March 12, 2021

Hola CNS Instructors,

This week’s teaching tip (originally sent out by Derek Schutt, WCNR MTI Coordinator) addresses student perceptions of workload for on-line courses. I find it relevant to my current hybrid teaching mode, as well. Many students feel that on-line courses are expecting more work than the in person version, even though most of us are not adding work (and may be subtracting work). This article by Betsy Barre titled “The Workload Dilemma” posted in the Wake Forest University Center for the Advancement of Teaching site explores this topic. She begins by admitting that she, like many people, is not so good at estimating the time spent on various tasks and activities. Certainly, our perception of the time we spend doing something depends on our level of enjoyment. Based on student surveys, she puts forward 6 hypotheses for why student perceive workloads have increased with the shift to hybrid and online instruction.

·       Hypothesis 1: Whether we intend to or not, we might actually be assigning more work than we have in the past. We need to assess how much time is required for any new or modified assignments added for the online format.

·       Hypothesis 2: We aren’t assigning more work, but we haven’t made our expectations clear. Students may spend more time completing tasks than we would want them to.

·       Hypothesis 3: Some students are overestimating their workload because they are unhappy to be learning online. Students feel they are spending more time because they are working on-line and feel couped up in their room or apartment.

·       Hypothesis 4: Many students could do well with less effort in the past. In other words, while our expectations of work have stayed the same, students could skip work and participate passively without being penalized in an in-class format. The on-line format makes this harder to do.  For example, a discussion requires writing and responding to recorded posts.

·       Hypothesis 5: The shift to online coursework has increased students’ cognitive load. The coursework itself doesn’t increase students’ workload. Adjusting to working on-line using unfamiliar electronic tools makes the coursework more challenging.

·       Hypothesis 6: A global pandemic has decreased student capacity to work. The pandemic takes an emotional toll and introduces new challenges like taking care of grandparents, siblings, children and pets while trying to study.  Some of my students are living at home (outside Fort Collins, Colorado and even the U.S.).

None of these hypotheses are mutually exclusive and they all likely play a role in the perceived increased workload to varying degrees depending on the student. So, what can we do to minimize the increase workload or the perception? First, assess how much time you are asking students to work. This award winning course workload estimator (version 2.0) can help you make this assessment. For my online and hybrid courses it estimates I expect students to put in 10.5 hours per week including in-class time, which seems reasonable to me. I am putting in more time than that teaching each course. The author suggests shooting for less than three hours per week per credit hour and mine is a four credit course. Second, be explicit how much time you expect students to work on various items. I could do better here, although I hope the point value I assign to each assignment, rubrics, grading and feedback should provide a pretty good indication of effort expected. Third, limit your use of new tools and technologies. I am sure my in-class activities, when converted to online discussions can take student more than 50 minutes to complete for some over achievers. Online exams are another culprit. Students need to become familiar with Canvas quizzes and online proctoring. I also ask my students to use a drawing website to answer free response question. Providing practice/example exams to familiarize students with these adjustments helps. Fourth, consider reducing student work expectations and don’t add any major new requirements during the pandemic. Fifth, give the students the option of skipping some work or choosing between assignments, similar to what they might have done in the past in the in-person format. I would add being more flexible on assignment due dates.  While time-on-task is key to learning, we all need to be mindful of the well-being of our students and ourselves right now.  This too, shall pass.

An announcement requested by Ryan Barone, VP Student Affairs:

Justin Dove (the relatively new Director of the Student Disability Center) and Ryan invite you to a special virtual program with Universal Design national expert Dr. Amanda Kraus ( They are hosting a session on Monday 29 March from 9am-10:15am for campus partners and would value your participation. The session will generally relate to universal design, equity, and student success. I have provided the Zoom meeting link, number and passcode below. They are hosting several events with Dr. Kraus on March 29th, including a smaller workshop for some of you who are involved with faculty professional development and course (re)design, as well as a student session. Please let Justin and Ryan ( ) know if you have any questions.

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 975 2278 2149

Passcode: 808701

I hope you all have a good shovel, Paul

Paul Laybourn (he/him/his)
Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Director, W2R S-STEM Program
Director, NoCo B2B Program
Director, REU Site in Molecular Biosciences