Friday, November 28, 2008

Academic workloads - a few truths and a plea !

I have been dwelling on the analysis of our Work Environment Survey over the last week or so, and in particular that complex issue of workloads. Many Otago Polytechnic staff perceive their workloads as too high and unsustainable, and academic staff report the most dissatisfaction. And of the academic staff the more experienced and higher skilled staff - our principal lecturers - are the least satisfied. Now, I accept we have a major issue here, but it is very complex, to say the least. I have to confess to being somewhat at a loss to know how we can actually deal with this issue, but paradoxically the solutions are obvious!

So, at the risk of incurring some wrath, I would like to put some "truths" on the table:

Truth No 1: the obvious solution - hire more people to do the work we currently do - is simply not affordable. It would be affordable if we had an average EFTS:FTE ratio of 19/20:1, rather than the 14/15:1 we have now. This is about having more students in each class, but if we cannot achieve that we have to do other things - so some more "truths" follow.

Truth No 2: the second obvious solution to too much work is to remove work from the task list. For academics this includes:
- have fewer assessments. One of our Schools comes close to one assessment per course. Most have three/four per course and some have double that and more. But I constantly have discussions about this with academics who think reduced assessment activity is not possible and quality will suffer. This is not necessarily so at all, and even if having one assessment goes too far in some cases, two could work instead of three, three instead of four etc.
- don't spend unnecessary time in the classroom - ensure your time is very well used. And if I am not being too provocative: if you spend more than 10% of the time in class talking to powerpoints or OHTs you are wasting your time and that of the students. Unless of course they cannot read for themselves!

Truth No 3: work gets done faster and to a higher level of quality if we know what we are doing, i.e. if we are highly skilled - and as teachers, this means highly skilled as teachers, not just highly skilled in our discipline or vocation. Two skills in particular are needed: assessment design and course design. Now these are complex matters, but I fear that too many academics believe the contrary. As an interesting aside, try talking to our learning support specialists, who will tell you that a significant number of students present for help because they cannot understand the assessment task they have been set. And it is not because they are stupid, it is because the assessment is poorly specified.
The same is often true of course design - with courses focussed on content rather than the most effective learning strategies.
But a problem I see only too frequently - academics who will not take the time out to "sharpen their axe" ie to acquire the skills that will make their future workload so much easier.

Truth No 4: we each control the key resource which makes our workload sustainable or not - our time:
- we have to prioritise our work
- we have to manage the time we do have
- we choose to embrace options to reduce work or not
- we choose to build our skills, or not, when it is obvious we need more
- we choose to use technology which helps our efficiency - or not

Truth No 5: we all end up with a disproportionate amount of extra work if not everyone in our team pulls their weight. I have observed over the years that one negative person in a team of 10, or one who does not do their fair share, increases the workload of the others by a multiple of that 10%. And certainly leaves the entire team dispirited and feeling badly overworked.

Now I could come up with some other "truths", but these five will do for now. This is NOT "blame the victim". Rather, it is a "truth" (darn - that's the sixth one) that the victim has to be part of the cure. Nor do I resile from the fact that there are and always will be solutions to heavy workloads at the organisational level: streamlined processes, removal of unnecessary compliance and so on. But the organisational "cures" by themselves will simply not make enough of a difference. So, how do we bring about the changes in individual behavior? I am looking for wisdom on this one, so please - help!!


DaveB said...

Phil, another option with assessments is to figure out ways which still challenge the students and assess their skills/knowledge but are very quick to mark, or even mark themselves.

Currently I have many courses with a HUGE number of assessments (getting up to 15 or so) - most are intended to be formative but do go into the final grade. And yet I have a trivial marking workload.

Having said that, I am growing less happy with this approach and am moving to ones which will actually increase my marking load with a new course I'm developing.

The number of assessments isn't really the issue. I think it's more about whether it is possible to design ways which are valid for their purpose and yet efficient. Sometimes it might not be possible - but it's always useful to stop and ask "is there a better way".

Anonymous said...

Similar conversations are being held here at NMIT. Huge workloads that bog down the Academic staff! Probably some are self inflicted but programmes are slow to change (ITPs can be slow to adapt) and many tutors have inherited , as you pointed out, poor course design.

Anonymous said...

