The Workload Dilemma

student with head on desk, overwhelmed by work.

This is a somewhat odd sentence to write, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about time. When I first transitioned from a traditional faculty position to an administrative position at a teaching center, I had a hard time adjusting to the rhythms of the workload and often wondered where my time went. I started reading about time-use studies and even spent an entire semester painstakingly tracking my time to see what I could learn.

The most important thing I discovered was that I was really bad at estimating the amount of time I was spending on various tasks. I overestimated the amount of time I was spending on things I didn’t like (committee meetings), underestimated the amount of time I was spending on tasks I enjoyed (reading the latest research on teaching & learning), and thought I was wasting way more time on non-work related tasks (Facebook) than I actually was.

While my attempt to regain control of my time didn’t have a happy ending for me personally (I still work too much!), it did get me thinking about what this might mean for teaching & learning. If I was this bad at estimating how long it would take me to do things, I was certain I wasn’t going to be very good at estimating how long it would take my students to do things. I also became a lot less confident in the standard answers I would give when faculty would ask me how much reading and writing they should assign. Where did those numbers come from and how did I know they had any relationship to the amount of time we expected students to spend?

So in the summer of 2016 (long ago in a galaxy far, far away), I started to look for empirical research that would help me think more carefully about what we should be asking students to do when they aren’t in class. To make a long story short, that effort led to the creation of an award-winning course workload estimator that has been widely shared and used by more than 115,000 individual users over the last 5 years. I’ve found myself talking a lot about student workload ever since.

Given this history, I’ve been fascinated by what we’ve heard from students about workload this semester. Like Jody Greene, I know of no faculty who set out to assign students more work this semester just because they were online. In fact, faculty at Wake Forest had explicit conversations about workload in our Peer-to-Peer Learning Communities this summer. We even created a new and improved estimator to help faculty estimate the time required to complete online assignments like discussion board posts. Yet students across the country are clearly overwhelmed and feeling as if their academic work has grown exponentially.

So what is happening here? Are faculty underestimating, students overestimating, or something else entirely? In this post, I will share what we’ve heard from Wake Forest students, my various theories about what is going on, and a few specific ways we might respond. You can also hear me discuss these issues and more on the latest episode of Vanderbilt’s Leading Lines podcast with the brilliant Derek Bruff and Karen Costa (embedded below).

What Wake Students Are Telling Us

Like students across the country, those who responded to our all-campus survey felt overwhelmed by academic work this semester. Although we did not ask any specific questions about workload, many students used the open-ended question to make their feelings known. Apart from expressing a preference for in-person learning, concerns about workload were the most common theme.

  • “The workload expectations from professors are tearing students apart … I have yet to meet a returning Wake student who feels as though the workload is not unmanageable.”
  • “I and almost every other student I’ve talked to have had MORE work this semester than ever and I experienced the routine of … mostly just working and sleeping and that’s not an exaggeration.”
  • “[Workload] increased to be double the amount of work from a previous semester not online. I never stopped working every day of the week and assignments would take me hours on end.”

Students hypothesized that instructors were adding more work to make up for lost in-person class time, to keep them busy when they (assumed) they had more time, or to ensure that online courses were rigorous. They also expressed challenges keeping up with numerous, smaller activities due on several days of the week in all of their courses.

  • “I feel that professors overcompensated for the fact that we were mostly online and I had significantly more work during the semester … than I have had during other semesters at Wake Forest.”
  • “All of my teachers assumed that they could pile on work because all of my classes were online, so I felt completely suffocated the whole semester.”
  • For one class alone I was expected to watch an hour or more worth of asynchronous lectures … read 2 chapters … read long news or informational articles … sit in class for 75 minutes and have a closed book/ closed note quiz every week … Now imagine this but for 4 more classes.”

What Might Be Going On

I can imagine at least six explanations for what our students were experiencing last semester, and the reality is that all six are probably part of the story.

Hypothesis 1: Whether we intend to or not, we might actually be assigning more work than we have in the past.

