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Overcoming the “busywork” dilemma

Posted by on Monday, January 11, 2021 in News, Resource.

by Julaine Fowlin, CFT assistant director

What is the busywork dilemma?

The busywork dilemma is where students perceive that assigned learning activities or assessments are not meaningfully contributing to their learning. Instructors put a lot of effort and time into the design and implementation of these activities, which can be very frustrating. Sometimes activities are designed for learning accountability, engagement, and assessment of understanding. These activities may be before, during, or after class. Students’ misinterpretation of these planned activities as busywork often results in them creating ‘hacks’ to complete the work. For example, students who perceive that a Perusall assignment is just to check participation versus to engage critically with an assigned reading may just highlight a few sentences and not put effort into their commentary.

What makes students perceive intentional learning activities as busywork?

The busywork dilemma occurs in both face to face and online classes. However, the dilemma can be magnified in an online course as these activities become more quantifiable in an online space. For example, students may not perceive an in-class discussion as work but may start counting each discussion forum post they have to make.  Recently a Twitter thread explored the anecdotal reports that students feel like they are being assigned more work than before the pandemic.  Some faculty feel that this perception could be due to more accountability and more explicit or transparent expectations. Others reported that in an online environment, it is more difficult for students to coast without their instructors knowing it. On the flip side, students who are already distressed by the pandemic and related challenges are now being asked to learn in new ways online, which can be discouraging even to very hard-working students.. Beckie Supiano also explores this disparity between students and faculty views in her Chronicle of Higher Education article Teaching: What Students are Up Against.

Before the pandemic, a  study done by Firm Faith Watson,  based on 624 open-ended responses of Master’s level students, investigated the types of experiences that students perceived as satisfying and dissatisfying in online courses. Meaningful coursework was ranked the third-highest factor contributing to students’ satisfaction, with course flexibility/convenience being the highest, and instructional method raking second. Interestingly, the number one dissatisfier was Coursework/learning content itself. Comments associated with this dissatisfaction were cases where students could not easily identify the material’s relevance and where the work felt like ‘busywork.’ Thus, eliminating the perception of ‘busy work’ is vital in ensuring that learners have a satisfactory online learning experience.

Dyment et al. (2020) also advocate that we need to re-evaluate our traditional metric-based tools of engagement in online learning, such as focusing on a certain number of posts and replies. Such activities can alienate students as they perceive them as surveillance.  When they asked students what it means to be engaged online, they mentioned things like working on authentic tasks, working in study groups, expanding knowledge through watching related TED talks,, etc.  I will expand on these ideas below.

While students’ reasons for calling intentional learning activities busywork vary, and some are embedded in misconceptions of learning, there are a couple of common pitfalls to avoid.

Avoiding these will allow learners to see the relevance of learning activities explicitly. The theme that transcends these pitfalls is a lack of connection.

Making Connections to Overcome the Busywork Dilemma

Making connections with all teaching and learning elements will help learners see the relevance of the assignments and optimize the learning outcomes. Below I discuss some nodes of connection.

The first node of connection for any assessment/activity is with the course learning objectives. Instructors usually have this in mind, but it helps to illustrate this connection to learners explicitly. Never assume that learners naturally make connections between the course’s goals and expectations with the assessments and activities. Consider including the relevant course objectives in the assessment/activity description. If the assessment/activity is for an overarching purpose, consider explicitly stating the learning goal in the assessment/activity description. Also, reinforce the purpose of the activity several times. For example, in the assessment/activity description on Brightspace, in your syllabus, and when explaining the assignment in a video or synchronous session. I refer to this as meaningful redundancy. In fact, Abby Parish, Director of Education Innovation and Associate Professor of Nursing at Vanderbilt, shared that she has effectively handled the perception of busywork with communication and course navigation. View the archived recording of the Conversation on Teaching with Abby Parish and Marshall Eakin, Professor of History: Overcoming the ‘busywork’ Dilemma: Creating Meaningful Asynchronous Activities for Student Engagement.

Utilizing the Backward Design approach will ensure that your assessments and activities align with the learning goals.

Drawing on Dyment et al. (2020), we want to think about our objectives and think about the most meaningful evidence of achievement. As we continue to reimagine teaching and learning during a pandemic, I would like us to borrow a term from business, minimum valuable outcome (MVO). MVO positions a business to prioritize what it wants to achieve at the very least to be successful. In the context of teaching, consider “ if my students leave with nothing else this semester,  I would feel I have achieved my goal if they achieved [X].”  By focusing on the [X], our attention is called to develop activities around the core understandings and will reduce the number of smaller activities students tend to perceive as busywork.

