FOMO, burnout, and how to help students do less, better!

by | May 31, 2024 | Institute Fellowships, Projects, Student support

Dr Neil Morrison is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Mathematics and one of our ITL Fellows. Here he answers some questions about his fellowship topic ‘Study Expenditure’ and its Alignment to the ‘Study Budget’ in Flexible Learning.






N.b -‘Study budget’ refers to the notional workload an academic thinks they are requiring of students to complete their course, i.e. assimilating the materials, participating in class, revising and completing assignments. 

‘Study expenditure’ refers to the amount of time and effort students actually spend in order to successfully complete a course.


What prompted you to pick this fellowship topic?

I arrived at Manchester one year before the pandemic and found I learned a lot about how the University worked through speaking to students. During Academic Advising meetings students told me how the programmes and courses worked, whilst building connections with my advisees. Once the pandemic moved us all online, we built a network of students who consulted me and each other through advising, keeping the students engaged. When we moved back onto campus there was this feeling that the workload had increased despite academic staff teaching the same content. I wanted to investigate this and gain an understanding of how different students are experiencing their workload, and to do this I needed to create a way to track workload in real time.

How did you measure study expenditure?

On my own unit I ran a weekly reflective log for students to fill in, asking how they managed their overall workload on this unit and with their other courses. The reflective log gave us a broader sense of how students were doing. Often as academics we neglect to remember other issues students may be tackling: applications for further study, internships, issues at home or with accommodation. Mitigating circumstances can help if something drastic happens, but this is not enough in the long term.

My student partner Sana was also a big contributor: whilst I could look into many things within my department, Sana was based in the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health (FBMH), and so enabled us to look beyond into the other faculties. I wanted to get a sense of workloads, but also how the weekly or daily work requirement is presented to different students on different programs. Do lecturers help students understand how their time is expected to be spent, or are students expected to do this on their own?

What did your student partner bring to the project?

In addition to the insights from her own programme in FBMH, Sana ran some student focus groups to get a sense of what students considered useful guidance in knowing where to focus their study time.

Teaching staff might assume all units use the same style, but in reality, a student with six units might experience six completely different styles and be expected to work out how to prioritise their time in each one.

We got some great feedback; some academics like to lay out the entire course from the beginning and others like to drip feed week by week. Some prefer to plan their revision sessions ahead, others don’t communicate that they’ll be holding revision sessions until the week before the exam period. Sana got the students talking, bridging the gap between the faculties to bring out the core similarities between how the university programmes work and what would help all of us.

How can we use your findings and what are the next steps?

Our main recommendation is the importance of clarity: students need to know what is expected of them, and which weeks are being assessed when. For example, keeping Blackboard spaces easily readable, being clear with the wording. Simple changes like providing a tick list or a weekly plan, making it clear which work is essential and what are the optional extra activities to do if they have the time, can really help. Students have this fear of missing out, that they must do everything to understand. This is commonly seen in blended learning, in which students re-watch lecture videos multiple times when they don’t understand the first time. If a student can ask the lecturer directly in an office hour, or after class, the lecture will re-word in a way that works for the student. How do we convince students it isn’t necessarily effective to watch lectures again and again if they don’t understand?

‘Office hours’ may be a barrier, students may feel like they are disturbing the busy professor. I’ve found that students find it easier to open-up on neutral ground, such as the classroom. I would encourage individual lecturers to find a way that works for them and make it clear what you expect students to do if they don’t understand the default material. We often assume that if somebody has a question they’ll just ask, but there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they can. Having a chance to review material, giving students breathing space to prevent falling behind even more, is so important.

We have lots of different ideas, now it’s about turning them into a toolkit of sorts. For example, giving students a sitemap or walkthrough, making it clear they don’t need to worry about everything right away. It’s important to maintain that communication throughout the course, providing reassurance that the expectation isn’t to be on top of everything all the time, being clear what will be covered in revision sessions and when. Try to be clear what is being assessed when. In problem sheets, emphasise key questions so if students don’t have the time to do all of them, they can at least have a go at the key ones. Create a student Study Budget detailing the core things that feed into the coming weeks, signposting that ‘extra’ activities are optional. These small changes can make a big difference: we want to emphasise small, practical changes that can be integrated easily into as many units as possible.

We thought of using Mentimeter polls to monitor workload in the class, but this felt like something extra for the students to do, whereas we were trying to cut workload! Instead, monitoring a weekly reflective log works well, especially where there is already some kind of project element within the course. The log should be worth marks to encourage people to do it, but the important thing is the data and insights you gather rather than grading the quality of reflection. It’s important to decide whether these logs will be a space to vent, or could become a kind of mechanism to ascertain student feedback. If this is the case, we need to be clear with students that anything they may write about could be acted on, who would see this information, and how anonymised it would be. In

Maths, we found the weekly reflection a useful opportunity for students to tell us how they were coping in terms of workload in real time. This would be more than end of unit surveys, the reflection element is important for students to think about how they have spent their time this week, do they need to think ahead, are they falling behind, who do I contact about this, is there something that can be done?

The main conclusion of this fellowship will be that we want to promote the idea of being realistic about students’ priorities but this is also an opportunity to provide space for students to tell us about issues in workload as they arise.

Do you have any tips for anyone looking to replicate your study?

With this sort of project, you need to think about what the take away is. How can people make a difference? In my original proposal, I considered quantitative monitoring of student engagement on Blackboard. For example, if there’s a coursework or test open on a Wednesday and Thursday but students have classes in the day, are many students doing this late at night? Are we making students feel they must work late at night? What about commuter students? You can draw out some trends on what’s been observed that way, but there’s no way of getting to “do it this way instead.” Any amount of statistical analysis is going to draw some nice graphs, which I still might do, but it’s a different kind of study.

I wanted to provide a practical solution that colleagues can implement quickly and easily. How do we encourage students to engage with content and prevent them from dropping out due to exhaustion? Finding that answer is the hardest challenge.


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