There are a number of plausible reasons this, the most straightforward of explanations, could be true. As my experience suggests, it’s really hard to estimate the amount of time students need to complete specific assignments, and that’s particularly true when we’re assigning work for the first time (as many of us are in our newly designed courses). I doubt we are increasing work just to make sure our students take our classes seriously, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we were doing so to assuage our fears that students at a distance would not remain engaged. I also wonder whether increased workload was an unintended consequence of our intensive preparation for the fall. Faculty across the country spent an unprecedented amount of time collecting teaching and learning ideas this summer and we may just be eager to try them all, not thinking about their cumulative impact on student work.

Hypothesis 2: We aren’t assigning more work, but we haven’t made our expectations clear.

It’s also possible faculty bear some responsibility but in an indirect way.  One of the things I’ve noticed while reading student accounts is that they seem to be spending inordinate amounts of time on the asynchronous activities meant to take the place of in-person activities. If students are asked to post to a discussion board, they often spend hours reading and crafting their responses–far more than the amount of time they would spend responding to a classmate during an in-person class. Likewise, writing assignments that might take 15 minutes in class (because the instructor tells them to stop!) can spiral into hours as high-achieving students worried about their grades work to achieve perfection. Because these new activities are to be completed “at home” and must be turned in for a grade on specific dates, it’s not surprising that students are treating them like the higher-stakes homework they were assigned in the past. In short, students might be doing more than we expect of them because we haven’t actually communicated what we expect.

Hypothesis 3: Some students are overestimating their work because they are unhappy to be learning online.

If we think faculty have a hard time estimating the amount of work they are assigning, it’s fair to ask whether students might struggle to estimate the time they’ve spent, as well. There is research to suggest that students are not any better than most of us at accurately reporting how they spend their time. And if my experience is any indication, this may be exacerbated by all the other challenges they are facing. We know that many of our students are not enthused about having to spend so much time learning alone in their dorm rooms, so their experience of work is likely to feel different. Like my experience of (some!) committee meetings, they may feel like online assignments are dragging on because they are mindful of what else they could be doing if things were different.

Hypothesis 4: Many students could do well with less effort in the past.

The most interesting of all six hypotheses, and the one I’ve thought the most about, is that our experience this semester has revealed an unfortunate truth about how teaching and learning took place prior to the pandemic. This theory, explained by Jody Greene in the widely-shared Twitter thread below, suggests that students are experiencing more work because of a fundamental difference between online courses and the typical in-person course. While there may be no difference in how much work is expected of students in these courses, there is often a difference in how much work is required.

Most faculty would agree that students should be spending 30 hours a week on homework in a traditional 15-credit semester, but we also know that the average student taking in-person courses is able to get by on about 15 hours a week. This is not surprising to most faculty, as we know that students aren’t always doing the reading or coming to class prepared. Here and there a course might require the full amount of work, but a student can usually count on some of their courses requiring less.

So what makes online courses so different? In an online course, faculty can see, and students are held accountable for, all expected work. In an in-person class, students can sometimes skip the reading and passively participate in class. But in an online course, they may have to annotate the reading, take a quiz, or contribute to a discussion board after the reading is complete. While this shift would be uncomfortable for students in the case of one course, shifting all of their courses in this direction would, in fact, double their workload and entail a radical reworking of their schedules. Of course, this shift is a good thing for student learning, but it’s not clear we realized it would be asking our students to completely re-orient yet another aspect of their lives.

Hypothesis 5: The shift to online coursework has increased students’ cognitive load.

Perhaps the challenge is not about faculty or student misperceptions at all, but rather the nature of the work itself. Our students are experts at learning in a traditional face-to-face classroom. But they have had to teach themselves new skills to learn online. They have learned how to use new tools, figured out how to complete new types of assignments, and gotten used to a new rhythm of work. We’ve also encouraged faculty to follow best practices by breaking up a few large assignments into multiple smaller ones. When this happens across five courses, 10 assignments can suddenly convert to 50. While those 50 assignments may take no more time than the original 10, simply keeping track of when they are due is a new job unto itself. In each of these cases, the cognitive load we are placing on students has increased, adding invisible labor to the time they spend completing the work.

