By Bruce H. Tsuji, Senior Teaching Advisor (and Online Teaching Ninja), Teaching and Learning Services

Have you ever tried to binge watch more than one Netflix or Amazon Prime series at the same time? Think Sons of Anarchy plus Broadchurch plus Marcella plus Criminal UK plus Unorthodox plus Giri/Haji. This is what we have been asking students with a full course load to do online.  Even if their courses were as engaging as many video streaming series are, it would be tough; think how difficult it might be if some of those courses were (ahem) boring?

This blog is an attempt to provide some recommendations to try to reduce student perception of excessive workload while recognizing your needs to:

  1. Meet or exceed existing learning objectives
  2. Maintain academic integrity
  3. Avoid burnout yourself

Reality

A global pandemic has not helped us or our students. We are all on edge. Students are stressed and so are instructors. Some students will be taking advantage of the situation for their own gain. Some faculty might too. Most students and faculty will be decent as usual. For most of us, online teaching is at least a little new and our courses are probably not close to what we would like them to be. University learning is still important—maybe even more so at this time.

For a quick, readable Canadian summary of online learning during a pandemic see this Contact North article.

Time

Several aspects of the time demands of your course need your consideration. First and foremost, estimate how much time your course asks of an average student. Determine how much time students might spend viewing lectures, reading the textbook, studying, discussion forums, quizzes, tests, assignments, and whatever else you include in your course. Be scrupulous in your calculations! For example, some Carleton instructors do not provide a copy of their lecture PowerPoint. As a result, students need to repeatedly go back and forth in the lecture video to capture the PowerPoint content. If your learning outcomes require students to do the same, just be aware of the incremental time that this demands.

For a hypothetical course with a three-hour weekly lecture, discussion forum, weekly quizzes and two midterms plus one final exam, the time demands could be as much as nine hours per week before study time is factored in. See Figure 1.

Pie chart breaking down a hypothetical amount of time spent on various course activities

Figure 1: Hypothetical weekly course hours

Then, the 2:1 ratio of time outside class to time in class should still apply. In that case, this hypothetical course would demand 27 hours per week. For a student taking a full course load, the demands would be approximately 135 hours per week, which is obviously excessive. A tool that may help you estimate what different tasks require in terms of student time is available at Workload Estimator.

Remember that collectively, we instructors tend to underestimate the amount of time that our courses and our assignments demand of students. Furthermore, in the rush to go online, many of us just kept on adding activities in a mistaken sense of needing to “fill the time.”

One way to get a more realistic time estimate is to ask your TA or child or niece or nephew to complete your assignment(s). Then, grade them as you normally would. If 10 hours of effort are required to complete an “A” assignment worth 2 per cent of your final grade then some realignment is necessary.

As a general rule, we should be aiming for 8-10 total hours per week (lectures + study/prep). How can you reduce your time demands? This is where your learning outcomes might be handy. Your most important LO should be requiring the most time and earning the most marks. Likewise, assignments concerned with less important LO might be dropped altogether.

Another way that students can be helped to feel less stressed is if you can make one or more assignments optional—if you have weekly assignments, then you might allow students to drop the two lowest grades.

Another way to reduce student stress is to clearly communicate your time expectations; your ability to state that an assignment should take no more than 10 minutes or 60 minutes or three hours will go a long way towards allowing students the ability to plan their time and thus reduce anxiety-provoking situations.

Another way that you might manipulate time to reduce student perception of excessive workload is to be consistent with your time requirements. For example, all tests might open at 8 a.m. and close at noon. Students are allowed seven days to complete all assignments and all are due at 5 p.m. thus relieving students of the need to remember individual dates and times.

Please try to avoid the confusion associated with English versus French conventions with respect to the expressions of time. A 5 p.m. due date might be clear to you but potentially confusing for someone raised in a tradition where 5 p.m. would normally be expressed as 17:00. In general, it would be wise to avoid the 24 clock unless you have some a priori reason (such as teaching a class in French language). Similarly, is 12 a.m. in the middle of the day or in the middle of the night? You might avoid the hour of “12” altogether or clarify by using the words “noon” or “midnight.”

Program Coordination

Some simple steps at the program level could go a long way towards relieving the stress and anxiety of many students. By “program,” I am referring to common course pathways for the majority of students. For example, a major in your discipline likely has a number of required and optional courses to attain their degree. For those majors then, the following would be beneficial:

  1. Consistent due times (i.e., all Philosophy course assignments are due at 5 p.m. on Tuesdays). That way, students are not unnecessarily confused by having to remember many different times.
  2. Consistent test duration (i.e., all tests are 90 minutes, or three hours, or 72 hours).
  3. Date coordination (trying to avoid major assessments from different courses on the same day).
  4. Consistent bibliographic format (is it APA? Chicago? MLA? What version?).

Usability Test

Many design disciplines make a habit of usability testing products at various stages in their development. It can be very beneficial to your courses to do the same. Use your teaching assistants, your research assistants, your adolescent children or nieces or nephews or others who may be trusted to provide you with objective feedback (and not just try to make you happy).

Ask them to take one of your tests or complete your assignment or read through your syllabus.  Time them. See how well they do. Test their understanding.

Most of us know all too well how difficult it can be to see our own work clearly, that’s why we often get others to help us read or edit our written work. Usability testing can help us do the same with our courses. For more information see Usability Testing Briefly or for a little more information, Usability Testing 101.

Compassion/Equity/Diversity

We have academic integrity violations in both F2F and online classrooms (see Their Cheatin’ Hearts). Nonetheless, we are in unprecedented times and we know that online education is disproportionately affecting racialized, first-generation and other marginalized students more than so-called “traditional” students. So what?

I think we have to learn to accept the students we have as opposed to the students we would like to have (Goldrick-Rab & Stommel, 2018). And at this moment in time, that student is stressed. If Carleton’s recent modification of the start date for the Winter 2021 semester caused you to breathe a sigh of relief, the same is also probably true of your students. Until such time as the global pandemic has abated I would recommend the following:

  1. Be flexible in your due dates and times.
  2. Trust your students when they claim some hardship or inability to deliver.
  3. Provide alternate kinds of assignments so as not to penalize those with less than optimal technology or living environments.
  4. Allow students to discard their lowest grades for regular quizzes or assignments.
  5. Build in unstructured casual interaction amongst students and between students and yourself.
  6. More than at other times, communicate your expectations and your reasons.
  7. Ensure that students have some kind of anonymous feedback mechanism (see Feedback on Teaching).
  8. Be kind to students.
  9. Be kind to yourself.

Interested in contributing to our blog? Please email tls@carleton.ca to find out how.