sure kids are in an environment similar to a classroom setting. They should sit upright and be dressed for the day, not wearing pajamas.

  • Turn off notifications

Make sure phones, tablets and computers all have notifications turned off to limit distractions. “When a notification pops up, our concentration fades out and we have to reactivate ourselves to the task,” Peper explained, “so our work productivity is much worse.”

Students are a little exhausted with the virtual classroom right now. The UCSF study found 94% of undergraduates who responded said they had moderate to considerable difficulty with online learning. While the end of virtual classes may be in sight, let’s help our kids finish on a high note and give them all the tips and tricks they can use to get the most out of school via Zoom.