With my pen poised above the already crowded lines of my planner, the syllabus stares out at me through the screen – the screen that makes my eyes ache by the end of the day, the screen that is my entertainment, my reprieve, my classroom, my study center, my library, and my notebook. My to-do list is filled with the usual suspects: readings, lectures (recorded or live), assignments and projects (for me, that means essays), and exams. But there’s a few new foes to contend with.
There’s weekly quizzes, reading response ‘blurbs,’ short writing assignments where we are meant to regurgitate readings, and an extra recorded lecture now and then, just for fun (and just because they can, it’s all online after all!). Tutorials aren’t simply discussions – I hastily scramble to add to a google document that, with my name and my group members’ names at the top, will be emailed to the TA promptly for participation points. I still have to speak for my individual points, though. Sharing documents, turning in little paragraphs without a paper trail, and having no excuse to skip class – oh, the wonders of technology!
If that sounded like a lot, you’re right. It might seem a little negative to be listing all the grievances of the past year of online university, but it’s necessary.
While packaged and sold as ‘extra opportunities’ to bump up our participation grades (or the general class grade), what these extra miscellaneous tasks do is stretch us thin. I’ll have less time to focus on polishing my essay draft because I have to write that reading response or take a quiz which never existed before COVID. It reminds me of high school, where we were locked in a concrete box for 6 hours a day, and in order to fill the time, teachers cast out worksheets to keep our heads down and our mouths shut, the clock on the wall ticking away the wasted minutes.
Pre-COVID, it was rare to have a weekly quiz in a class, and I never had weekly responses to turn in. As an English major, midterms and finals are timed written exams where we are given short passages and/or prompts to respond to in essay form. Sometimes we are given short answer and/or multiple choice too. I’ve had the same format for my midterms and finals this year, with some of them being timed and others being take-home, which gives us more time to complete them. My professors might be assigning extra quizzes to make up for the fact that we are given more time for our final exams this year and that they are open note. The problem is, assigning a quiz that’s due every week is just another assignment on top of many. Not to mention, some of my professors have added asynchronous lecture videos on top of lectures given during a set time, so I might have four hours of lecture in one week, when under normal circumstances, that would be impossible.
Betsy Barre, an administrative faculty member and professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, took a survey of students at the university to see how they felt about online school. In her essay on the topic, she notes about herself and her colleagues: “I doubt we are increasing work just to make sure our students take our classes seriously, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we were doing so to assuage our fears that students at a distance would not remain engaged.” I find that the weekly quizzes and writing assignments are meant to keep us engaged, and some of my profs have even said as much. I understand this sentiment, but as Barre points out, the amount of time that these assignments take brings us away from more important assignments. Barre posits that students are spending too much time on these activities that would normally take place during class, where the professor would tell students when to stop writing or when to stop discussing with their neighbour about a certain topic.
While this is true, I’ve found that putting minimal effort into written assignments in a 2 hour class where we may (or may not) even show the professor the quick writing we’ve done is much lower stakes than an online assignment that will be turned in and graded. I was assigned what I was told was a quick writing response to a weekly reading only to get a very low grade. I responded by putting more effort (and yes, more time) into polishing my responses in order to make sure my grade in the course didn’t slip. Barre also thinks it’s possible students are overestimating the amount of time it’s actually taking us to complete these assignments because we are overwhelmed with online school. If that were true, then why would almost every single student in her survey complain about extra work? How can I overestimate the amount of time a task takes after I’ve already done the task? I’ve found these tasks, estimated around 10-15 minutes tops, take much longer in the online format. I also want to point out that while I (and many others) might get overwhelmed and anxious about schoolwork, as a third-year student, I know what a regular semester looks like, and this past year was starkly different.
Barre cited how no professor has intended to add more coursework and over-stress their students during such difficult times. While I do believe our profs have our best interests at heart and want to see us succeed, this doesn’t mean they haven’t been assigning extra work. Impact matters more than intention, especially during a time of world-wide anxiety and life constraints.
What frustrates me the most is the notion that online school feels harder, not that it is harder. The theory, another one of Barre’s, states that online school forces us to be held accountable for tasks that we could generally overlook while still skating by, which causes the impression that we are doing more work, when we are really just doing what’s expected of us: “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.”
I disagree with Barre’s theory. During pre-COVID university, I personally wouldn’t be able to skip a reading or an assignment and still get decent grades because a) the only assignments I had to turn in were major ones, such as essays, and there’s no way I’m just going to throw away 30% of my grade by refusing to do it, and b) the only exams I took were midterms and finals (and sometimes quizzes, but very rarely) and finally c) before the pandemic, all exams were closed note. Which means, I’d have to study all the material in the course because I’d have no idea what was actually going to be on the exam.
All this is to say, even if I did skip a reading because I was busy, I’d always circle back to it during exam season to prepare for the test and make sure I did well. Especially since all my exams were in person timed essays with prompts that could cover anything we’ve read or learned the whole semester or the whole year. In short, there’s no way I could just ‘passively participate’ in my courses and still do well, whether or not there’s a pandemic.
I’m not trying to send hell-fire Ms. Barre’s way, and I understand that like many well-meaning faculty in universities all over North America, she is just defending herself and her peers, as we are all going (and growing) through these very isolating and stressful circumstances. But it’s important not to simply discredit students’ concerns as being an overreaction or some fallacy of time-estimation on our part. Instead, listen to students and address our concerns by making adjustments. We have all had to adjust to this new learning format, so it doesn’t seem like a huge ask. We are paying full tuition for half of the amenities and half the experience, after all.
Seeing as this year of online learning is coming to a close, and the fall semester may be back in person (or at least partially in person), maybe none of this really matters. But when classes go back in person, will these extra assignments go away, or will they remain, now that professors know it’s possible? Will they record a ten-minute video of themselves to add another point to their lecture that they forgot to mention during the allotted class time? Will there still be graded mini assignments and weekly quizzes? And if professors do continue to take advantage of quercus in these ways once class is no longer online, what will that mean for future students, who are already experiencing disproportionately high levels of anxiety and depression due to the pandemic?
Katie Lear, a counselor whose specialty is in treating anxiety in children and young adults, points out that online school causes a series of mental and physical stressors. These include: disrupted sleeping and eating patterns, increased social anxiety, attention problems, a pressure to look good on camera (tied with feeling like one’s privacy and home-life are invaded by work), tension headaches, and eye strain. An added unnecessary workload only increases students’ anxiety, and educators should be mindful of that. She aptly notes, “Just as students are being flexible with teachers who are trying out online methods for the first time, it seems fair that teachers should extend that same flexibility back to students.”