Online Courses or In-Person Learning – Which is Better?

ByMike V. Cooper

Aug 22, 2022

“We know that stress strongly affects learning and memory processes, as well as maintaining attention. And not just in a negative way. A moderate physiological arousal state has a positive effect if it occurs temporally within the learning task. To date, the differences between in-person and online instruction have often been assessed using questionnaires in which subjective parameters such as motivation or perceived stress were probed. But since learning has a definite physiological component, it raised the question of whether there are differences in this regard as well,” Morris Gellisch said.

Online vs In-Person Learning Outcomes

The researchers examined the heart rate variability and salivary cortisol levels of 82 college students enrolled in an anatomy course. The students were divided into two groups – online and in-class sessions. This course was taught in a hybrid way. While one group attended the course in the histology room, the other students took the same course online. The researchers used specialized sensors to monitor heart rate variability over the full 120-minute session during a typical school day. Additionally, they took saliva samples at the start, 60 minutes after the start of the class, and at the end. The health parameters of students who took online courses were measured using identical equipment and detailed instructions.


Online sessions significantly reduced physiological arousal. Lower cortisol levels decreased sympathetic activity and greater parasympathetic activity were all indicators of this. The last two parameters suggestive of voltage levels are calculated from heart rate variability. Students were more comfortable attending the webinar.

The researchers designed questionnaires to assess subjectively perceived characteristics, such as enjoyment of taking the course. One of the findings was a correlation between higher sympathetic nervous system activity and satisfaction with in-person learning. The online group did not discover this association.

Source: Medina