Consistent with the research literature, students in our co-creation panels identified workload as having a potential impact on wellbeing (1-3). Students were clear that they do not see hard work as problematic. The issue they described was around their ability to control their workload, particularly when a number of deadlines came together, and they did not have the necessary information to begin work on them until they were close to those deadlines.
These negative consequences of deadline bunching are an in-built risk within the modular structure, in which subjects are taught discretely and learning is assessed at the end of each module. Unless explicitly addressed in design, it is almost inevitable that students will be asked to submit work for every module on dates that are close together (4). Alternative approaches to the modular structure, such as Victoria University’s block teaching system offer ways of avoiding these inherent weaknesses (5).
Students also identified that these negative impacts could be particularly problematic for students who had less flexibility in terms of time due to other commitments outside of university – such as caring, paid work or being an elite athlete (6). This means they must either fit the workload into the reduced hours they have available or begin sacrificing their health e.g., by reducing the number of hours they sleep.
Modules in which students are only assessed at the end of term, can also create a see-saw effect between under-demand early in term, in which students can be under occupied, bored and lethargic, followed by over-demand. Moving between these two behaviours can be problematic and students may struggle to find the motivation to engage, even while cognitively recognising how important it is that they do so. Shifting emotional and motivational states is not easy and can lead to students feeling that they are falling behind, further eroding self-belief and motivation.
There are a number of ways in which high workload can have a negative impact on wellbeing.
- Research has shown that the perception of workload and an individual’s belief in whether they can meet the demand can impact wellbeing (1, 7-8). This closely feeds into feelings of control – whether the individual perceives their workload to be within their control. How work is framed and explained to students is therefore important, as is their ability to understand how they can best approach the work they have been set.
- Research has shown that fatigue in students is an important part of the process of producing their state of wellbeing and that this is linked to workload (9). This is particularly problematic if students sacrifice sleep as this can have consequences for physical wellbeing, mental health and cognitive capacity, reducing learning and academic performance (10).
- Research has demonstrated that human beings have limited capacity to manage cognitive load. If there is a gap between the capacity available and the capacity required for a task, this can lead to unhelpful levels of stress, anxiety and burn out (11).
- Individual motivation is linked to this capacity. When the gap between the capacity available and the capacity needed is large, it can undermine a student’s motivation and self-belief.
- Students who are facing high workloads often respond by making quality sacrifices. Rather than engaging deeply with their assignments, they adopt surface level survival strategies to simply get the work completed to a reasonably successful standard. This strips them of the potential positive wellbeing benefits of engaging in academic work – such as deeper and more meaningful learning. Surface engagement in this way is also likely to lead to lower learning overall, thus undermining future learning, self-efficacy and motivation.
All of which does not mean that hard work is bad for wellbeing. Research has also shown that sustainable challenge can be beneficial for wellbeing, especially in the medium to long term. A sustainable workload can provide stretching challenge and structure for ongoing development, leading to greater academic learning and achievement (1). It can also support students to build a sustainable knowledge base for future learning.
Workload design is therefore a key consideration within curriculum design. Workload must be structured across the curriculum and between modules, to provide sustainable challenge that benefits learning and wellbeing. This can avoid the see-saw effect of under-demand followed by over-demand and students becoming overwhelmed by deadline bunching.
- While hard work can be good for wellbeing, the structure of a student’s workload can have negative consequences for wellbeing and the depth of their learning.
- Deadline bunching can cause students to become overwhelmed and to adopt surface level strategies. Bunching can also undermine motivation and self-belief.
- Negative impacts can be greater for students with other commitments who have less flexibility in their time.
- Workload structures need to be planned into curriculum design and across modules to produce sustainable challenge.
- Consider the structure and spread of student workload across the curriculum in design.
- Ensure students understand how to approach assessments, to create greater confidence that they can complete it competently and reduce perceptions that workload is too great.
- Ensure students have stretching academic activity across the whole of term, to build sustainable challenge.
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