Online teaching insights, part three: managing workload issues and stress

Insights and lessons on effective tools and techniques to improve online teaching put together by faculty spanning dozens of disciplines at the American University in Cairo

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American University in Cairo
12 May 2021
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Advice on managing workloads and stress among students and faculty
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Supporting academia’s well-being during and beyond Covid-19

Advice on supporting the well-being of overworked academics

In part three of our series on improving online education for students and staff – based on extensive learner feedback and faculty insight – we focus on managing workload issues and stress.

Managing workload issues

We need to remain focused on achieving our desired course outcomes but can be flexible about how we do it. We want to reach the same destination but do not have to take the same route we have done in the past. So be agile and willing to put in the effort to divert from “business as usual”.

Give time in class for students to share any challenges they are facing and offer tips and techniques you use to manage your own workload, for instance, listening to binaural focus music. Students are often surprised to hear faculty are also anxious and stressed, and that they too struggle to balance everything.

If students are complaining about workload, a workload calculator can be a useful tool to break down and manage their “to do” list – we have found this Rice University workload calculator helpful or this Wake Forest University workload estimator, which includes discussion posts and class meetings so is well adapted to online learning.

It is important to recognise that workload is not just about how many pages students have to read or write, but about how cognitively challenging the task is. The added stress of the pandemic may mean a higher cognitive load is weighing on students; their reading speed may be slower, they may be more easily distracted, and they may be struggling with time management. This is worth bearing in mind when setting assignments and deadlines.

Workload perception

If pre-recorded sessions are over and above the regular classes, students will perceive them as extra workload. For the most part, they simply replace pre-reading, but students in general have a harder time online, and such sessions increase their perceived workload. Mentally, students benefit from interacting with other students, so productivity online is lower, leading to this feeling of higher workload.

Students will look to faculty for guidance and support. Even the smallest effort to reduce or help them manage their workload goes a long way with students. When they see their instructors are trying, they perk up and reciprocate.

Stress and anxiety are real

Students are anxious, overwhelmed and stressed. They are living and learning in a global pandemic, separated from the learning environment that they know best and the social environment they enjoy on campus.

Faculty are working hard, and most are teaching online for the first or second time. Are you overwhelmed with the amount of digital communication and emails? So are students, even if they are contributing to your load.

To reduce load on faculty and students, these insights may help:

Time management

One simple step that makes a huge difference for students is to plan your syllabus, so you can set all course deadlines for the same time each week. Whether it is a minor or major assessment or ongoing submissions of regular course contributions, set the deadline for the same time on the same day weekly throughout. Ideally, consolidate all course announcements into one email each week, also sent at the same time.

This allows students to settle into a predictable rhythm with no unpleasant surprises or stress about missing an announcement. Students have reported being inundated with notifications and struggling to keep track of numerous deadlines, so this consolidation is very helpful.

Lower sense of email urgency

Consider if there is a pressing need to email students at all and set clear expectations about when you respond to your own emails. Use the “schedule send” feature if you are a compulsive emailer so that weekend emails and responses are only sent at 6am on Sunday, for instance.

There are few real emergencies and most things can wait until we are in a synchronous class. This reduces anxiety and information overload, and sets a clear framework of expectation within the increasingly fluid boundaries that online learning creates.

Helping students without overloading the teacher

One strategy that can help reduce stress for students and instructors is to stop allowing students to do make-up work when they fall behind and instead offer extra credit opportunities later in the semester. This way they have a chance to make up points without backtracking and there’s no need for retroactive grading, which is very difficult for faculty to keep track of.

Hoda Mostafa is director and a professor of practice and Maha Bali is an associate professor of practice, both at the Center for Learning and Teaching, American University in Cairo.

Other faculty from the American University in Cairo who contributed to this guide: Karim Addas, Firas Al-Atraqchi, Ramy Aly, Khalil El Khodary, Nellie El Enany, Sophie Farag, Matthew Hendershot, Maurice Hines, Rania Jabr, Elisabeth Kennedy, Tarek Elsayed, Yasmine Motawy, Magda Mostafa, Iman Soliman, Ahmed Tolba, Thomas Wolsey and Alyssa Young.

Originally published in the Center for Learning and Teaching’s New Chalk Talk Newsletter, American University in Cairo.

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