Skip to content

Zoom: Shut Off the Camera and Boost Learning

New research out of UCLA’s psychology department suggests that students who leave their computer’s camera turned on during live online classes learn significantly less than classmates who shut their cameras off.

Published in the January 2023 edition of the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, the study suggests that camera anxiety might decrease learning and retention in online courses more than previously thought.

In response to the Covid pandemic, colleges and universities started to offer live remote instruction using online meeting platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet, that were originally designed for business and enterprise customers. Early in 2020, students started to express their perceptions that online classes using these platforms might contribute to their feeling worn out. This phenomena has since gained names like “online class fatigue,” “meeting fatigue” or “Zoom fatigue.”

Mastering the Art of Self View

All these platforms provide a self-viewing window that enables students to view the live, real-time video of themselves that their instructor and classmates also see on their screens. This function appears under various brand names within different video meeting client applications. For example, Zoom calls its implementation Self View, and as this video shows, so does Google Meet. Microsoft introduced similar functionality within its Teams platform during the first quarter of 2022 as a menu command labeled Hide For Me.

Many students don’t know that they can control so much of this video display functionality. For instance, on the Zoom platform, students have complete control over whether their video is turned on or off. They can also control whether they hide or show themselves in their own Self View video display window for each meeting.

Should a student turn their video on during a class with multiple participants—typically their instructor and classmates—by default, that video automatically displays to all participants, including that student. The student then can turn their video on and off to control whether other students can see them. If students hide themselves, their own video display window disappears from their screen, leaving additional room for them to view other participants within the gallery. If students show themselves, their own video display window reappears on their screen, which shows how they look to others but reduces the dimensions of the other participants’ gallery windows.

In other words, the Self View function allows students to do something they generally can’t do before, during, or after in-person lectures: monitor their looks continuously in real time. Unless a student has brought a small mirror with them to the lecture hall, there’s no way that they can view their own appearance during an on-campus class.

By contrast, online meeting software platforms like Zoom, Meet, and Teams not only include this capability, but typically they turn it on by default in all new sessions. However, this functionality now appears to be associated with several undesirable consequences.

Could Self View Affect Learning?

The UCLA study’s principal investigator, Dr. Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, wanted to know if students who left their cameras on during online classes would learn less. Because of some preliminary research, she hypothesized that their Self View images might make them feel distracted or anxious. One of those preliminary reports out of the University of Georgia in September 2021 had already isolated a key finding that camera activation during meetings was the main factor contributing to Zoom fatigue, not merely participation in more meetings.

As a psychology professor with decades of research experience at UCLA and who also manages a well-respected lab, Dr. Bjork might be the ideal researcher to investigate this kind of question. She is an expert on the development of goal-directed adaptive human memory, and recently her research has explored how learning principles can enhance instructional practices and self-directed learning. Dr. Bjork has focused on both theoretical and practical issues in learning and memory, and she’s especially interested in the roles that inhibitory processes might play in efficient memory systems. Anxiety and distractions are two of the more prominent of such inhibitory processes.

Dr. Bjork also sought to understand if the anxious students’ fears were generalized or specifically related to SAA, or social appearance anxiety. In short, SAA is the fear of negative evaluations of one’s appearance. Extreme cases of this phobia may even meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is currently in its fifth edition. The DSM-5-TR’s criteria for social anxiety disorder specifies “marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.”

Three Experiments

Dr. Bjork and her PhD student assistants, Ingrid Tien and Megan Imundo, then conducted a series of experiments during the 2020-2021 academic year. The first of these experiments required 171 undergraduates—51 men and 120 women—to attend a brief, 15-minute online lecture about a novel, esoteric subject not part of the curriculum at UCLA: Russian fairy tales. Half of the subjects watched the lecture with their cameras on, and the other half watched with their cameras off; the research team assigned these camera activations at random.

Afterward, all subjects engaged in a three-phase evaluation procedure. First, participants completed an anxiety assessment known as the STAI or State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, a 20-item instrument used since 1983 by psychologists and psychiatrists to measure anxiety in clinical practice. Next, the subjects took a quiz that assessed their memories of the facts presented in the fairy tale lecture.

And finally, the subjects joined online focus groups with seven to nine other subjects. In these groups, the researchers asked the subjects to talk about how much they thought they recalled from the lecture. Then the PhD students also asked the subjects to describe their online learning experiences in general.

The second experiment duplicated the design of the first one, but each focus group instead included between 30 and 40 participants instead of eight to ten. This time, 124 subjects participated.

With the same number of subjects as the second, the third experiment attempted to isolate the differences between turning off the cameras instead of only turning off the Self View window. In other words, this experiment tested three conditions:

  • Camera off
  • Camera on, but Self View deactivated
  • Camera on, but Self View activated

This third experiment’s evaluation phases were similar except for two changes. In this case, the subjects completed an additional assessment form focusing on social appearance anxiety, and each focus group included between 10 and 25 participants.

Results: Self View Hinders Learning

The first two experiments measured generalized anxiety, and they showed no correlations between these feelings and how much the students learned as measured by their scores on the quiz. But things turned out differently in the third experiment.

This time, higher scores on the social appearance anxiety assessment correlated significantly with lower quiz scores. And when the Self View window was turned on—and the subjects could see themselves just like the other subjects in their group could see them—scores on the social appearance anxiety questionnaire were also higher. In other words, the Self View On condition significantly correlated with both higher appearance anxiety and poorer learning results.

Correlation is not necessarily causation; that’s logic, not statistics. However, this research team concluded that the Self View window’s activation did reduce learning because it increased anxiety about appearance, and the relationship between the lower quiz scores and the higher anxiety was demonstrated through statistically significant measurements. Moreover, other alternative hypotheses don’t appear to explain the variance this team observed within their results.

Interestingly enough, the results do not appear to differ in statistically significant ways related to gender. It appears that the scores of the men in the subject pool showed similar relationships as those of the women.

What Should Students Do?

So, what should a student do if they’re taking live online courses that use a platform like Zoom and want to maximize their learning and retention? According to the UCLA team, if one can’t always shut off the camera, one should at least shut off the Self View function. In other words, stop looking at oneself. Tien explained to PsyPost:

It is very valid to feel stressed or anxious from the general format of Zoom. Try to limit screen time by looking away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes, and use the “Hide Self View” feature of Zoom to prevent the effects of appearance anxiety.

A communication professor and Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab director, Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, concurs with Tien. In January 2023, he told the Washington Post that humans endure increased stress because when we observe ourselves, we’re all predisposed to judge each move, appearance, and gesture.

Dr. Bailenson also suggests that one way to help diminish Zoom fatigue associated with such nonverbal cues might involve reducing the Self View window’s dimensions. That way, the window more accurately reflects the distance away from other participants. He explains that “if you leave the default size, it forces an intimacy we don’t have in the real world.”

He also points out that to lessen pressure, it may help to consider meetings that require cameras be disabled. Dr. Bailenson asks, “Does someone need to do an hour of grooming to be seen for 15 minutes? Forcing people to be on camera may have downstream effects you haven’t thought of.”

In sum, UCLA’s study suggests that students who shut off their Zoom app’s Self View window during live online classes feel less socially anxious, focus better, and learn more than those who leave it on.

As such, it’s important for colleges, universities, and corporate training departments to brief students on how to control their Self View functionality and to encourage them to leave it off whenever possible. All students need to understand how to turn off their cameras and Self View displays so they can learn more effectively, and organizations need to take a proactive role in making sure their students know how to quickly perform these commands.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.