Hypothesis 6: A global pandemic has decreased student capacity to work.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s worth remembering that all of this is happening in the midst of a global pandemic. Before they even show up in our classes, our students are likely struggling with isolation, loneliness, and collective or personal trauma. As noted above, this context can make the work feel harder. But it can also make it actually harder. As many of us know all too well, these conditions can decrease our motivation and capacity to work, leading us to spend far more time on tasks than we have in the past. In one of the most thoughtful and heartbreaking comments on our survey, one student explained that “classes were consistently easier in content and material, but emotionally more difficult, and more difficult to try hard for.”

What We Can Do

As I noted at the outset, my best guess is that all six of these phenomena are part of the overall story. In any of these cases, however, it is clear that our students are not doing well. So what might we, as instructors, do to improve their situation this semester?

The first and most basic step is to make sure you have a good, accurate idea of how much work you are assigning your students. Make use of our workload estimator to estimate the time you expect of every assignment (including often overlooked ungraded activities that take considerable time).  Add it all up and make sure that it is less than 3 hours per week per credit hour. But don’t stop there. As our estimator is ultimately an estimator, it’s not always accurate. So make a regular habit of checking your estimates with students. How much time are they actually spending? Do they need to adjust how they are working or do you need to adjust your estimates?

If you found yourself adding more work to make sure your students remain engaged, this may be a moment to simply trust that most of your students will do what needs to be done to remain engaged. To be sure, not all students have earned our trust, but being overly trusting may be the most humane response for all of us at this moment.

What if you think you might have assigned more work than you realized because you keep getting so many cool ideas? Adopt the strategy I used for my closet when I lived in a Manhattan studio: figure out what you can fit and only add something after you’ve gotten rid of something else.

To address the challenge of students spending more time than you expect, be explicit. If you’ve done your homework and created time estimates for every reading assignment or activity, go ahead and include them in the syllabus. Tell them if you expect them to spend no more than 15 minutes on a discussion post or 45 minutes on a 1-page journal entry. This will help those who tend to overshoot the estimates, and if they can’t manage to complete the work in that time frame, you can adjust your assignments moving forward.

To decrease your students’ cognitive load, try to limit your use of new tools and technologies. Consider limiting the different kinds of activities you assign, as well. Or, at the very least, build in time for them to learn the new tool or practice the new activity before you expect them to complete the assignment. And to reduce the amount of time they have to spend keeping track of assignments and due dates, ask yourself whether all of your small assignments are actually necessary (or necessary for a grade) and make sure they are assigned and due as part of a predictable weekly schedule.

More controversially, you might also consider decreasing the amount of work you assign to your students this semester. While it is true that time-on-task is one of the most important predictors of student learning, that relationship may not matter if students are not equipped to actually spend that time, or spend that time productively. As the director of a teaching center, there are few things I consider more important than student learning. But there are things that are more important than student learning.

Finally, if I were only able to give a single piece of advice, it would be this: consider whether now, in the midst of a global pandemic, is the time to create radically new expectations for what work is required of our students. If you think not, then make sure you are holding students accountable for the same amount of work you did in the past. Look at your previous syllabi and ask yourself: how much of the work you expected did students have to complete in your course? How much did you ask them to complete on the honor system? Then look at your current syllabus and make sure the distribution is roughly the same. If they could get by skipping a few readings in the past, consider giving them that option this semester, as well.

I’ve thought a lot about workload over the past five years, but our collective experience this semester has taught me even more. There will be a time and place for us to discuss what we’ve learned and what it means for how we structure our classes moving forward. But in this moment when our students are so clearly struggling, their well-being is my top priority.

