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'Possible but difficult': Students, instructors manage the struggles of Zoom classes

DTH Photo Illustration. Students struggle to stay focused during Zoom classes as they tend to be easily distracted and have difficulties making connections with instructors and fellow students.

Students’ day-to-day routines are altered with Zoom classes, and the new online learning format leaves some students struggling to stay focused and engaged.

Some students are more easily distracted during Zoom classes and say it is harder for them to make connections with instructors and fellow classmates. But finding structure and creating a routine can help. 

Struggling to focus

Maya Tadross, a psychology major at UNC, said not being in a classroom makes it harder for her to focus.

“With Zoom, you can be doing it really anywhere, so wherever I am, my brain feels like it’s not the place and time for learning,” Tadross said. “It’s very easy to just get caught up in something else for a few seconds and then be totally behind.”

Sociology major Katelyn Bailey said when she attends early morning Zoom classes in her dark room, she can easily fall back asleep. She said the lack of structure can be difficult.

“It can be a good thing for if you want to go do something for the day and you can just Zoom from another house, but it’s definitely not good as opposed to having to get up and walk to class and being awake,” she said.

Tadross and Bailey both said they prefer synchronous classes to asynchronous ones, where they struggle to keep up with recorded lectures.

Marc Howlett, an academic coach at UNC’s Learning Center, said the lack of structure and transitional time that comes with Zoom is an issue for many students he has worked with.

“One of the main differences between Zoom classes and in-person classes is that in person, you need to go somewhere, you don’t live in your classroom,” he said. “So, you have to get up, you have to walk or take the bus, and there’s a transitional period there.”

Creating structure and focusing on what he calls “the fundamentals of life” — like eating, sleeping, going outside, exercising, interacting and connecting with other people — will help students with their academics, Howlett said.

“This may all seem like non-academic stuff, but all of those things will help with Zoom classes,” Howlett said. “You’ll be much better able to attend classes, to be engaged to do your work.”

Tadross said she makes an effort to get fresh air and exercise to cope with having so much screen time.

Creating connections

Another barrier to staying engaged over Zoom is the difficulty of making connections in class, Howlett said. For some students, he said it is harder to participate and get to know their classmates and professors over Zoom.

“Some of the students that have had pretty good success are ones that reach out to professors, go to office hours, try to connect with fellow students,” Howlett said. “Of course, it takes more effort to do that at the beginning, but any way to increase that sort of interpersonal connection within classes seems to be helpful.”

In Tadross’ chemistry lab, she said students are graded each week on participation, which includes keeping their camera on for about two hours.

“Even though I personally don’t like having my camera on, it does help me focus better because I’m aware that other people can see me and see if I’m kind of doing something else,” Tadross said. “Having a camera on you for that long just seems a little scary, to be honest.”

Bailey said she learns better with her camera off, but will turn it on if everyone’s camera is off and she feels bad for the professor.

Gabriel Trop, an associate professor of German and adjunct associate professor of comparative literature, said it is important for students to participate and interact in his language classes. He uses breakout rooms for students to discuss texts. But he said they do not work as well as an in-person class, where he can monitor different groups and more easily answer questions.

Trop said building community in his classes has also been more difficult.

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“So much of teaching is energy,” he said. “It’s about smiling, laughing, telling jokes, building a community. In language learning in particular, language learning happens when meaning is being created and negotiated and there are real conversations that are emerging, and that’s been possible but difficult over Zoom.”

Trop said he tries to make it easier for students to engage by asking students yes or no questions that can develop into a discussion, instead of letting open questions hang in the air or randomly calling on students.

Howlett said students who are struggling to stay engaged in Zoom classes should reach out to their teaching assistants and professors for help. They can also make an appointment at the Learning Center or the Writing Center for help with academics and time management.

Though Trop said he has been very impressed with how his students have motivated themselves to learn online in this difficult time, he said Zoom classes cannot become the new normal.

“There’s really no replacing the cognitive benefits of an engaged and embodied communicative situation," Trop said.