Students’ experience and perception of increased workload Frequently Asked Questions

As colleges across the country moved online last year, many students reported feeling that their workload had increased – despite instructors’ best efforts to ensure their courses could succeed in the online environment. While we do not have evidence that this is a significant problem in the College of Engineering, your students may have experiences like this from time to time. Explore the FAQ below to learn more about the factors that contribute to perceived or real increases in workload during times of disruption.

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What are the reasons a course might feel like it was made more difficult when moved to a remote format during the pandemic?

Often when a student feels like this is true their reasoning is “the instructor added more content and increased the difficulty of exams,” possibly with a side of “this course isn’t well designed.”

Both of these can certainly be true, but there are other categories that can make a course feel more difficult, and one has nothing to do with the instructor.

The three categories that can impact how a student experiences the workload of a course, particularly during the pandemic are:

  • Actions an instructor takes on purpose knowing it will add to the workload of the course – such as adding more content or making exams more rigorous in an effort to reduce cheating.
  • Actions an instructor takes where additional workload/ difficulty is an unintended secondary outcome. Often these include implementing recommended best practices – such as creating an online discussion in the remote offering of a course that would have been a class discussion in a face to face offering, or adding supplemental material that overwhelms students even though it isn’t required, using proctoring software that then adds both additional technical skill and emotional skill to use, and checking completion of required items that used to be assumed (such as post reading quizzes).
  • Environmental factors that are outside the sphere of a specific course, but impact the amount of cognitive resources/load a student has available. Less available load means the same course taught the same way will still FEEL more difficult/FEEL like more work because it takes a higher percent of the available resource. Examples of this are far reaching right now and include learning how to be successful in a remote environment (it takes more work to be successful in an unknown environment), the impact of just living through a pandemic, loss of social interaction and familiarity, mental health, availability of resources, how difficult it is to do things that used to be simple (for instance printing a document), and so on.

What is cognitive load in this context, and why do I care? What role does stress play?

Cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory and information processing effort required to complete a task. It is an important consideration for educators because humans have a finite effort capacity past which performance and other success metrics degrade. Students therefore perform better when extraneous load is removed and they are able to focus more of their cognitive effort on their academic work. The pandemic and the switch to remote learning have added many potential sources of extraneous cognitive load for students: learning new technologies, navigating changes in course rhythms, and managing the anxieties brought about by the pandemic all require effort otherwise available for learning. As a result, students may experience an increase in the effort required to complete academic work, even in situations where the instructor has not added content or increased instructional rigor.

Stress by itself also impacts students’ ability to learn. This can be a compounding cycle when a student becomes stressed about not having enough cognitive capacity, which adds to their stress, and further lowers their capacity. Common ways in which stress impacts learning are:

  • Having trouble thinking clearly and concentrating
  • Having difficulty communicating or listening
  • Having trouble remembering things
  • Having difficulty making decisions
  • Feeling anxious or worrying excessively
  • Feeling depressed or overwhelmed by sadness
  • Increased substance use or abuse
  • Having trouble relaxing or sleeping
  • Stomachaches, headaches, and other physical aches and pains

Understanding cognitive load and stress, and how they can impact learning, enables educators to take steps to mitigate unwanted increases in cognitive load and more successfully address student concerns about workload, as well as support improved performance and overall student well-being.

What might faculty/instructors be doing that could unintentionally add to the workload of a course? (Many of these are also considered best practices)

  • Adding checkpoint quizzes after readings or watching video content
  • Adding readings in place of lectures
  • Adding online, asynchronous discussions with participation requirements in place of previous in-class discussions
  • Reducing the number of high stakes assessments and replacing them with more, lower stakes assessments
  • Using technology students are unfamiliar with
  • Using course designs/rhythms that are new to students
  • Requiring technology or actions that are no longer easily accessible to students
  • Using technology that is different from other courses students are taking
  • Changing the format of an assignment without clarifying your expectations
  • Providing supplemental materials without clearly outlining expectations for their use
  • Having inconsistent course design/structure/processes

What environmental factors might contribute to students’ cognitive load?

There are a lot of reasons that students may find their current course load overwhelming, when they generally find the same number of credits quite manageable. Some examples are:

  • Lack of access to quiet study space
  • Lack of access to computers that are well suited to online learning
  • Having to figure out how to be successful in online courses
  • Having to navigate what can feel like crushing amounts of work – sometimes this is because courses have added more required work, sometimes it is because courses have increased the number of lower stakes assessments. This is generally better for learning, but the sheer number may overwhelm students even if the time on task is equivalent to one assignment in the past
  • Having to learn how to do things that were previously taken for granted – group meetings, turning in homework, forming study groups, etc.
  • Working in a shared space with a lot of traffic
  • Sharing internet with other students who also need to attend classes
  • Increased time on computer and less time moving
  • Less variety can make sustained focus more difficult
  • General Covid concerns and experiences
  • Finances
  • Food scarcity
  • Safe environment to live in
  • Relationships

What is course and a half syndrome? Why is there particular concern about student workload in 2020-2021 remote courses?

When creating online or hybrid courses there is a common phenomenon called “course and a half syndrome” where the first iteration of a course almost always contains too much content and workload. This is often due to the addition of online elements that increase student cognitive load and a tendency to overestimate the amount of content students can process in an online course. When developing a fully online course from scratch, these factors can be rigorously considered prior to the course being offered. In moving traditional courses to remote formats during the pandemic, time and capacity constraints limited the ability to assess the full impact of changes made as well as rigorously assess individual elements. Crucially, many pedagogical best practices for online instruction can add time and effort for students in unexpected ways, meaning even the most well intentioned changes made during the switch to remote learning could create real or perceived increases in workload for some students.

Do concerns around cognitive load, course and a half, and feeling like courses are more work impact all students equally?

Inequity in any aspect of the student experience will amplify the added challenges of remote instruction.  Students who were already at risk will likely be hit harder, in addition to students who become at risk in the new environment. Examples may include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Asynchronous course elements require students to manage more of their time independently, which may be more difficult for students with learning or attention-related disabilities
  • Students in lower income families may not have access to the same quality of technology as their higher income peers
  • First generation students may have less access to the support they need to be successful in a college environment
  • High stakes online proctoring services may increase the impact of stereotype threat
  • Students in rural areas, or in lower income situations may not have access to reliable and/or high speed internet (or not without significant added effort)
  • Students’ accommodation needs may need to be re-evaluated and/or accommodation implementation re-discussed
  • Students entering situations that would already have pushed their abilities (for instance a student with low math skills in engineering) may be pushed over the edge of being able to successfully perform because of the extra load required to find support and simply participate in the course

What can faculty and instructors do to minimize course load that is not directly related to achieving course learning outcomes?

  • Survey students on how much time they are spending, how they are feeling, and what is helping them learn/keeping them from learning in the course
  • Clarify expectations for assignments – consider adding suggested completion time ranges, especially for discussion posts or 24 hour take home exams
  • Maintain a consistent weekly course rhythm
  • Share student support resources
  • Organize course content to make it easier for students to find what they need
  • Build flexibility into your curriculum and communicate this clearly to students
  • Open a dialogue that seeking support in achieving goals is a professional skill not a weakness

Do cognitive load and stress considerations also apply to faculty, staff, and graduate students?

Yes. Stress, and cognitive load are a reality for everyone. Faculty, staff and graduate students may have better coping and navigation skills than undergraduates, but they are also impacted by things that are specifically harder by design, take more effort due to unintentional side effects, and general environmental factors that add to their stress and decrease available cognitive effort.