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Many colleges, including Syracuse University, have ditched most in-person lectures this fall and have switched to online and hybrid instruction. Students have adapted to new routines and learning environments, but many have had difficulty adjusting to this new normal.
No one knows how long the pandemic will last, but schools should consider changing the way they grade students during this difficult time to take into account the real health issues students are facing.
“Just as students are being flexible with teachers who are trying out online methods for the first time, it seems fair that teachers should extend that same flexibility back to students,” said Katie Lear, a mental health counselor who specializes in trauma and anxiety treatment. “Teachers who modify their expectations for what this semester should look like may find themselves with happier, healthier students.”
The increased screen time of online instruction and the lack of face-to-face interaction have affected many students’ mental and physical health, Lear said. In fact, increased screen time has been linked to anxiety, depression and perceived attention problems.
Lear has seen an increase in depressive symptoms among her clients that she attributes, in part, to online learning.
“We are all missing out on so many mundane social interactions: walking between classes with friends, a chat with the barista at your favorite coffee place, small talk with your professor before class starts,” she said. “These little interactions really add up, and without them, even pretty hardcore introverts are feeling isolated.”
Some students’ social anxiety has increased as a result of taking classes online, partially because online classes have increased the pressure of looking presentable, Lear said.
“I hear a lot of concerns about the webcam feeling very invasive,” she said. “Everyone is looking directly into a close-up of your face when you talk, and it feels like there’s nowhere to hide. I find these students tend to be hyper-aware of their appearance on camera and feel self-conscious or self-critical about how they look on screen.”
Although video calls have become an ideal solution to remote learning, they often can wear on one’s psyche. Zoom exhaustion has become a real problem with back-to-back online classes. Students may find video calls to be so draining because they’re struggling to process nonverbal cues, such as body language or voice tone, said Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer of JourneyPure.
This can cause awkward silences or reduced interaction during online classes, making it harder for students to ask questions or carry a conversation with a professor and for professors to engage students, he said.
Video calls also make it easier than ever to lose focus because of the temptation to surf social media during online lessons, he said. The fact that students may take fewer breaks than before is not helping, Wind said, as relaxing can be an effective way for students to decrease their stress and anxiety.
“The walk from the lecture hall or classroom can often be a good way for the brain to take a break and relax before the next lesson, and online lessons don’t facilitate that kind of downtime,” Wind said.
Countless students are experiencing frustrating delays during video calls, too, making technological issues a source of anxiety and stress for college students, Lear said.
“It’s nerve-wracking to know you might be late to class or be unable to turn in homework due to circumstances beyond your control, and many young people I work with are fearful that their teachers won’t be understanding of these issues,” she said.
Unstable Wi-Fi, glitches and the natural lag in Zoom calls can result in conversations being choppier, with interruptions happening more often, she said.
“This can be an added stressor for folks with social anxiety because it is a little harder to settle into the natural rhythm of a conversation,” Lear said.
Shifting classrooms to the virtual world has impacted students’ physical health, Wind said. Remote learning is causing students to experience eye strain because of the increased screen time resulting from attending class and completing assignments online, he said.
Staring at a fixed point on our screen for hours on end can also lead to very distracting and uncomfortable tension headaches. Online learning has induced changes in eating patterns, the experts said. A lot of students are struggling to maintain a healthy diet, Lear said.
“It is hard to eat mindfully when you’re fully immersed in an onscreen task,” Lear said. “This can make it hard to detect when you’re truly hungry, when you’re satisfied, and many people are likely relying more on convenience foods that don’t require prep before class.”
If grazing on snack food mindlessly replaces designated meal times, students may notice a dip in their mood. Moreover, students who are in a significantly different time zone than that of their school may experience a disruption in their eating patterns, Wind said.
Switching to online classes has negatively altered students’ sleeping patterns, and many students have fallen into unhealthy sleep habits, Wind said.
“Asynchronous classes can mean there is a lack of structure to the day, which means there is no incentive to get out of bed before noon or go to sleep before 3 a.m.,” Lear said. “Over time, this can make sleep problems worse.”
Students who are not in the same time zone as their school may also be forced to wake up later or earlier to attend classes, which can disrupt their circadian rhythm and make it difficult to fall asleep, wake up on time or feel well-rested, Wind said.
Students in the same time zone may lack the discipline to wake up for classes since there’s now less pressure to attend class, which also alters their sleep pattern, Wind said.
It’s clear that the ongoing pandemic has utterly disrupted students’ education, impacting the mental and physical health of countless students. But maybe the pandemic will be a good time for policymakers, schools, teachers and parents to rethink education. Currently, schools primarily focus on traditional academic skills and remote learning rather than on real-life skills, which are arguably more important for success in the future.
Although COVID-19 is negatively affecting students, the pandemic has given stakeholders the opportunity to create a more effective method of educating future students.
Jenna Wirth is a junior studying magazine journalism. Her column appears bi-weekly. She can be reached at [email protected]. She can be followed on Twitter at @jenna__wirth.
Published on October 11, 2020 at 9:36 pm