Three things that the workload dilemma might really be about

It’s not necessarily the workload.

Last week I administered the first round of informal mid-semester evaluations to my students, one question of which says:

How are YOU doing right now, in terms of life, school, and everything else? What do you need, and how can I help?

This was an optional item, and not every respondent chose to answer it. But among those who did, a common theme was that my workload right now is getting to be too much to handle. Not the workload for my course specifically, but the sum total of it all, across all their classes (sometimes 4–5 other classes in addition to mine), plus work, plus volunteering or internships, plus parenting, and so on.

Since last April, concerns about heavy student workloads have been increasing at an increasing rate. Students themselves certainly have expressed themselves about it, and this essay by Wake Forest’s Betsy Barre proposes some hypotheses for why this might be the case. I encourage everyone to read that essay because the hypotheses and Prof. Barre’s suggestions at the end of the piece are all worth considering, especially if we are going to lead with empathy in the way we design and teach courses.

But as much as I share in these concerns, I also wonder what we mean when we talk about the “workload dilemma”. All the discussions so far, including Prof. Barre’s essay, come at this idea from the quantitative point of view. It’s all about how much work is being assigned. Hence, for example, Prof. Barre suggests we use a website to estimate how many hours per week students need to put into our courses. And in my discussions about this with students, they frame their struggles with “workload” in terms of managing time; as in, I need to use time better since I have so much work to do.

While it’s always a good idea to remove inessentials from a course and use clear and measurable learning objectives to ensure that our courses are lean and focused, I’m not totally convinced that this will solve “the workload dilemma” because that dilemma may not be as simple as reducing the quantity of work to be done. Instead, when students and faculty talk about a “heavy workload” we might mean a combination of at least three other things:

A lack of connectedness among the concepts being learned. It’s well known that information that is fitted into a larger whole is easier to learn and put into long-term memory than information that comes as a stream of seemingly disconnected content. Learning disconnected information that is not situated into a coherent narrative whole induces an invisible workload that is only partially related to the amount of work that’s being assigned. It’s like going on a long backpacking trip with a properly-fitted pack that has a frame and padded straps to distribute the weight, versus making that same trip with the same items at the same weight, but in a bag slung over your shoulder held with a piece of string. The trip is the same length and the packs the same weight; but one feels tolerable and the other leaves blisters and chafe marks.

So when students talk about a “heavy workload” I wonder if part of this is not the amount of work being assigned but the way the “weight” is distributed. Are we as teachers designing courses with the right “frame” around that weight (again showing the importance of clear, measurable learning objectives)? Are we asking students to see how everything in the course fits together? Does everything in our courses fit together?

A lack of experience in managing multiple high-level commitments. It’s rare to find a college student who has intentionally and systematically approached how they budget and manage time, attention, and commitments to others and to themselves. It’s pretty rare to find anybody who has done so. Younger kids usually do not have to keep track of their projects or decide on a regular basis what the next action is. Many don’t use calendars. A lot of them don’t know what a project is and could not list the projects that involve them. I don’t blame kids for this; kids are kids, and nobody except maybe David Allen was born with GTD software pre-installed in their brains. It’s something that has to be learned, and that’s my point — nobody seems to be teaching kids how to do this.

So when those kids become emerging adults upon their enrollment in college, suddenly they are confronted with the cognitive load of managing multiple classes, each of which feeds them with multiple projects (in the GTD sense) each week, each of which of those contains actions that need to be parsed as to what context, tools, energy level, and time horizon are appropriate. This is a tremendous cognitive load, and without a system to deal with it, it can crush a person. When we were teaching face-to-face 100% of the time, the “system” was largely the classroom environment— a structured time and space automatically budgeted for getting work done. Now it’s left to the student to parse all this, and nobody knows how. This, like teaching a course where the information isn’t connected, induces an invisible workload that students perceive, but incorrectly attribute to the amount of work being assigned. Even with half the assignments, a system-less approach to managing the commitment of a course will lead to overload.

Assessment schemes based on high stakes and zero tolerance. I think it’s likely that many students, when they talk about a heavy workload, are using the word “workload” as a catch-all for all the stress that they experience in a course, regardless of what the work actually is or how much there is of it. As I’ve described, two things that cause a lot of stress are having to manage a lot of work in a course without having any sense of how all the content fits together, and not having any systematic means of managing the work. But another thing that causes stress, perhaps far more than these, is the stress of high-stakes and/or one-and-done assessments. Consider the extreme case of a course where the grade comes from three exams and a final, and there’s no do-overs. This is actually a fairly light amount of “work” — — just four things to grade! — — but I’ll go out on a limb and say that a student in this class will feel orders of magnitude more pressure, and perhaps call it a “heavy workload”, than a student in a class that uses mastery grading, with a larger number of assignments but each of which can be redone with feedback until mastery is attained.

It becomes even more stressful when you’re in a course that has a lot of work and it’s all high-stakes one-and-done stuff. I think many students are in that situation. Their complaints about a heavy workload are not really about the amount of work assigned but rather the way in which it’s assessed. If your course is based on assessments where the all the work is auditive rather than formative, where every mistake is a permanent scar rather than an opportunity to improve, any number of those assessments will ramp up the stress at an increasing rate. And it’s no surprise students attribute it to the “workload”. (It’s also no surprise that this kind of environment is where we tend to see the worst cases of academic dishonesty.)

This list is not exhaustive. The main thing is that when students (or faculty, for that matter) talk about heavy or unmanageable workloads, it may not be about workload at all. It may be something invisible or tangential that we, as faculty, are tasked with discovering and mitigating for the sake of those students.

Originally published at on February 18, 2021.

Mathematics professor who studies, speaks, and writes about teaching, learning, technology, and higher education. Also a Dad, Catholic convert + decent cook.

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