Student Perspectives: How to Create a More Comfortable Virtual Classroom

In this "Student Perspectives" blog post, Sophie Whittemore '20 shares tips on how and why instructors can make Zoom classrooms more comfortable for all students; particularly those with social anxiety, body dysmorphia/dysphoria, and/or trauma.


Video conferencing might attempt to recreate the feeling of sharing a space together, but it doesn't quite succeed. It might even add to the feeling of unease and discomfort for users, especially those affected by some form of social anxiety, body dysmorphia/dysphoria, and/or trauma. Here are some reasons that Zoom can be uncomfortable for students, and concepts that instructors can incorporate to make their remote courses more welcoming for all;

Awkward Silences When Mics Are on Mute

To combat Zoom microphones picking up potentially distracting noises from each individual's environment, most participants end up placing themselves on mute. Though helpful in getting clearer sound, this immediately places students in a more vulnerable and exposed position if they wish to ask a question. In a live classroom, students might feel more comfortable if they raise their hands to ask questions or interrupt a too-fast lecture. However, having to un-mute themselves and watch for visual cues that a speaker has finished their sentence is both confusing and anxiety-producing to do. (Especially when there's a lag or Wi-Fi fails). This leaves students reluctant to ask questions because it places them in a too-visible spotlight for the rest of the class, their image and audio taking up the majority of their peers' screens if cameras are required to be on at all times. Even the most confident student might balk at that level of vulnerability, of talking into a void or vacuum. Despite video-conferencing's promise to bring us closer together, staring at a respectfully muted screen of pixelated faces can only make us feel more alone.

When Virtual Reality Falls Short of Actual Reality

Being off-campus immediately brings up the full reality of living outside an environment specifically tailored to learning. Life gets in the way, and recreating an academic environment just isn't possible for everyone. Not everyone has access to a perfectly empty and quiet room with strong Wi-Fi. This can potentially be uncomfortable for students when it reveals aspects of their personal life that they'd rather not share with their classmates and instructors. From the pressures of family responsibility to time-sensitive errands, employment, time zone differences, and accessibility issues for those with mental/physical disabilities, a virtual reality simply falls short from what actual reality offers in education. 

Zoom Fatigue

The big question... what causes Zoom fatigue?
Video-conferencing simply feels "unnatural" in that we cannot pick up micro-communication cues we'd find in a real-world conversation. (Or alter said cues for neurodivergent individuals). These nonverbal cues can range anywhere from body language to natural pauses that happen when we aren't staring at a screen. But on Zoom, we feel forced to fill the silence. There's also a sense that one needs to perform or exaggerate their voice/ actions in order to compensate for the deficit of nonverbal cues that real life has to offer. This sense of being "on" or having that extra layer of performance can be draining if one feels they must do so to appear attentive.  While you might be able to look away for a brief moment to read a text message or just take a moment to breathe in real life, that's not possible in Zoom. At least, it's not entirely possible without repercussions.  Over a Zoom call, looking away from the screen for just a few seconds already places you in the uncomfortable position of looking distracted or inattentive to others in the call. If meetings are back-to-back or stretched out for the course of an entire day, then that extra expense of energy for "performing" can feel absolutely exhausting. 


On Camera Usage

Allow individuals to turn off their camera.
Having to leave one's Zoom camera on for the duration of a class can be extremely fatiguing, anxiety-producing, and uncomfortable. Instructors should allow people in their classes to turn off their cameras whenever their courses allow for it. At the very least, allow students to turn off their cameras for breaks and emergencies. It's understandable that for smaller, presentation-based or performance-based courses, turning one's camera off for the entirety of a course isn't plausible. But for those lectures which don't absolutely mandate cameras being on at all times, allow students to turn cameras off when they feel it is necessary. Trust that the student who leaves their camera off is doing so for legitimate reasons. A myriad of motives might include: a disability, family emergencies, health problems, time-sensitive errands, bathroom breaks, body dysmorphia/dysphoria, anxiety, trauma, and others. 

