Are You Paying Attention on Zoom? Eye Movements Can Give You Away


Researchers at the City College of New York have developed a way to tell if students in a virtual classroom are paying attention by tracking their eye movements through their webcam. They also found that eye movements are predictive of students’ test scores.

Postdoctoral researcher Jens Madsen and Professors Richard Steinberg (CCNY, The Graduate Center) and Lucas Parra (CCNY, The Graduate Center) authored the study, which appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

With so much learning happening through screens these days, it’s harder for teachers to be sure their students are focused. Whereas in a classroom they might look around, read body language, follow students’ gazes, and adjust accordingly, things are trickier in a virtual setting.

To see if they could get around this, the researchers tracked the eye movements of study volunteers while they watched educational videos. Attentive people tended to look at the same things at the same times, so their gazes clustered together in one area of the screen. If someone was distracted, their eyes went off in another direction. Students whose eye movements matched the group’s as a whole also performed better on follow-up quizzes.

To preserve some privacy, the researchers didn’t transmit data on each individual’s eye movements to their server. Instead, they chose a reference group of students and only transmitted data on the average of where that group looked.

As Madsen describes on his website, the idea for this work actually began before the pandemic. Between recorded lectures, YouTube instructional videos, and online classes, people were already using the internet to learn. While the study doesn’t address how things might be different for students with ADHD, the researchers hope teachers can someday benefit from this method by knowing when they’ve lost their students’ focus. The work could also be a boon to studies on the effectiveness of different online teaching methods.

Beyond SUM

Work By

Jens Madsen (Postdoctoral Researcher, Biomedical Engineering) | Profile 1
Richard Steinberg (Professor, Science Education) | Profile 1 | Profile 2
Lucas Parra (Professor, Biomedical Engineering) | Profile 1 | Profile 2