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The Allure and Curse of Mini-Assignments

Summary:
During the online courses, it seems that many teachers and students have the feeling that they are working harder and accomplishing less. In its own way, this feeling is a tribute to the virtues of in-person education. Betsy Barre offers some hypotheses as to why higher education has a feeling of getting less output from more input in "The Workforce Dilemma" (January 22, 2021, Center for Teaching and Learning, Wake Forest University). I recommend the short essay as a whole. But the part that resonated most with me had to do discussed how attempts by teachers to use online tools as a way of encouraging and monitoring short-term academic progress can end up making everyone feel crazy. Barre writes:  The most interesting of all six hypotheses, and the one I’ve thought the most about, is that

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During the online courses, it seems that many teachers and students have the feeling that they are working harder and accomplishing less. In its own way, this feeling is a tribute to the virtues of in-person education. Betsy Barre offers some hypotheses as to why higher education has a feeling of getting less output from more input in "The Workforce Dilemma" (January 22, 2021, Center for Teaching and Learning, Wake Forest University). 

I recommend the short essay as a whole. But the part that resonated most with me had to do discussed how attempts by teachers to use online tools as a way of encouraging and monitoring short-term academic progress can end up making everyone feel crazy. Barre writes:  

The most interesting of all six hypotheses, and the one I’ve thought the most about, is that our experience this semester has revealed an unfortunate truth about how teaching and learning took place prior to the pandemic. This theory ... suggests that students are experiencing more work because of a fundamental difference between online courses and the typical in-person course. While there may be no difference in how much work is expected of students in these courses, there is often a difference in how much work is required.

Most faculty would agree that students should be spending 30 hours a week on homework in a traditional 15-credit semester, but we also know that the average student taking in-person courses is able to get by on about 15 hours a week. This is not surprising to most faculty, as we know that students aren’t always doing the reading or coming to class prepared. Here and there a course might require the full amount of work, but a student can usually count on some of their courses requiring less.

So what makes online courses so different? In an online course, faculty can see, and students are held accountable for, all expected work. In an in-person class, students can sometimes skip the reading and passively participate in class. But in an online course, they may have to annotate the reading, take a quiz, or contribute to a discussion board after the reading is complete. While this shift would be uncomfortable for students in the case of one course, shifting all of their courses in this direction would, in fact, double their workload and entail a radical reworking of their schedules. ...

Mini-assignments are often well-meant. The idea is to keep students involved and on pace, and for certain kinds of classes and for many students I'm sure it works fine. But a steady-stream of graded mini-assignments also take time, organization and energy for both faculty and students. Barre again:  

We’ve also encouraged faculty to follow best practices by breaking up a few large assignments into multiple smaller ones. When this happens across five courses, 10 assignments can suddenly convert to 50. While those 50 assignments may take no more time than the original 10, simply keeping track of when they are due is a new job unto itself. In each of these cases, the cognitive load we are placing on students has increased, adding invisible labor to the time they spend completing the work.

There are some workplaces where every keystroke on the computer can be monitored. Most teachers and students do not aspire to have the learning experience function in this way. But a continual stream of mini-assignments moves higher education closer to that model. 

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