Andy’s Quick Hits (274): Online Learning Triggers Different Stress Responses

Andy Hab
2 min readAug 17, 2022
Photo 251356668 © Prostockstudio |

Not so long ago all learning went online — out of necessity.

There has been plenty of research into differences in online learning and in-person learning but this study by Gellisch et al. at Ruhr-University Bochum looked at different physiological stress responses between online learning and in-person learning.

This study was interesting because it studied the same 82 students in an in-person and online learning scenario. They were attending a blended learning anatomy course that had different groups alternating between online lessons and in-person lessons (the same lessons).

The participants were monitored with heart rate sensors and also cortisol, the stress hormones, was measured by taking saliva samples at the start of the session after 60 minutes and at the end of the two-hour lesson.

What did they find?

They found that the in-person lesson stimulated higher cortisol levels, higher heart rate and lower heart rate variability. This is consistent with a stress response. So, is in-person learning more stressful? Yes, but and this is a big but, this also shows higher stimulation and higher stimulation is generally associated with better memory function and learning,

So, in short, online learning is less stressful, more comfortable, but likely less impactful. This not to mention other positive benefits of in-person learning such as bonding with classmates and additional learning opportunities through casual and focused conversations around the course.

What’s more those in the in-person groups reported higher enjoyment of the very same class. So, let’s not write off in-person courses, yet!


Morris Gellisch, Oliver T. Wolf, Nina Minkley, Wolfgang H. Kirchner, Martin Brüne, Beate Brand‐Saberi.
Decreased sympathetic cardiovascular influences and hormone‐physiological changes in response to Covid‐19‐related adaptations under different learning environments.
Anatomical Sciences Education, 2022
DOI: 10.1002/ase.2213

Andy Hab

Sharing fascinating, fun, and important knowledge on the brain and human behaviour - most days. And masters track athlete - still going strong!