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Is Live Virtual Training Helping Learners?

8-hour training days may be the norm for in-person training, but should we consider this format for Live Virtual Training? Back in April 2020, I published a post called “When Everything is Suddenly Virtual”. In it I looked at what scientists and expert practitioners were saying and concluded that Shorter Trumps Longer (Bowman, 2011) when training online. In fact, expert advice suggests that the ideal session length is anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours. In spite of this, many courses are listed as 2 days of 7 or 8 hours of live training online. Is this helping your participants to learn?

The Problem

Annie Peshkam and Gianpiero Petriglieri of Leading Business School INSEAD say there are 2 main challenges we face with moving learning online. Firstly, we become “fixated on the mechanics rather than on the purpose of learning”. Secondly, we focus “on content alone”. We do this at the expense of learning how to relate to each other in Live Virtual Learning. Peshkam and Petriglieri point out that “learning online is a lot more complicated than setting up a Zoom account and continuing business as usual.”

Quick, We Need to Pivot!

Cindy Huggett’s 2020 State of Virtual Training reports that most virtual training is less than 90 minutes per session. However, there was a considerable increase the number of training sessions of over 2 hours between the 2019 and 2020 survey. Huggett concludes that trainers have hurriedly moved courses designed for 1 or 2 day in-person delivery to an online mode of delivery without considering the implications.

for long-term success, in-person classes should be translated and transformed when moved online. Organizations should seize the opportunity to re-design the learning experience to maximize all the benefits that virtual training has to offer.

Cindy Huggett

Multisensory Humans in a 2D Video World

Many of us spend our days on endless calls. It is a psychological and physical drain. The term “Zoom Fatigue” became popular early during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what is it about being online that makes us tired?

Zoom Fatigue

Dr. Jeremy Bailenson is the founding director of Standford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. In the WSJ opinion piece “Why Zoom Meetings Can Exhaust Us” (2020a), he highlights how video conferencing software makes us behave in a way we would normally only reserve for close relationships. We spend hours gazing at the massive, disembodied heads of the other participants on the screen gazing back at us – sometimes dozens at a time. It makes us feel uncomfortable – a sensation Bailenson calls “nonverbal overload”.

… enduring long bouts of such contact during Zoom meetings with colleagues and classmates can be emotionally draining and can even stimulate the brain’s “fight or flight response.” Needless to say, such experiences are stressful.

California State University Long Beach

In-person Versus Video

When we are in a physical training space with each other, we experience touch, smell, and a sense of personal space. We use all our senses with every interaction we have (Dodgen-Magee, 2020), be that in-person or online. However, much of the sensory data we normally have is lost on a video call. We are multi-sensory creatures and when our senses are dulled, even at the subconscious level, we expend more effort.

In an article on National Geographic, Dr Andrew Franklin (2020) said that because we are unable to see non-verbal cues, our brains have to work a lot harder and the whole experience of being can be exhausting. Furthermore, we experience conversation lags because of technology, so we must be acutely aware of not talking over each other. In fact, even slight delays in response can make us feel anxious or conclude that people are being unfriendly or unfocussed (Schoenenberg, Raake, and Koeppe, 2014). People must employ additional mechanisms to try to avoid talking over each other when there is even a tiny delay (Schmitt et al., 2014) and this is exhausting.

Physical and Emotional Exhaustion

As Gianpiero Petriglieri (2020) said in an interview with the BBC, “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we're not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting.” Moreover, in the same BBC interview, Dr Marissa Shuffler (2020) of Clemson University's College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences highlights that being on video makes us feel like we have to perform, which adds to the stress we feel.

It's Not Rocket Science!

Lisette Sutherland conducted an interview with some experts from NASA. During the interview, Ricky Guest (senior audio/video specialist at Wyle@NASA Ames Research Center) said that 8-hour sessions in one day “don’t work well for a virtual event because you get much more fatigue for a remote participant.” Furthermore, Guest highlighted the problem that remote participants struggle to maintain their attention span for that long and that in-person, you'd be moving around a lot more, not staring at a screen that is always at the same distance.

In a similar vein, The Times Of India (2020) reported that India's HRD Ministry has stated that the maximum screen time should be 3 hours per day for online classes to combat digital eye-strain and back ache.


When we are in an online environment, we are multitasking. In the same National Geographic article that I mentioned earlier, Franklin (2020) says, “We’re engaged in numerous activities, but never fully devoting ourselves to focus on anything in particular”. We must focus on multiple faces on the screen, as well as chat messages, potentially a white board, and non-verbal signals such as people muting, turning their camera off, background noise, etc. Multitasking is also exhausting, stressful and can lead to Directed Attention Fatigue.

What does this mean for learning?

