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Guest Post: The Strange Case of the Exploding Student Workload

Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning and director of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explores a seeming conundrum.

December 13, 2020
 
 

A couple of weeks ago, I opened up my work email at the start of the day and found a query from a colleague who works in student learning support. I work in faculty development and direct a teaching center, and her question is one I’ve been asked dozens of times over the last nine months: “I have heard from students that the workload changed significantly from in-person to remote instruction.” Could I, she asked, offer any clues as to why so many instructors were increasing students’ workload during a pandemic?

I will confess that my response was split between bafflement and frustration. Why do I keep getting asked this question, I thought, when so many instructors have gone to such great lengths to follow guidance from educational developers and learning experts to use an ethic of care, to keep student well-being and mental health in mind, and to put trauma-informed pedagogical practices at the fore?

With so many (though of course not all) instructors making sincere efforts to render pandemic learning more accessible and workable for students, how is it that so many students feel that their instructors are showing either obliviousness or outright cruelty in upping the demands on them at such a dreadful time?

Without thinking too deeply about what I was doing, I sat down and wrote a Twitter thread on the topic, trying to lay out the paradox. I’m not a big user of social media, and I certainly didn’t imagine that the thread would be taken up by educators at colleges across the U.S., but also by academics in other countries and by K-12 instructors around the globe.

While not everyone had a positive response, and while there are things I might have said much more carefully had I taken more than a few minutes to jot it down, the overwhelming majority of educators commenting on the thread said that they, too, had run into this problem: the more they tried to design with student well-being in mind, according to principles widely accepted as appropriate to support learning and diminish stress -- principles such as breaking assignments into smaller pieces, distributing assessments across the length of the quarter and helping students stay engaged -- the more students told them they were overwhelmed by the workload. The instructors did not experience themselves as asking more of the students -- just a different distribution of work. To the students, it felt entirely different.

Before turning to some implications of what we might call the “more work” paradox, you might want to read the original thread.

With hindsight, I wish I hadn’t chosen to focus on students who did not do the reading pre-pandemic. It infuriated many of the student respondents and wasn’t essential to describing the paradox I was trying to lay out. Even a student used to completing all the reading might well experience having “more work” if, instead of just turning up at a class discussion, they now have to write discussion board posts, work with others in an annotation platform or write a short response every week.

Similarly, students used to having two midterms and a final, or those used to taking their exams only once, might experience continuous low-stakes assessment as continuous a-stress-ment. Similarly, being given the option to take an exam a second time to get a better grade could feel like an offer you can’t say no to, in our grade-driven higher education landscape. And, perhaps most crushingly, no-stakes assessments -- that is, quizzes and assignments that help students gauge their learning but are not graded -- can feel to many students like busywork, a phrase that appears again and again in criticisms of the pandemic learning scene, particularly in K-12.

The extent to which the thread really resonated with (close to 100,000) readers -- students, instructors, parents, teaching center and advising personnel -- suggests that there are at least two conversations we need to be engaging in as we look to the future.

The first conversation is the near-term one: given that students are experiencing our changed approach to course and assessment design as “more work” during such difficult times, how can we better strike a balance between giving them opportunities to engage and not overwhelming them with microassignments? Can we make some things optional? Could we use contract grading to let students choose the structure of their exams or papers, doled out in larger or smaller chunks? Can we find out whose course redesigns felt doable for students, and learn from those colleagues how to distribute the work more effectively?

The second conversation is, in many ways, the more urgent one, or at least it’s differently urgent. Anyone reading this piece who keeps up with conversations about postsecondary education and especially about college-level educational equity is aware that many of the changes we’ve made during COVID are ones that experts in teaching and learning have been trying to get instructors to make for two decades. These are the practices that make up universal design for learning, active learning, engaged learning and student-centered learning -- research-based approaches to the design of courses and curricula that aim to ensure that all students can stay motivated, learn and succeed.

COVID has been an undeniably weird experience for those who had already been trying to get the attention of higher education faculty and to convince them that we need to do a better job of supporting student learning. Many of the techniques and practices we had been touting are now suddenly in widespread use, and nearly every course in every institution of higher education has gone through at least some degree of redesign this year, many with the support of instructional designers who are experts in the area of student learning.

Unfortunately, the context of the pandemic and of 2020 more generally makes it virtually impossible for us to study in any meaningful way whether these changes have led to improved student learning in the way we’ve been promised. It’s simply too hard to control for all the other factors that have impeded learning in this time, including trauma, bereavement, lack of access to technology, lack of a designated place to study, increased family responsibilities, hunger, homelessness, political upheaval and repeated waves of racialized violence against Black Americans. With the background cacophony of the past year, it’s a miracle that anyone has learned anything at all, notwithstanding the enormous and dedicated work put in by so many educators to keep teaching and of students to keep learning.

Post-pandemic, we’ll need to begin to figure out, at a minimum, which of these much-heralded and now somewhat field-tested approaches to course design and delivery we should hold on to and which will need to be rethought. We’ll need to carefully study which contribute to enhanced student learning -- a tall order, given how little baseline data we have on whether and what students were really learning in our courses pre-pandemic, let alone during it. We’ll have to identify which students are benefiting from the changes we’ve made, and whether they really do produce more equitable and accessible outcomes for students who face the greatest barriers in our institutions of higher education.

Finally, we’ll need to figure out whether there are ways to deploy these techniques that don’t make students feel overwhelmed. And if it turns out that they really are as transformative as we’ve been led to believe, that they really do lead to improved learning, but that they ask significantly more of students than did our pre-pandemic teaching practices, we -- both students and faculty -- may need to undertake a wholesale re-evaluation of our expectations of student workload, as well as looking hard at how we can mitigate the financial obstacles that make it impossible for many students to devote as much time to their studies as significant learning demands.

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Jody Greene is associate vice provost for teaching and learning and director of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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