Done right, online learning might be as engaging as face-to-face  

Measures of stress offer clues to how engaged students are with online lessons

A Black woman wearing braids pulled back into a ponytail is smiling at her laptop. She is wearing a yellow hoody and she is sitting in a brightly lit living room.

How much you get out of online learning may depend on how engaged you are with the lesson. It can take more effort to engage online, but classes designed to be interactive can help.

Phynart Studio/E+/Getty Images Plus

Your body does not react the same way to all types of online learning. That’s the finding of a new study. And this research may help educators get you more engaged with online lessons.

During the pandemic, almost everyone had to take classes online. But it wasn’t known if kids would learn well that way. So last year, one research group compared online lessons with in-person learning. They wanted to see how well each type of learning was engaging students.

The team recruited medical students for two studies. In one, some students went to class in person. The rest attended class online via Zoom. Both groups listened to lectures. Both examined slides under a microscope. (The online class used a virtual microscope app.)

The researchers measured signs of stress in both groups. Why? Stress isn’t always a bad thing, explains Morris Gellisch at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. A biologist who led the research, he studies stress, learning and behavior.

Sometimes a little stress can motivate people to work harder. That idea was suggested in a 2019 study. This type of stress can make people more alert and engaged with what’s going on around them. And that could aid learning.

So Gellisch’s group monitored heart rates during the students’ lessons. They also measured cortisol in their saliva. That hormone is produced when people feel stressed.

After the lessons, students answered questions about their lesson. They also filled out surveys on how they felt. Students didn’t report feeling any more stressed or anxious whether learning in person or online. They also scored similarly when answering questions about the lessons’ content.

But their bodies did show a difference.

Higher heart rate and cortisol both signal a boost in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Sometimes called the “fight or flight” response, its activity prepares the body for action. And both of these were higher in the students learning in person. Thinking that you might be called on in class can turn on this response. Your body is preparing itself in case you’re called on by the teacher.

These results suggest that students may be more mentally engaged in face-to-face classes than online, the researchers conclude. They shared these findings last summer in Anatomical Sciences Education.

What happens when you’re called on in class?

But not all online learning is the same. Some lessons are more passive than others; you just sit in these classes and listen to a teacher. Active learning, in contrast, gets you involved. You might be asked to answer questions in front of others or to break into groups for discussions about the material.

So the Ruhr University group compared students’ responses in these different types of classes. One group sat through anatomy class passively. After listening to a lecture, they did some exercises with microscopes. But no one interacted with anyone else — even with the teacher. The teacher asked questions of students in a second group. No one knew if or when they might be questioned or what they might be asked. These students also shared and discussed their work as a group.

The Ruhr scientists described those questions and discussions as “stress enhancers.” Explains Gellisch, these were meant to make the students feel stressed about being called on or being evaluated by their peers.

Again, Gellisch and his team monitored student cortisol levels and heart rates during class. They also measured a protein in saliva called alpha-amylase (AM-ih-layse), another marker of stress.

The students in the interactive group had more alpha-amylase and more cortisol in their saliva. Their heart rates remained elevated. All three signal high levels of stress. And those signs of stress suggest the students were more engaged, the researchers say.

Students in the interactive group reported feeling more engaged with their lesson and that they paid much more attention. They also felt some anxiety. Those challenges might have created some positive stress, says Gellisch. “You might not think of anxiety as a positive,” he says. But he notes that it’s common to feel anxious or stressed when facing a challenge. And, he adds, “You learn a lot in demanding situations.”

His group published these findings in the April Annals of Anatomy.

The findings should apply to all ages

“I could imagine that this applies to learners of all ages,” Gellisch says of his team’s findings. “The human stress response system is very similar in all ages and genders.”

What’s less clear is if the results would apply to all types of classes. Some subjects or class materials might engage students to a greater or lesser extent. The anatomy class was very challenging, Gellisch notes. And “there are several different types of learners,” he says. “Some students might prefer a much more relaxed style of learning.”

Naomi Baron is not surprised that to learn people may not respond the same way when they interact in class, rather than just sit and listen. Baron studies learning and technology at American University in Washington, D.C.

The German group didn’t try to measure how well students learned. That, she notes, would be an important next step. But to get the most out of digital learning, Baron says, you must make the effort to engage with the content. “If you do that, you can narrow the gap between online and face-to-face learning.”

According to this study, simple things like asking and answering questions might help do just that.

Avery Elizabeth Hurt is a science journalist and author who hasn’t yet met a field of science that doesn’t fascinate her. 

More Stories from Science News Explores on Psychology