 

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13 Comments

Christopher Moreno says:

As a student, it would be more helpful to have video or application learning tools. Reading a textbook is difficult at home during this pandemic. Videos and interactive learning best suits our generation. It would be especially helpful in the STEM fields… and discrete mathematics 😉


Ariana K. says:

Very astute observations!

I consciously decreased the amount of work in my classes in the fall. I eliminated either exams, or presentations, or reflection papers in every single class I taught. Yet, the students complained bitterly that there was more work to do.

One of the issues that came to my attention in reading the (anonymous) student evaluations from the fall semester is that students were, essentially, forced to do the homework – the assigned readings and the problems. I have never collected them in the past to grade. We just discussed them in class.

I didn’t collect them to grade in the asynchronous format either, but now, the discussion happened online, and students who would have previously stayed silent in groups or in the whole-class discussion had no “out” – they had to post something. They KNEW they were not graded on the “correctness” of their solutions or their comments on the readings. They KNEW that even posts like, “Hey, I tried Problem #2, and I can’t make heads or tails of it. Help!” would get them full participation score. But they couldn’t bring themselves to be visible as not doing the work at all, not even giving it a shot.

In a sense, the workload did increase for those who could get away with not doing much in the past. They didn’t need to do well either. If you could fly by the seat of your pants and get a C-, it was all fine because nobody knew unless you told them. If you were noticed not participating much, it was a fleeting notice from others. But now, it was up front and center, and it was face-threatening.

The super-achievers suffered from it too. They didn’t feel as ‘on the spot’ in class being occasionally less than perfect, but online, I saw some turn into Hermione Grangers overnight.


Betsy Barre says:

Turning into Hermione Grangers! What a great way to describe what we’ve seen here, as well!


Regan A. R. Gurung says:

For the first time in a very long time (if not for the first time ever) we are paying a lot more attention to the experiences of our students in what were previously face-to-face classes. Online classes have received more scrutiny over time in efforts to ensure they were as good as face to face, and also have a whole layer of support (e.g., instructional designers) that traditional face-to-face classes do not have. With remote learning, administrations rightly paid more attention to the student experience to keep track of and ensure enrollments even with the switch of modalities. This focus revealed and laid bare many of the problems this piece wonderfully unpacks. We are more aware of these issues because of the increased scrutiny. This is not to downplay the realities of student perceptions but to say I hope we continue to pay as close attention to our students in all classes even after the pandemic.

One key point to add. Some of the problems faced by students relates to a mismatch between what they were expecting and what they got, and most importantly for those students who did not believe they could do well in a remote format. Self-efficacy was key. In a study my grad student, Arianna Stone, and I published in the Fall we found that there were significant differences in learning (as measured by exam scores) for those students who believed remote teaching would be a poor way to learn. (see https://today.oregonstate.edu/news/student-expectations-self-confidence-major-predictors-how-they-fare-remote-learning).

Together with looking at expectations for work, we should also aim to build and scaffold student self-efficacy.


Betsy Barre says:

Thanks for this great addition, Regan. I’ve been thinking a lot about how student expectations are shaping their experience online, but I’ve mostly been thinking about it in terms of their feelings of isolation or resistance to forced modality shifts. I hadn’t thought much about self-efficacy, but it makes perfect sense that it would be playing a role here, as it does with all learning! Your study is fascinating and an important contribution to this conversation. It gives us one more thing to discuss with our students as we help them prepare to learn!


Autar Kaw says:

About “The Workload Dilemma – Center for the Advancement of Teaching (wfu.edu)” It is also possible that students are finally studying for the amount of time they should. I use an adaptive learning platform for my students for pre-class learning. The platform monitors time on task. They are taking a 3-credit hour course, and the universal expectation is that they put additional 6 hours at home. The students are spending less than 3 hours per week on the adaptive lessons, and I estimate that they will need to spend another 3 hours/week post-class studying for the tests, a few more assigned problems from the textbook, and two programming projects.