Staring at one's face projected in a tiny Zoom screen only exacerbates mental health issues like dysphoria/dysmorphia for the trans community and those suffering with an eating disorder. It worsens anxiety, prompting the anxious person to stare at their image more than the actual class, and it might broadcast a living situation that the student would rather keep private. Not everyone has access to a safe space for learning, and students should not be shamed for turning a camera off to keep these two situations/realities private. If cameras are absolutely necessary (like in a performance/presentation of some sort), have a plain set background screen for everyone in the class. This can be an image related to the class (e.g. a planetary model, an art exhibit), a generic classroom environment, or just a solid color. This would help students who feel uncomfortable broadcasting their living environments by creating a more neutral setting where everyone's background is shared. It also allows for a feeling of togetherness and sharing a space.

Alternative Methods of Engagement

Aside from a Zoom camera, there are plenty of ways to check that a person is engaged with learning. Run activities that require some form of non-verbal feedback like a Zoom poll every so often during a lecture or use a Zoom Breakout room for small group review sessions. There's also Zoom react buttons like thumbs up/thumbs down. An educator can use this as a quick response to their lectures by asking if the students would like the lecture to be faster/slower, or if they understand a new concept. Make avid use of the chat function. Instead of having to "raise their hand" virtually and risk being talked over or ignored in a larger virtual course, allow them to use the chat function throughout class. Let the students ask questions virtually. Give them an ample window of opportunity to respond: a few minutes to form a question, type it, and submit. And, finally, if a student doesn't seem to be engaging with any of these features, reach out to them individually through email. Again, always err on the side of understanding instead of accusation, and practice empathy. 

Peer Groups

One of the simplest ways to transform what feels like a too-large, impersonal virtual lecture into a more comfortable environment is to break the class up into smaller groups. Students tend to feel more comfortable talking to peers or a TA. It allows for a more personal touch than a traditional virtual lecture. There's also the added perk of increased flexibility. When it comes to scheduling discussions with small groups, time slots can cater to the needs of 3-5 students as opposed to 20+. 

Take Breaks

Ensure that your classroom allows breaks. Education requires trust on both the ends of the instructor and the student so that both might receive the fullest benefit of learning as possible. Emphasize that breaks are not just allowed, but that they are encouraged. Screen breaks are healthy in avoiding screen headaches/migraines; they also allow students time to tend to other needs: family responsibilities, caring for themselves/others, financial demands, and other vulnerable circumstances.

Trust that a student is taking a break for what they deem a necessary situation even if you don't understand their exact experience, especially if said person has a visible/invisible disability. This requires mutual understanding instead of ridicule or punishment, especially during a pandemic. If a student seems to be unable to attend class, reach out to them outside of class. Never call them out in front of their peers or enact some form of punishment without attempting to speak to them first. Practice empathy and kindness, and always remember to lead with erring on the side of understanding when communicating offline.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if students seem apprehensive of taking breaks, then schedule a short break every class that allows students to stretch, use the bathroom, etc. Build that intermission into your class schedule, especially if your class takes place over a longer stretch of time. It will be good for you to get a break too.

Build Trust

To create a more comfortable classroom, in real life but especially in a virtual setting, it's important to foster an environment of trust. This means emphasizing ground rules like: Not recording others without permission.

  • No exploiting Zoom features to enact methods of hate or intolerance. (E.g. no abuse of private messages in the chat feature to purposefully target any one person, no changing backgrounds to offensive images, etc.)
  • Respect names/pronouns/experiences.
  • An agreement to build a virtual classroom in a community. Emphasize togetherness and equal importance to everyone's words.

These rules, amongst others, are important to reiterate both on and off-syllabus. 

Thing to Keep in Mind

Ultimately, each virtual classroom environment is different and has needs tailored to their specific subject matter. Even if you think your classroom is performing fine, it's always good to ask how one can do better. Each term's class will bring in new students with new needs and learning styles to be met. Students know what is/isn't working in a class, so remember to always be present, ask, and check in!


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