The Busywork Dilemma

The pandemic-induced shift to online instruction has caused a rise in student complaints about “busywork” — the perception that assignments are meaningless tasks unrelated to their learning, rather than activities deliberately designed by instructors to promote understanding, engagement, and accountability. Julaine Fowlin, Assistant Director for Instructional Design at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, has written about how to prevent these misperceptions, which I encourage you to read. A summary of her advice:

First, make the connection between assignments and course learning objectives explicit to students. This may mean creating course content that explains the purpose of an assignment.

Second, assignments should reflect real-life applications that are typically encountered in a professional context; for example, authentic writing.

Third, help students stay engaged and motivated. This can be achieved in a variety of ways: by situating assignments in different sensory environments (e.g., debates, games, role play), by providing formative feedback quickly enough for them to adjust and feel a sense of accomplishment, and with assignments that remind students of their learning goals so that they reflect on what they are doing to achieve them.

Last, be true to yourself, by using assignments that communicate your own enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter.