To teach or learn under these circumstances requires mental exertion. English has a number of idioms that evoke the feeling of effortless, involuntary focus—caught up, carried away, in a groove, going with the flow. Since March, flow has been hard to come by. If a busy day in January or February felt like getting on a luge course, where social, psychological, and organizational urgencies whisk you along from one task to the next, pandemic life is more like snowshoeing: Every step takes conscious care, and the environment actively hinders forward progress.
A line of psychological research on a subject known as “ego depletion” has tried to document the costs of exercising self-control under adverse circumstances. The study protocols ask subjects to engage in an annoying cognitive-override task and then to turn to something else that is otherwise difficult. The first task is often something like this: Please think of zoo animals, but every time you think of a white bear, suppress the thought, stop thinking of the white bear, and move on. Ego-depletion research suggests that immediately frustrating cognitive tasks—such as ignoring a family dog, a crying sibling, or a comfortable bed—will make people give up sooner on subsequent hard tasks and give in more readily to temptation. (That all of this is now occurring amid the loneliness, grief, and fear caused by the pandemic makes every task all the more difficult.)
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One study asked a question pertinent for universities: How does ego depletion affect risk-taking behavior? After subjects suppressed thoughts of white bears, they performed a variety of tasks meant to measure risk-taking behavior, including a simulated driving test. Relative to a control group, people who engaged in the depleting activity later sought more risk, and not just behind the wheel.
Many K–12 schools and colleges have declined to hold classes in person for entirely sensible safety reasons, and the psychological challenges of remote learning are nowhere close to the most serious problems facing many students this fall. Without physical school—already a reflection of America’s deeply inequitable society—the most vulnerable children have less access not just to the tools of learning but to basic necessities, including food, shelter, and reliable supervision. Indeed, the gravest threats to education this fall are driven by long-standing, unconscionable disparities. Yet a lack of attention to the psychological hurdles to online learning will only amplify those inequities.
For decades, scholars of behavioral economics have been exhorting those in power: If you want people to make choices that are costly to them in the short term but beneficial in the long term, you have to structure the environment to make those choices easier, more palatable, and more habitual. That same principle applies even during a pandemic. When young students cannot pay attention to a videoconference, they are not misbehaving; they are responding to the limitations of an electronic medium. Likewise, when college students meet up at bars or indoor parties in ways that are likely to spread a deadly virus, schools need detailed plans to promote social behavior in other forms. Create opportunities for outdoor interactions; incentivize choices that support common goals; ask students at every level what they need to succeed, and take them seriously.
The plan cannot just be to keep telling them to stay in their dorm room or their seat. Institutions should recognize that, even in the best version of this fall, students will be paying a steep price. The system does not work without their cooperation, and educators who want to meet students halfway need to understand what is happening to them.