Students are less stressed in online courses: study

Many students around the world have had to switch from taking lessons in lecture halls to their living rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This drastic change in environment has raised questions about differences in the learning experience. Among them: does the body feel less stress in a virtual class than in a physical class?

The answer might be yes, according to a small study measuring heart rate and cortisol levels in college students’ saliva, which found medical students were physiologically more relaxed during an online lecture rather than in person.

The study, published in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education in late July, looked at a group of 82 medical students who attended face-to-face classes or online lectures to measure how their bodies expressed stress.

“We know that stress strongly affects learning and memory processes, as well as the maintenance of attention,” said Morris Gellisch, research associate at Ruhr University in Bochum in Germany and one of the authors of the study, in a press release published in August.

“Until now, the differences between in-person and online teaching have often been assessed using questionnaires in which subjective parameters such as motivation or perceived stress were investigated. But since learning has a definite physiological component, it raised the question of whether there are differences in this respect as well. »

The study only looked at medical students and was done while they were either taking an in-person microscopic anatomy class or the same hands-on class virtually, meaning the results may not hold. apply to all experiences or areas 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 rely on developing practical skills.

In a microscopic anatomy course, students learn to study tissues and anatomy at the microscopic level.

The researchers followed the students in a blended learning seminar on microscopic anatomy, in which groups taking the online course alternated with groups taking in-person classes.

Each day a lesson took place, one group was physically in the classroom, while another group followed online simultaneously.

Students participating in in-person classes received hands-on experience with a microscope, while online students used a virtual microscopy platform to recreate the experience.

For this study, participants completed questionnaires directly before the start of the course regarding their demographic information and self-rated stress level.

The researchers collected data on the third day of the course. The heart rates of students attending in person and online were recorded throughout the 120-minute class, while saliva samples were taken at the start, after 60 minutes, and at the very end of the class. Members of the e-learning group had previously received 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 in-person group.

The researchers also obtained monitoring measurements of the participants’ heart rates and saliva samples on a weekend when the participants were not in class. This control data also included 10 additional 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 accelerate in response to a stress factor.

The saliva samples were used to examine levels of cortisol – a hormone that is a well-known marker of stress, released in the body after a stressful event.

Those in the face-to-face class had much higher concentrations of cortisol in their saliva, the researchers found, compared to those in the online groups.

The researchers also obtained monitoring measures of the participants’ heart rates and salivary cortisol levels 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 being in a temporary state of excitement can help with concentration.

Stress, in a physiological context, refers to how the body deviates from the physiological ideal to handle a specific stressor.

Another thing the researchers found is that when they compared the questionnaires to heart rate and saliva data, there was an observed correlation between increased enjoyment during the class and an increased level of physiological stress, but only for the course in person. , suggesting that in-person learning may come with greater enjoyment and tension.

Although online learning has been around since the internet has become part of our daily lives, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought online learning to the forefront in many countries, many schools in Canada largely moving to online learning or blended learning for much of the year. 2020 in 2021.

Studies have been mixed on the impact of online learning, with some online learning students saying in a 2021 Canadian study that they felt they had less importance in the classroom than online students. nobody.

This new study measuring physiological stress noted that there was a difference between online learning methods that had been developed over a longer period and emergency distance learning that was initiated at the start of the pandemic, pointing out that virtual microscopy has existed as a learning tool since before the pandemic.

Although the researchers found a link between these levels of physiological stress and online learning versus in-person learning, the study did not aim to measure the impact of this stress on learning. real student himself.

“Therefore, future research approaches should assess physiological data in different learning environments with an emphasis on performance differences that should be investigated as individually as possible,” the study says.

Karen O. Fielding