Phil, your truths make interesting reading and I particularly agree with the course/assessment design issue. However, I do wonder about how ITP's support part-time and contract staff to develop in these areas. These staff are often highly valued for the currency of their industry experience, but do their contracts allow for course & teaching development? Or are they not the focus of this posting, because they are too busy running their other lives/businesses?

phil said...

I agree with Dave B in part - workload for lecturers does not have to be linked to volume of assessments, and certainly, smart assessment design can minimise the workload that is generated through marking. But the skills for smart assessment design are in shorter supply than those needed to reduce assessment volume. We so often just plain over assess!
But there is another issue with assessment volume that we should not overlook - the workload impact on learners. This is a significant issue, especially when all of the lecturers in a programme are overassessing! So, we can kill two birds with one stone if we can keep assessment volumes down.
And to respond to David - Nelson: another simple truth is we do not adequately support part time staff, and this is to our eternal shame. I have grappled with this issue many times over the years and must confess to having never come up with an enduring solution. We can offer training programmes and can pay part time staff to attend, but sheer turnover often means that we make little progress. The "best" approach I have found is to buddy part timers up with a permanent staff member who both coaches for skill development and moderates assessments. But guess what - up goes the workload!
Another answer, though, may well be in collaborative approaches to assessment, whereby we develop with other institutions shared asessment item banks of valid and reliable assessment tasks and items. This way we share the design expertise.

Sarah Stewart said...

I absolutely get where you're coming from, Phil, with regards to assessment.. We have worked very hard in our department to keep these down as much as possible, and probably our students would still complain that they are over-assessed. But we also have industry standards and requirements to meet which sometimes mean we have no choice about the assessment we retain in our programs. The need to ensure the students we send into the community are 'safe' ones is ever in the fore front of our minds when developing our assessments.

willie campbell said...

I have been a reader of your blog since day one- finally something that challenges me.
The tensions between
instruction (and that measn all the cunning ways to get students to engage with material that promotes learning) and assessment is this-information that isn't assessed doesn't get looked at. so to say that your students can read your power points or lecture notes, while true, doesn't hold much water. If those notes aren't needed for an assessment why read them? this comes to me to be about course design. what is really needed and what is nice to know. Alas, when you take too many nice to knows away I suspect you start having "thin" courses.
Therse aren't something an institution wants to be proud of.
So there is a base line opf assessment that has to be carried out and it is linked to two things-
1) learning outcomes;
2) integrity and reputation of courses.

phil said...

I don't disagree Willie, but....! Yes, it is well known that if you assess it, students will do it or learn it. But the literature on deep and surface learning would indicate that the real challenge is to come up with strategies that truly engage students in the subject matter being studied. So this takes us back to the real challenge being a learning design challenge. And if we crack this then we can go back to looking at what assessment is really necessary , rather than what assessment will get students to learn this stuff!
But if we must use assessment to "compel" learning, then let's make it formative assessment so that the assessment itself is engaging and/or part of the learning process.

DaveB said...

Depending on what you mean by "formative" then yes, I agree Phil, but only "depending". (you heard this in a meeting earlier) Students are increasingly only paying attention to tasks which affect their final grade. I have a number of things which are formative in nature, but do affect their bottom line (the final grade). Technically, that makes them summative (I believe - am I right Willie?).

I said a while back that I would never stoop to putting lab work as a grade going towards the final mark - but now I do just that (only 5% but it has a noticeable effect). And before anyone suggests I need to make labs more interesting, students report in course feedback that the labs ARE interesting.

Cripes - recently we both heard a lecturer say (proudly) that she puts grades on students answering email as a way of making sure that they actually read email ... which sounded to me more like course administration/management than learning - and this was well received in the meeting!

Students willingness and motivation to engage in a courses has moved over the last 5 years. We should all spend more time on making sure that the activities, readings, etc etc are exciting and engaging. We need to continue improving the student engagement and depth of learning in ways that you mention.

BUT the most engaging and well designed activity will not improve learning if the students opt to not participate because there's no bottom line benefit (ie final grade).

Students have become quite strategic in their participation in courses.

hadashi said...

Did a double-take when I saw the following snippet of text: "We so often just plain over assess!". I thought it was something else!

Ramona said...

This is great!