Center for Digital Learning at SUNY Geneseo

Burned out and bewildered: students respond to pandemic online learning

Lego person broken apart Students, faculty, and staff are finding it harder to keep everything together during the pandemic.

The March 18 community conversation on student workload in online courses, co-sponsored by the Student Association and the Center for Digital Learning, gave all involved a lot to think about.

The event invited students, staff, and faculty to talk candidly with each other about their experiences with and perspectives on student workload during “emergency remote” pandemic instruction. On social media, students throughout higher education, including those at Geneseo, were describing how burdened they feel. On this issue and others impacting students’ mental, emotional, academic health, they were also insisting that talking isn’t enough. Action was required. Soon.

At the same time, some faculty were describing their exhausting efforts to meet student needs and limitations while handling their own challenges, noting that it might be beyond their power to change some of the things frustrating their students.

With this context in mind, we set out to design a session for students to share their feelings and experiences in a welcoming environment. We invited faculty and staff to attend as well: to share, but mostly to listen. We wanted students to receive a hearing from open hearts and minds. And we wanted to come away with ideas for action.

As one office in a complex institution, the CDL can’t effect institutional change all by itself. But we want to do everything we can to help students where they’re at now, hopefully in time to get them through the rest of what we anticipate to be their last semester of emergency pandemic learning. Fortunately, there are a few ways our center can help, as I’ll explain below.

Our time together on March 18 was divided into three parts:

  1. An anonymous, collaborative slide deck
  2. Annotating Jody Greene’s “The Strange Case of the Exploding Student Workload”
  3. Breakout rooms with discussion questions and a collaborative note-taking document

An anonymous, collaborative slide deck

Facilitators provided a blank slide deck in Google slides asking “How are you feeling?” Sharing permissions were set so that participants could add their thoughts anonymously.

Read through the slides.

This session exposed a number of realities for both students and faculty.

Students: Missing friends … and breaks

Covid-19 has taken a toll on everyone’s social life, but for college students it’s extra impactful. Students shared that the precautions Geneseo and most universities have taken to protect everyone during the pandemic have exacerbated feelings of loneliness and isolation. Furthermore, students pointed out that repeated Zoom meetings and near-constant screen use have made it difficult to leave their rooms during the day and socialize in person even to the extent to which they are permitted.

Additionally, while the college has implemented “rejuvenation days” in lieu of the conventional Thanksgiving or Spring break, students don’t feel that they get a real opportunity to rejuvenate, as many are saddled with due dates immediately following. Students miss having an extended period of time to not think about their work and recharge. The same screen-time that keeps students from socializing with those in their bubbles is also a constant exposure to their work as they find themselves going from Zoom call to discussion board to assignment in one continuous flow.

Some students single out discussion boards as one task in particular that overloads their to-do lists. Many students feel that requiring lengthy discussion board responses overlooks the time-consuming reality of that work. As one student put it:

I have noticed for my hybrid “in person” classes when I share within a conversation I am energized by the discussion. Virtually discussing (particularly canvas discussion boards) where I have to write responses leave me feeling exhausted. Especially since I am writing 400-500 word responses for multiple discussion boards over 4 courses multiple times a week. (Slide 21)

All-in-all, students are feeling run-down and overburdened, and they don’t know how to overcome this situation.

Students: Feeling lost and lacking structure

According to what students shared in the slides, a good deal of their anxiety is coming from feeling “lost” in their courses. Some students describe this as constantly worrying whether or not they’re missing a deadline or not being able to locate the relevant materials instructors have shared in Canvas. Hand-in-hand with this issue is the fact that some students are struggling with either not not finding structure in their course’s Canvas presence or not understanding the structure they find there.

Furthermore, there are students stressed by the pressure of gathering information and “teaching” it to themselves rather than having the guidance of either a synchronous lecture or carefully crafted modules that purposefully present information. While video lectures can help, some students struggle to find time to watch those lectures on top of their other assignments.

There is a common theme in these concerns: organization, both at the student and faculty level. Pandemic teaching and learning have asked both groups to change the way they structure work and communicate about it. As if this weren’t difficult enough, in remote classes neither students and faculty find it challenging to build the empathetic, genuine relationships they know how to create in a shared physical space.

Faculty: Feeling constrained and in the dark

While we didn’t get a lot of faculty feedback in this session, as it was primarily aimed at student experiences, we did get some. There was a general feeling of being constrained and blocked, one aspect of the lack of connection discussed earlier.

Faculty shared that they miss out on tailoring their class time and instruction to their students’ unique interests and personalities, as many faculty maintain that each class has a different overall “self.” They also shared that they feel constrained in the way they can communicate with students, whether using Canvas or email; there was some frustration expressed at their inability to do either when a student misses a Covid test and is locked out of accounts and classes (Slide 15).

This faculty perspective is invaluable to our understanding of the overall picture of student workload and the current student experience, and we appreciate those who were willing to share with us during the session.

Annotating Jody Greene's "The Strange Case of the Exploding Student Workload"

The article

This portion of our session was dedicated to a live-annotation of Jody Greene’s article featured in Inside Higher Ed last December, “The Strange Case of the Exploding Student Workload.”

The task

We placed Greene’s article in four Google docs shared only with the participants and asked them to use the highlight and comments functions to dissect the issues and ideas brought up in the article and respond to one another’s observations. The article was copied into four identical docs in order to keep one document from getting overwhelmed by comments.

