How to Prevent Work Overload for You and Your Students Next Term

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

By Christine Goedhart

Despite all the uncertainty this term, one thing has become very clear: teaching and learning take longer and require more effort in the remote environment than they did in-person.

Faculty are spending more time and energy troubleshooting technology, preparing course materials, and responding to students. Meanwhile, students are spending more time and energy navigating the online learning environment, engaging with course content, and keeping up with a seemingly endless stream of assignments.

With everything taking longer and requiring more effort than usual, it’s no wonder that work overload has become a common complaint heard from faculty and students this term, and it seems like a deep exhaustion is setting in for all.

Work overload can lead to burnout, resulting in negative impacts on physical and mental health, motivation, and productivity. We don’t want this for ourselves, and we surely don’t want this for our students.

Here are some ways to lighten the load and mitigate the extra time and energy involved in teaching and learning in the remote environment next term.

Streamline communication

Many faculty have indicated that they’re receiving significantly more student emails and spending a lot more time responding to student questions and issues than ever before. While it is important to be there for students when they need help, there are ways to structure communication so that it’s more organized and efficient for both you and your students. Here are some ideas:

  • Ask students to post all content-related questions to Piazza and encourage students to contribute to answering the questions. You will benefit by not having to answer the same question multiple times through separate emails, and the entire class will benefit from being able to see the shared questions and answers.
  • Assign each member of the teaching team certain types of questions to answer (e.g., course structure questions, accommodation questions, monitoring Piazza for content-related questions) and let students know who they should contact for specific questions.
  • Send out a regular weekly announcement that clearly lays out your expectations for what students will be learning and doing that week. Taking the time upfront to create a well-developed announcement each week will reduce the amount of time you spend responding to confused students.

Streamline video production

Students appreciate having access to recorded course videos that they can watch on their own time and in their own way. However, creating asynchronous videos can be a painstaking and time-consuming process, usually involving several “takes” and additional time spent on editing. Here are some ways to save time on video production:

  • Produce all course video content synchronously by inviting students to be present (e.g. lectures, announcements, Q&A, check-in sessions, etc.) and record the sessions. Having an audience, even if it’s just one or two students, will force you to push through any slip-ups and stick to a given amount of time.
  • Take advantage of freely available videos that explain course concepts. There are now lots of high quality videos that can be found with a quick YouTube search.
  • Record asynchronous videos in short segments (less than five minutes) and ask TAs to help with editing.

Streamline course work

Students are struggling to focus during lecture sessions and are spending more time outside of class watching (and re-watching) course videos. Plus, as faculty have followed the recommendation to spread out course points with more low-stakes assessments, students are reporting that they are overloaded with assignments and experiencing “assignment fatigue.” Here are some ways to correct for the extra time that students are spending on course work:

  • Reduce the course workload (e.g., lectures, readings, assignments, assessments, projects, etc.) by 20-30%. You can use a Student Course Time Estimator to get an idea of the time that was required to complete the course workload when you taught in-person, then cut or rearrange the course work until you get to 70-80% of that time.
  • Review your course learning objectives and cut any content that doesn’t address the learning goals. Covering less content will free up valuable class time for students to engage with course material in a way that allows for deep learning, reducing the amount of time they need to spend outside of class learning the material on their own.
  • Allow students to complete assignments during class time rather than outside of class as homework.
  • Build flexibility into the course grading scheme so that students can skip some assignments if needed (e.g., drop the two lowest quiz marks)

Streamline marking

Marking tends to be one of the most time and energy intensive activities involved in teaching, even under the best circumstances. However, with time now at a premium, and many other important teaching responsibilities vying for this precious resource, it’s a good opportunity to consider ways to reduce time spent on marking. Here are some ideas:

  • Let students work in groups and collect one submission from each group, rather than separate submissions from each individual student. Fewer submissions means less time marking.
  • Reduce the number of questions on exams. Fewer exam questions means less time marking. It will also ensure that students have enough time to complete a timed exam–it takes longer for students to answer exam questions online than on paper.
  • Lean on technologies that reduce marking time. For example, Canvas Quizzes will do the marking for you when you use automatically-graded questions types, and Gradescope contains features that make marking more efficient, such as AI-assisted grading and create-as-you-go rubrics.
  • Involve students in the marking process by using self and peer evaluation strategies. ComPAIR and iPeer are some technologies that can help you manage the logistics of peer review.
  • Mark assignments quickly by grading for participation/completion instead of correctness.
  • Ask for additional TAs to help with marking.

Streamline your expectations for yourself

The guiding principle for last spring’s emergency switch to remote teaching was: perfect is the enemy of good. This is still the case. In fact, this is always the case. Perfect is unattainable and striving for perfection is a recipe for overwork. There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations for ourselves, but it’s also important to make sure that our expectations are realistic and allow for a healthy work-life balance. Here are some ideas:

  • Set a certain amount of time to work on a task and stop after the time has elapsed.
  • Learn to recognize when something is good enough–at a certain point there are diminishing returns for the continued time and effort you put into working on something.
  • Give yourself permission to cancel class sessions, activities, or assignments if needed.

When teaching and learning remotely, less can actually be more–less work overload can mean more physical and mental health, motivation, and productivity–for you, and for your students, too. A win-win for everyone.

Do you have any experience using these strategies? Is there anything else that you’re doing to reduce work overload for you or your students? Please share them in the comments below or send me an email–I’d love to hear them!

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