Reduce Workloads to Ease Students’ Stress: Faculty Insights

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s Note: The following article is one in a series offering insights from faculty members at the American University in Cairo on how to make online classrooms more effective. The comments are from an article published by New Chalk Talk, a newsletter of the university’s Center for Learning and Teaching. See a previous article from this series: “Making Online Teaching Work: Insights from American University in Cairo Faculty.”

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 campus environment they enjoy. Faculty members are working hard and most are teaching online for the first or second time. Many may feel overwhelmed with the amount of digital communication and emails. But they need to understand that students are feeling similarly burdened, even if they are contributing to instructors’ workloads.

To reduce load on faculty and students, here are some insights shared by faculty members:

Listen Empathetically

Listening to students’ concerns, and discussing our own thinking with them, can make all the difference in allowing us to respond to their needs while also helping them understand why we do what we do.

Nellie El Enany, department of management:

“Explaining the rationale behind the workload, learning outcomes, assessments and deadlines is really important, it encourages a more open and empathetic space and allows students to understand what is going on. Let’s all agree though, overburdening students with work, assessments and learning material is not helpful to them or to us, and there is more and more evidence on how it negatively impacts mental health and well-being.”

Ramy Aly, department of sociology, Egyptology and anthropology:

“I am discussing deadlines with students and responding to their sense of how and when they can complete assignments. I am providing individualized deadlines where I feel that a student is genuinely struggling. The substance of their learning is more important than deadlines that apply to all—of course this means I am marking all the time, basically—but these are exceptional times.”

Maurice Hines, department of libraries and learning technologies, reduces the grading workload by not allowing students to redo assignments, but providing extra-credit assignments toward the end of the semester.

On the other hand, Thomas Wolsey, Graduate School of Education, says he has encouraged resubmissions of work.

Allowing students to resubmit assignments “is more work at first, but students come to realize what I think a quality performance looks like and strive to achieve it. And they appreciate the flexibility.”

Thomas Wolsey  
Graduate School of Education

“It is more work at first, but students come to realize what I think a quality performance looks like and strive to achieve it. And they appreciate the flexibility.”

Workload Issues

Elisabeth Kennedy, department of history, says it helps to set predictable deadlines and communication times:

“I planned my syllabus so that I can consolidate all course deadlines to be at the same time each week. Whether it is a minor or major assessment, … they are all due at midnight on Thursday that week. I also consolidate all course announcements into one email each week, sent at the same time each week. Students can settle into a predictable rhythm for my course with no unpleasant surprises, or stress about missing one of many announcements.”

Yasmine Motawy, department of rhetoric and composition, thinks twice about sending out emails. She advises:

“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/responses are only sent at 6 a.m. on Sunday, for instance.  There are few real emergencies, and most things can wait until we are in class (meeting synchronously). This reduces anxiety, information overload, and fosters respect for the increasingly fluid boundaries online learning creates.”

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Maurice Hines, department of libraries and learning technologies, says lightening the load on students helps teachers, too:

“In terms of helping students and myself manage the stress of this semester, I decided not to allow students to do make-up work. Instead, I offer more extra-credit opportunities in the latter part of the semester (when they realize something’s wrong) as a way to make up points without backtracking and retroactive grading, which is difficult to keep track of with so many students.”

Iman Soliman, department of Arabic language instruction, suggests keeping communication simple:

“Avoid technical clutter with shared documents, such as Google Docs, and Google Slides, voice chats, and Zoom meetings. Keep everything clearly laid out and linked in Blackboard. Ensure clear communication of expectations with weekly schedules, course assignment overview, rubrics, grading scheme and outcomes.”

If class sizes allow it, she also encourages professors to enhance their “immediacy behavior” by making themselves available to students at different times and through multiple channels: “online office hours with accommodating time slots, with an open Zoom link in case someone pops into my ‘office,’ just like in a face-to-face modality.”

Magda Mostafa, department of architecture, recommends remaining more focused on achieving course outcomes than how they are achieved:

“We should be reaching the same destination but do not [have] to take the same route we did in the past. We need to be flexible and agile, and be willing to put in the effort to change how (we) divert from ‘business as usual.’”

Mostafa also sets aside some class time for students to share any challenges they are facing.

“We should be reaching the same destination but do not [have] to take the same route we did in the past. We need to be flexible and agile, and be willing to put in the effort to change how (we) divert from ‘business as usual.”

Magda Mostafa  
Department of architecture

“I have shared with them some of the techniques I use to manage my own workload—like binaural focus music. They are very surprised to hear that faculty are also anxious and stressed, and that we too struggle to do our jobs and balance everything else.”

There are some online tools faculty members can use to gauge the workload they are putting on students. These include the Course Workload Estimator, created by the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University, in Texas. The Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University, in North Carolina, created an enhanced version of the calculator that’s well adapted to online classrooms, adding tasks like posting to discussion forums and watching podcasts and videos.

Recognize that workload is not just about how many pages they have to read or write, but about how cognitively challenging the task is. The added stress of the pandemic may mean there is a higher cognitive load on students than in a regular semester. Their reading speed may be slower, they may be more easily distracted, and they may be struggling with time management.

Ahmed Tolba, department of management, is concerned about how students perceive online tasks.

“In terms of workload, if … pre-recorded sessions are over and above the regular classes, students will perceive them as extra workload. I am not too convinced about that, as they would replace pre-reading, for example. But students in general have a harder time online, and such sessions increase their workload perception. I think mentally, they need to interact with other students, so productivity online is lower, leading to this feeling [of higher workload].”

Firas Al-Atraqchi, chair of the department of journalism and mass communication, writes:

“Reduce workload? Absolutely. But I have to stress again that the onus is with us and all faculty. Students will look to us for guidance and support—these are critical.  … But even the smallest effort goes a long way with our students. When [they] see we are trying, they will perk up and reciprocate.”

Let’s Continue to Support Each Other

As we face the probability of another semester of mostly online learning, we need to seriously consider our community’s wellbeing, while also focusing on the learning experience and the achievement of learning outcomes.

This challenge cannot be undertaken without an ongoing conversation between peers, students and leadership. Deans have opened up channels of communication, listening to students and faculty as well as sharing student concerns as we seek out solutions that can make a difference.

Although the task may seem daunting, the choices we have ahead can be much simpler and easier to implement when we work together within our community of learners, that is grounded in communication, empathy and commitment to learning in the era of this global pandemic.

This commentary was curated by Maha Bali and Hoda Mostafa of the AUC Center for Learning and Teaching. If you cite the article, please also include all of the authors: Firas Al-Atraqchi, Ramy Aly, Nellie El Enany, Maurice Hines, Elisabeth Kennedy, Magda Mostafa, Yasmine Motawy, Iman Soliman, Ahmed Tolba and Thomas Wolsey.

Next in this series: Articles on how to encourage students’ participation in online classrooms, and faculty members’ tips on how to make effective videos.


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