The results

While the article is relatively brief, it took some time to get through for those who hadn’t had the chance to read it ahead of time. But after a bit, slowly but surely, we started to see lots of highlighting and comments. Here are some of the most striking points our participants drew out of the article:

F(aculty): I have opted to eliminate many of my typical assignments from all of my classes in order to streamline them … and hopefully make them more manageable.  » S(tudent): I think that this would be more than beneficial to students. Spending time on assignments has taken away from my understanding of the class as a whole. I find myself focusing more on getting the assignment done than grasping the material.

F: I was not prepared to have students email me that they had lost a loved one to covid and wanting to still push through and get through the course. Math seems irrelevant at that point.

F: One of the struggles that needs to be addressed both from a workload and a mental health aspect is the opportunity to fail. Failure is no longer defined as poor participation or contributions to class - it is not feeling comfortable approaching online professors for help and disappearing.  » S: This is true! I feel that the lack of face-to-face connection with professors makes it so much harder to feel comfortable talking one-on-one.

S: How to grade class participation seems to have definitely been a struggle for a lot of my professors. There is a large energy difference between commenting in person in a class and writing discussion board posts and replies. These small assignments take a lot of energy when multiplied over 3-4 courses. They are typically worth very little in terms of grading.

S: Something that’s helped in a couple of my courses is to make it so that students are able to “skip” 2-3 assignments in a particular category (discussion posts, reading responses, etc.) so that students can opt out of an assignment if they’re having a tough day/week, if needed, but only a few times per semester

F: Pandemic teaching has also taught us the importance of always practicing universal design.  » S: As a student, this really speaks to me. I feel like there is a strong need for universal design in terms of presenting information.

Because the slide activity was about sharing highly personal feelings, it was designed to provided anonymity. The annotation exercise was more about responded to and connecting around Greene’s ideas, so identification was not only less problematic but also more conducive to generating an authentic conversation. We were thrilled to see all parties do exactly that, and especially to see students comfortably responding to faculty comments.

Breakout rooms with discussion questions and a collaborative note-taking document

Our last activity of the session was to send the attendees into breakout rooms to address a set of discussion questions. Each breakout room was intentionally configured to include multiple students for each faculty or staff member present. We wanted to amplify student voices by providing them greater representation. In addition, we didn’t want any students to feel intimidated by being the only student in a room of faculty/staff. Not surprisingly, the announcement of breakout rooms caused some students to drop off Zoom (some at the very outset of the meeting, even more as the rooms were being created), complicating our efforts and leaving the room ratio skewed toward faculty and staff.

Designated notetakers in each group added to a single collaborative Google doc, enabling all groups to see how each group addressed its assigned question. While each group was assigned a single question, we ended up with an “orphaned” question intended for a Group 3 that ended up with no members. Responses in the doc to Group 3’s question came from other groups, who were invited to address it once they’d finished discussing their assigned question.

Reading through this collaborative document, you’ll find a common theme: students asking for clarity. This ask is a clear extension of the desire for organization and structure expressed earlier in the previous session activities. Students are concerned about not understanding their professors’ expectations from the get-go. While it may seem like the answer to this concern would be to reach out to these professors, that may be a substantial barrier for students, and might not result in a prompt reply depending on the circumstances, thereby leaving students to rely solely on their assumptions.

Where we go from here

It’s no secret that we’re approaching the end of this semester, which will, hopefully, be our last semester of pandemic-required online instruction and learning. The time is short to help students where they’re at now. We’ve been working on some ideas designed to guide students to a successful end-of-semester as well as help them in their future learning, whether online or in person.

Micro-workshops for student success

It never hurts to add some tools to one’s toolbox. We’re working to create some 30-minute workshops on resources and practices that, if put to use immediately, could help some students better manage learning in a comparatively unstructured environment.

The message to students here is definitely not “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.” It’s more like, “When the situtation feels out of control, control anything you can.”

Ideas here include a workshop on leveraging Gmail’s tools for managing email overload and another on effectively requesting flexibility on deadlines. We hope to bring these and more “micro workshops” to students before the end of the semester.

The Zoom-free option: resource and experience sharing via the CDL blog

For those burnt out to the point where the thought of even one more half hour on Zoom is beyond the pale, we’ll be aggregating helpful resources on the topics covered in our micro-workshops and highlighting the experiences of fellow students, their pandemic learning struggles, and how they’re handling them. We’ll share what we collect right here on our blog, so watch this space!

The future of online learning at Geneseo

Ultimately, it’s our, and everyone’s, hope that this will be the last pandemic learning experience for a long time.

The said, even when pandemic learning and instruction are over, the effects of this experience will be long-lasting in various ways.

One of the most exciting effects is a new embrace of online learning at Geneseo. There is clearly interest from both faculty and students in more, and better, opportunities for online instruction, with its potential to alleviate schedule conflicts and create more flexible paths to degree completion.

The CDL is thrilled to support instructors who are interested in continuing to teach online in fall 2021 through this summer’s Online Teaching Institute, under development by Geneseo’s talented team of Instructional Designers. Faculty who complete the institute will craft fall online courses that meet Geneseo’s high standards, based on decades of research in best practices. The instructional design team is collaborating with the Office of Accessibility Services, members of the Office of the Provost focused on student academic success, and the CDL to make online learning at Geneseo the best possible experience for everyone involved.