Teaching and Justice, Teaching Today's Students, Tips on Teaching

Bursting the Busywork Bubble

by Robert Cole, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Well, it’s that time of year. As we move closer to graduation we are administering and grading exams, final projects and presentations. We will also soon receive notification that our course evaluations are available. Course evaluations often provide an opportunity to take stock and identify if changes need to be made and what those changes may be. In addition to these opportunities, students also voice opinions regarding a range of other things. One term that began showing up more often in mine was busywork.

Students have been regularly pointing out that they do not like to be forced to complete busywork. They often specifically name assignments that I thought to be very beneficial to the arc of the course and label them as busywork. I confess that for some time, I was confused as to why students did not see the value in the things they’ve done in the same way the I did. So, I did the only thing I could think to do – I started doing some research regarding what busywork is, why students label things busywork and how I can avoid assigning busywork in the future.

As is true with so many, I have never assigned something merely to keep my students busy, which is what I thought was meant by the term. However, upon doing some reading, what I have found is that students feel they are doing busywork when they don’t value the work they are participating in. They see it as a waste of time. It is important to point out that this is largely a student perception issue. Faculty typically design assignments quite intentionally and with specific outcomes in mind. However, intentionality and relevance are not always perceived by the students doing the work.

How do we make our intentions more overt and help students see the relevance of assignments? There are a few suggestions I can offer. First consider communicating your intentions with students. I use a straight forward What/Why statement with most of my assignments. I provide a description of what students are doing and after that description, a statement regarding why they’re doing it. The why statement often answers questions about the assignment like: How does it fit within the course? How does it address course objectives? How will it prepare students for future assignments and assessments? What skills or knowledge might it reinforce or introduce? What does this contribute to the understanding of the students’ current career path? We certainly don’t have to answer all of these questions, but if we provide a rationale for students, perhaps we can change or inform their perception related to the specific assignment. A more involved framework is provided by Winkelmes, Boye and Tapp (2019) in their book Transparent Design in Higher Education Teaching and Leadership. In the book, the editors introduce the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) framework which is a way to design assignments with transparency in mind, again providing students with context and making our intentions more overt. Communicating the purpose, task and criteria for success creates a connection to our intentions making them more accessible to students.

When I began communicating my intentions behind assignments to students, I did not re-write every assignment before the new semester. I re-wrote two – the two assignments students most pointed out as busywork. I confess it has made a difference. Over the last few semesters I have provided the what and why for each assignment and I have seen the word busywork slowly ebb from my evaluations. It still pops up now and again, but not like it used to.

It is true that we cannot control how students feel about our assignments. We cannot shape their perceptions without a little effort on our part. But if we can articulate why students are doing what we are asking them to do and how it relates to their lives or future careers; it may help burst the busywork bubble.  

If you’d like further conversation relating to making assignments more transparent feel free to contact the Reinert Center for a consultation [LINK].

Bruff, D. (Host) Jan. 18, 2021. Betsy Barre and Karen Costa. Episode 090. Audio podcast episode. Leading Lines. Soundcloud. https://leadinglinespod.com/

Winkelmes, Boye and Tapp (2019) Transparent design in higher education teaching and leadership. Stylus. Sterling, VA.