Being online is stressful and both physically and mentally tiring (Bailenson, 2020b; Guest, 2014; Kaye, 2020; Lee, 2020; Locke 2020; Rutledge, 2020; Wiederhold, 2020; Wolf, 2020). You may not be conscious of it while mid-session, but in a training environment, participants, trainers, and producers all experience this regardless.

Freytag et al. (2020) state that multitasking “exceeds and exhausts users' working memory capacities”, whilst Uncapher et al. (2016) found that multitasking had a negative impact on both working and long-term memory. Newcomer et al. (1999) found that stress hormones impair declarative (explicit) memory. Furthermore, we know that prolonged stress harms learning, negatively affects short- and long-term memory, impedes our ability to process language effectively, and reduces our problem-solving capabilities (Medina, 2014). These functions are key to our ability to learn. The implications of stress and exhaustion from live virtual classes on our ability to learn successfully are massive.

How Over Why

In the rush to get online, you may have forgotten that “teaching as a profession is one of the most fundamental acts of service and learning that you can do” (Gathers, N. and Woolsey, E., 2020). The overwhelming temptation for learners and trainers alike was to maintain the status quo.

Fixation on the mechanics over purpose means we forget our “why” in favour of our “how”. If you spend 10 minutes looking at what live virtual classes are available, you will find many organisations offering 2-day training courses of 7-8 hours per day. However, this flies in the face of science, academic practices, and decades of professional experience reports of virtual delivery.

So, if you are a learner faced with 2-days of live online training, ask yourself, “How does this approach help me learn?”

Reimagining Live Virtual Training for Learners

I would challenge us to start to try to reimagine what learning could look like and what teaching in classrooms is for.

Nadia Gathers, Stanford d.school

If you are a professional trainer, take a moment to reflect. Did you miss a trick in the rush to pivot online? Maybe you did not take the chance to reimagine what learning could look like. Perhaps you fell into the trap of the quick pivot and fixated on the mechanics rather than the purpose of the learning. Or maybe you did not realise the impact of prolonged video calls on the levels of stress and tiredness on our participants… were unaware of the impact of this stress and exhaustion on learning.

Now, where does that leave you?

All Is Not Lost! Some Suggestions for Success.

As trainers, it is within our power to maximise the learning experience. We must therefore reduce the stress and exhaustion for our learners. Here are some practical steps you can take to make your training more learner-centric.

  • Be like NASA – break up long days of live virtual training into shorter sessions spaced out over a longer time period. Use this longer time period between sessions to provide learners with opportunities to practice in their workplace and revisit the content (spacing and retrieval practice). Let learners sleep on it, reflect, and come back refreshed and ready to learn more.
  • Do not move your in-person class online! Redesign your class for Live Virtual Training. Take into account the environment and create a version of your class which makes best use of it.
  • Stop lecturing and flip your classroom. Move content offline and let learners pick it up at their own pace. Bring everyone together to discuss, elaborate on and reinforce what they have learned together. Remember the acronym “WAIT” – Why Am I Talking? Make that together time count!
  • Remember why you are in the class. Focus on the need to knows of the Learning Outcome(s) you are trying to achieve and, fascinating thought it might be, let the rest go by.
  • Limit the size of your groups. Back in April 2020, in my post Small Trumps Large When Training Online, I found that 12-15 seems to be the sweet spot here. Smaller groups give learners more chances to actively learn. Smaller groups also reduce the amount of multitasking that learners (and trainers/producers!) have to do.
  • Integrate movement into your training. Movement Trumps Sitting is even more important online and yet harder to do. Think about all the ways you can suggest that learners move while video-conferencing: analog signals like hands in the air or thumbs up, wiggling parts of their bodies, bending forward/backward and side-to-side. You can also ask for volunteers to lead quick 15-second sitting and standing stretches every 5-10 minutes.
  • Stretch and Tech breaks every 45-60 minutes. Put 5-10 minute(ish) stretch and tech breaks in your training plans and ask learners to step away from all tech. Explain that they should not be staying where they are and checking email, but that they need to move around, get air, and get a drink to refresh their eyes, body, and brain.
  • Pair up with another trainer or a producer. Do not forget to look after yourself. If you, as a trainer, are tired and stressed, how can you help your learners learn? Having extra help reduces your cognitive load and makes for a smoother online experience.

A Call to Action

Let us imagine learner-centric training which embraces opportunities for Spaced Practice, Retrieval Practice, Interleaving, Feedback-Driven Metacognition. Think about training which calls learners together to elaborate and enhance their shared understanding rather than subject them to a broadcast or death by slides. Training that takes place as short sessions over several days and therefore puts the physical and psychological needs of the learners first.

Imagine learning which sticks. Imagine that.

