Many students around the world have had to transition from taking lessons in lecture halls to their living rooms in the COVID-19 pandemic.
This drastic change in environment prompted questions about differences in the learning experience. Among them: does the body feel less stress in a virtual classroom than in a physical one?
The answer may be yes, according to a small study that measured the heart rate and salivary cortisol levels of students, which found that medical students were physiologically more relaxed in an online lecture than in a face-to-face one.
The study, published in the Anatomical Science Education journal In late July, he looked at a group of 82 medical students attending in-person classes or online lectures to measure the ways their bodies expressed stress.
“We know that stress strongly affects learning and memory processes, as well as maintenance of attention,” said Morris Gellisch, a research associate at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany and one of the study’s authors. an August press release.
“To date, differences between face-to-face and online teaching have often been assessed using questionnaires in which subjective parameters such as motivation or perceived stress were surveyed. But since learning has a definite physiological component, this raised the question question if there are any differences in this respect as well”.
The study only looked at medical students and was conducted while they were attending an in-person microscopic anatomy course or the same hands-on course virtually, which means the results may not apply to all experiences or fields of learning.
The researchers noted that focusing on medical students was key to their study; while some disciplines require more reading and writing, many medical schools are based on the development of practical skills.
In a microscopic anatomy course, students learn how to study tissue and anatomy at the microscopic level.
The researchers followed the students in a blended learning seminar on microscopic anatomy, in which groups attending the online course alternated with groups attending in-person classes.
Each day a class was held, one group would be in the classroom physically, while another group would simultaneously follow the class online.
Students who attended the face-to-face classes received hands-on experience with a microscope, while the online students used a virtual microscopy platform to recreate the experience.
For this study, participants completed questionnaires directly before the start of the course about their demographic information and their self-perceived stress levels.
The researchers collected data on the third day of the course. The heart rates of students who attended in person and online were recorded throughout the 120-minute class, while saliva samples were taken at the beginning, after 60 minutes, and at the end of the class. Those in the online learning group had previously been given instructions on how to take their own heart rate and saliva samples.
There were 37 students in the online learning group and 35 in the face-to-face group.
The researchers also obtained heart rate monitoring measurements from the participants and saliva samples on a weekend when the participants were not in class. This control data also included an additional 10 students in addition to those who provided data during the experiment.
The researchers found that the online group had significantly less variability in their heart rate levels throughout the class, meaning their heart rates were more stable overall and less likely to suddenly speed up in response to a challenge. stressor.
The saliva samples were used to look at levels of cortisol, a well-known stress marker hormone that is released in the body after a stressful event.
The researchers found that those in the face-to-face class had much higher concentrations of cortisol in their saliva compared to those in the online groups.
The researchers also obtained heart rate monitoring measurements and cortisol levels in the participants’ saliva on a weekend when the participants were not in class.
Gellisch noted in the release that physiological stress isn’t always negative: In the context of a learning environment, the body in a state of temporary arousal can help with focus.
Stress, in a physiological context, refers to how the body deviates from the physiological ideal in handling a specific stressor.
Another thing the researchers found was that when they looked at the questionnaires compared to heart rate and saliva data, a correlation was seen between greater enjoyment during the class and a higher level of physiological stress, but only for the in-person class. , suggesting that in-person learning could come with increased enjoyment alongside increased tension.
Although online learning has been around since the Internet became a part of our daily lives, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic brought online learning to the fore in many countries, with many schools in Canada largely switching to online learning. online learning or hybrid learning for much of 2020 to 2021.
Studies have been mixed on the impact of online learning, with some online learning students reporting in a 2021 Canadian study that they felt they mattered less in the classroom than in-person students.
This new study measuring physiological stress noted that there was a difference between online learning methods that had been developed over a longer period of time and the emergency remote learning that was instigated at the start of the pandemic, noting that the Virtual microscopy has been around as a tool for learning since before the pandemic.
Although the researchers found a connection between these physiological stress levels and online versus face-to-face learning, the study did not attempt to measure the impact this stress had on actual student learning.
“Future research approaches should therefore evaluate physiological data in different learning environments with a focus on performance differences that should be investigated as individually as possible,” the study stated.