The workload dilemma: Why students feel workloads have increased

Almost a year later, we’re still struggling to adjust.

Chandler Baker, Staff Writer

Have school workloads increased for students during the COVID-19 pandemic? Many astute observers certainly feel that it has, enough so that this article has been floating around Westmont faculty on the subject, “Students say their workload increased during the pandemic. Has it?” What is most interesting about this subject line is the closing question. It implies a possible error of perception, an error which might account for a perceived workload increase despite no real change at all. According to some Westmont students and population surveys, it appears as though there are two ideologies surrounding this dilemma.

One explanation is that teachers have increased workloads for students as a result of online schooling and pandemic restrictions that give students more time outside of class. Supporters of this explanation argue that teachers who believe their pupils have more free hours of the day are inclined to fill up those hours with more homework.

When all the Zooms have finally gotten to you. (Ella Jennings)

The alternative view, which I believe to be more accurate, is that students merely presume their workload has increased due to the unfamiliar online learning environment. The major changes forced upon higher education — i.e. online and asynchronous classes, less class variety, etc. — in the last year are the most probable cause of the shift in perception on student workloads.
Compartmentalization. A word typically relegated to the psychology classroom — or Zoom session — is an important concept concerning memory storage in the human brain. Often classified as a defense mechanism to prevent conflicting thoughts from interacting, compartmentalization also has some very positive applications and effects. Our brains are huge fans of categorization. We like putting things into neat groups. It makes second-to-second thinking easier and allows us to draw from certain memory “compartments” all at once instead of pulling from multiple different spaces in our brain. A popular memory technique called the “method of loci” takes advantage of compartmentalization by imaginatively relegating things that must be memorized to different rooms of a house in your mind.
This technique is one purposeful form of compartmentalization, but we also compartmentalize things by going about our days. Our brains compartmentalize as we sleep, tracing over the previous day and cementing the important events. We compartmentalize when we go to a place other than our room to do work: our brains begin to associate that new room with productive work, just as our bedroom is associated with sleep and our kitchen is associated with eating. Clinical psychologists even treat insomnia by telling their clients to only get into their bed if they are sleepy and at no other time. This tactic allows their brain to “reprogram” and assures that they will associate the bed and bedroom with sleep. This is our brain’s preferred state — different places for different functions. It’s the same reason why houses have had various rooms for centuries, in part to accommodate multiple people, but also to allow us to distribute our diverse tasks among separate spaces.

All of this is to say that an important point of compartmentalization for students is the walk between classes. This is the time in which our brains tie a bridge between specific classrooms — or outdoor tents — and class subjects. The reason students are able to focus significantly better in an in-person class setting than online is that our brains have been primed to focus when inside a classroom. Students who have had two classes in the same classroom may have experienced compartment overlap and found themselves pulling out a notebook for the other class that occurs in the same room. During the twelve primary grades, students are trained to compartmentalize between classrooms. Unfortunately, our classrooms are now all on the same laptop screen, a single compartment. On top of that, students often Zoom into classes from dormitories or some other sort of bedroom, a place the mind has designated for leisure. Overall, this significantly reduces a student’s ability to focus and work productively and effectively, driving down motivation and participation and jacking up overall levels of stress and anxiety.
Tacked on to this psychological demotivator, student life is also significantly less diverse due to the pandemic. Many of the recreational activities that allowed students to wind down after school are now closed or made more difficult due to COVID-19 restrictions. Bowling alleys, gyms, movie theaters, amusement parks, arcades, sports games, musical performances, churches — all shut down. This overall decrease in the variety of life makes online learning feel like a chore and gives the impression that all students do is work.
So, what do we do with this information? Some might advocate for smaller class workloads. However, I don’t think that’s a good solution. Instead, there are things students can do to improve their ability to operate in an online learning environment. First, you can study and attend classes somewhere that’s not your dorm room. An email was sent out recently to all Westmont students outlining the available study spaces; I suggest referring to that if you want to try studying some place else. Second, minimize distractions during class and while studying. This advice may seem obvious, but for some students, simply turning off their phones makes them operate twice as efficiently while doing homework. Aim to be nearly inaccessible while studying to maximize your time. Third, take advantage of compartmentalization. Block out your classes in a calendar, paper or digital, as well as your homework time. Make sure to only focus on one thing at a time. Soon enough, you’ll develop a working routine that will ensure success in your classes.

That being said, we all still need to give each other extra grace during these particularly challenging times. Teachers and students alike would benefit from being more patient with one another as we trudge through this seemingly endless pandemic bog. Educators, be patient with students who are struggling and do what you can to assist them. Students, be calm and unflappable as our teachers do their best to navigate the murky waters of online learning. I’ll end with this pertinent dictum: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”


Opinions expressed in letters and other editorials, unless otherwise stated, are those of the writers and not of The Horizon staff or the college collectively.

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