Thanks to Sharon Bowman for suggesting concrete actions on how to integrate movement into virtual training.

Further Reading


Bailenson, J. (2020a). Why Zoom Meetings Can Exhaust Us. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-zoom-meetings-can-exhaust-us-11585953336 (Accessed: 1 February 2021).

Bailenson, J. (2020b). Interviewed by Hairol Ma for Slack, 24 April 2020. Available at https://slack.com/intl/en-gb/blog/collaboration/video-conference-fatigue (Accessed 1 February 2021).

Bowman, S. (2011). Using Brain Science To Make Training Stick. Glenbrook, NV: Bowperson Publishing.

California State University Long Beach (2020). Succeeding during the pandemic, Part 1: Learning and studying remotely. Available at: https://www.csulb.edu/navigating-grad-studies-at-the-beach/succeeding-during-the-pandemic-part-1-learning-and-studying (Accessed 14 January 2021)

Dodgen-Magee, D. (2020). Why Video Chats Are So Exhausting. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/deviced/202004/why-video-chats-are-so-exhausting (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Franklin, A. (2020). Interviewed by Julia Sklar for National Geographic, 24 April 2020. Available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/ (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Freytag, A., Knop-Huelss, K., Meier, A., Reinecke, L., Hefner, D., Klimmt, C., and Vorderer, P. (2020). Permanently Online—Always Stressed Out? The Effects of Permanent Connectedness on Stress Experiences. Human Communication Research, 00, pp. 1-34.

Gathers, N. and Woolsey, E. (2020). Interviewed by Haley Hemm and Marlee Burns for Stanford Graduate School of Education – Online Classroom Voices, June 2020. Available at https://teachingresources.stanford.edu/interviews/nadia-gathers-and-erika-woolsey/ (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Guest, R. (2014). Interviewed by Lisette Sutherland for Collaboration Superpowers, October 2014. Available at https://www.collaborationsuperpowers.com/episode-3-collaboration-space-exploration-nasa-sservi/ (Accessed 09 February 2021).

Huggett, C. (2020). The State of Virtual Training 2020. Available at https://www.cindyhuggett.com/blog/2020sovt (Accessed 01/02/2021).

Kaye, L. (2020). The psychology behind ‘Zoom fatigue’ explained. Available at https://www.edgehill.ac.uk/news/2020/04/the-psychology-behind-zoom-fatigue-explained/ (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Lee, J. (2020). A Neuropsychological Exploration of Zoom Fatigue. Available at https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/psychological-exploration-zoom-fatigue (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Locke, H. (2020). The psychological impact of video calls. Available at: https://uxdesign.cc/the-psychological-impact-of-video-calls-dbed57aa792b (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Medina, J.J. (2014). Brain Rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Newcomer, J.W., Selke, G., Melson, A.K., Hershey, T., Craft, S., Richards, K. and Alderson, A.L. (1999). Decreased Memory Performance in Healthy Humans Induced by Stress-Level Cortisol Treatment. Archives of General Psychiatry, 56(6), pp. 527-533.

Peshkam, A. and Petriglieri, G. (2020). Keep Your People Learning When You Go Virtual. Available at https://hbr.org/2020/04/keep-your-people-learning-when-you-go-virtual (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Petriglieri, G. (2020). Interviewed by Mayu Jiang for BBC Worklife, 22 April 2020. Available at https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Rutledge, P.B. (2020). Suffering From Zoom Fatigue? Here’s Why. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/positively-media/202011/suffering-zoom-fatigue-here-s-why-0 (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Schoenenberg, K., Raake, A. and Koeppe, J. (2014). Why are you so slow? – Misattribution of transmission delay to attributes of the conversation partner at the far-end. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 72(5), pp. 477-487.

Shuffler, M. (2020). Interviewed by Mayu Jiang for BBC Worklife, 22 April 2020. Available at https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Times Of India (2020). Maximum screen time should be 3 hours per day for online classes: HRD Ministry. Available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/parenting/teen/maximum-screen-time-should-be-3-hours-per-day-for-online-classes-hrd-ministry/photostory/77002800.cms (Accessed 18 December 2020).

Uncapher, M.R., Thieu, M.K., and Wagner, A.D. (2016). Media multitasking and memory: Differences in working memory and long-term memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(2), pp. 483-490.

Wiederhold, B.K. (2020). Connecting Through Technology During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic: Avoiding ‘‘Zoom Fatigue’. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 23(7), pp.437-438.

Wolf, C.R. (2020). Virtual Platforms Are Helpful Tools but Can Add to Our Stress. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-desk-the-mental-health-lawyer/202005/virtual-platforms-are-helpful-tools-can-add-our-stress (Accessed 5 February 2021).

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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