The issue possibly with some of my colleagues is that they want everything assigned to be graded. That can exhaust students. I do not grade in-class work or post-class work except for two programming projects. The rest of the graded work includes four tests and a final exam. We need to adopt selective “ungrading,” but not to the extent where we ask students to choose and justify their grades. https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/

Extremists hijack higher education, and those are the only ones getting the press and attention. That is unfortunate.


Betsy Barre says:

I too have thought that part of the challenge is related to the fact that more activities are “turned in” and graded. Even if it’s just a nominal participation grade, I get the sense that students will devote more time to a task if they know it will be read/reviewed/graded. If we graded less or made clear that low-stakes assignments needn’t be perfect, that might help!


Chuck LaBerge says:

Thanks for the interesting viewpoint. It might be useful to look at what courses that train us to “teach online” are instruction us to do: extra videos to go into more depth, assignments meant to more thoroughly engage students with the material (to make up for the one-on-one interactions in the classroom), backing away from traditional exams, which are difficult to police online, etc. Each of these things helps the online learning outcomes, but I can easily see that each also increases the student’s workload. So which is it? Be hypervigilent about the estimated workload, or spend our own time designing enrichment activities that fail because the students simply don’t have time to engage with them? Maybe the solution is that the training for “online teaching” is really based on offering a course that is only ever offered online, not toward adapting our current in-person teaching strategies and approaches to an online environment for what we hope is a temporary (until Fall 2021?) fix.


Betsy Barre says:

Thanks for the thoughts, Chuck. I think it is an open question whether we should be asking more of students than we have in the past. But whatever we decide is the appropriate amount to expect (the full 3 hours a week per credit hour or the 2 the average student spends), I think it’s possible to adopt evidence-informed strategies that fit within that time-frame. The challenge for those who are new to teaching online–myself included!–is figuring out how many of these new activities and strategies can actually fit within the allotted time. I hope our estimator helps with that!


Janet Gross says:

I have actually decreased modestly what I expect of students. Partly because it was in some instances more difficult for me to keep up with online submissions then a stack of physical papers given to me at the end of class. I’ve also looked at what is easiest for students to do. Typing directly into the box in a discussion post is pretty simple. Completing a document offline with answers to multiple questions about multiple readings and then submitting that is a harder task for them to do and takes longer. And yet I find that the discussion posts actually give me better information from practically the same questions. I also find it helpful to give students an idea of what I actually expect in terms of the length of response for a journal or a discussion post. I remind them that these are low Point assignments and so they don’t require multiple Pages or huge amounts of time. That’s very helpful for students I think to know that in some cases a paragraph is a sufficient response. I also have for all of my classes a deadlines document which outlines class by class exactly what to do including things that are not associated with points like completing the lessons and taking notes for an upcoming quiz. Along with that I have a chart that lays out for each unit exactly what the things are that are do with the due date and the associated points so they can see at a glance what they need to put into there calendar or reminder system. Is very helpful for me to to look at that every class and make sure I know what’s coming up for them as a reminder and to make sure my content matches what they need.


David Weiss says:

I agree with all the observations in this essay and agree that what is going on is a combination of the factors described. But I would like to add one that I believe is missing. There is a greatly varying range of reactions to online learning but, in general, students who had no problem previously have less of a problem with online learning than others and students who struggled previously are finding it much tougher. Online learning has exaggerated the difference. The students who are most objecting to online learning were middling or struggling students before and they are correct that this new form of learning is making a difficult situation even tougher.
At least that’s been my experience.


Kelly L. Zepp says:

Great point. I observed a similar phenomenon with the faculty at my institution. Those of us with extensive experience teaching online, like myself, made the shift much more easily. I think my colleagues, esp. those teaching synchronously, forgot that teaching online requires a different skillset. So things took much more time for them b/c they lacked the necessary experience. Or as the author mentioned, it may have seemed like it took more time because they overestimated the time to do the tasks that they don’t like.


Betsy Barre says:

Thanks for commenting, David. I think Regan’s research on self-efficacy (see above) can help explain some of what you’re observing!


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