Self-reflection questions

  • How can you allow learners to clearly see an explicit link between the course’s goals and activities/assessments?
  • How can you rethink engagement by focusing on the core understandings of the course?

The second node of the connection is with the discipline or community of practice. Using the situated learning instructional approach developed by Lave and Wenger can help us to make this connection. Situated learning posits that learning should include contexts that allow learners to be immersed in experiences that resemble real-life applications. These contexts are sometimes referred to as authentic contexts. Situated Learning also views learners as embarking on a journey from novices on the periphery looking into experts who join the center of a community of practice. As they move closer to the center, they become more active and engaged with the discipline’s norms. Every course in our curriculum has some real-life applications, consider including these applications. For example, in a Leading Lines Podcast with Humberto Garcia, associate professor of English at UC-Merced, he shared that by switching a journal activity to a blog post for an audience, students became more engaged. They were no longer just writing for the instructor and for a grade they were writing with a more authentic purpose for a real public audience. Previously students viewed the informal journal writings as busywork, and by adding an authentic component through a blog, the class was dynamically transformed. LaTonya Trotter, assistant professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University, expressed similar sentiments in another Leading Lines podcast, as she shared how using a blog helped.

“close the loop between thinking of the classroom as a pretend space and thinking of the classroom as a real space” where knowledge can be applied meaningfully and authentically.”

She also addresses busywork…

[To avoid the notion of busywork, we should think about]  “what are the connections between the kind of things we’re practicing in class. And how might we actually sort of take these things that we’ve practiced and perfect them, and then put them out into the world?”

In tandem with situating the learning, everything that is done outside of class should be connected with what is happening in class; same for other modalities, everything that is done asynchronously should be connected synchronously if there is a synchronous component. If the course is fully asynchronous, there should be opportunities for the instructor to draw on students’ work. For example, in the Leading Lines podcast interview Humberto Garcia, shared that he provided a list where he told students to write their names if they feel comfortable sharing their ideas on the blog post, and he used these as the basis for synchronous whole-class discussion.

Reflection questions:

  • How can you allow learners to see the usefulness and value of what they are learning beyond the classroom?
  • How can you allow learners to see the connection between assigned activities and assessments and their overall learning of the course content?

The third node of the connection is with the students. Here Keller’s ARCS Model of Motivation may be useful. The acronym represents four elements proposed by John Keller for fostering and maintaining students’ motivation:  Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction (ARCS). This model is an excellent complement to connecting with objectives and situated learning. Some of these elements will inherently be included if the assessments/activities are situated and connected to course objectives. This handout from Texas Tech University Includes strategies for each component. It’s also important to note that in 2008 Keller added a fifth element, Volition, to capture the differences in persistence among learners.

Attention: Foster engagement through Perceptual (stimulating senses) or Inquiry (stimulating thinking)

Examples: Games, roleplay, varying modality using videos, humor (with caution), playing ‘devil’s advocate’, posing a problem, sharing a story, or case and asking related questions.

Reflection Question: How can you gain and sustain learners’ attention throughout the course

Relevance: Make the value and importance of the learning material apparent to learners by connecting with their professional and personal interests and past experiences.

Example: Give learners a choice in the activities/assessment, such as selecting topics or presentation format. Include opportunities for sharing previous relevant knowledge.

Reflection Questions: Same as the second node: How can you allow learners to see the usefulness and value of what they are learning beyond the classroom?

  •  How can you elicit recall of students’ prior knowledge and experiences in assessments and activities?

Confidence: Provide opportunities for learners to feel they can succeed with instructor scaffold or support and feedback.

Examples: Support students with low stakes formative assessments and feedback that contribute to the mastery of bigger summative assessments. Allow students to set learning goals. Share success stories from former students.

Reflection Question: How can you allow learners to feel that your course is designed for their success, and you are available to support them?

Satisfaction: Foster satisfaction through encouragement, praise, and opportunities for immediate application. Learners tend also to find positive experiences where they interact and work with their peers satisfying.

Example: Use group projects where each learner has a valuable role, small self-graded quizzes with feedback, a checklist where students can peer or self grade.

Reflection Question: How can you allow learners to feel a sense of accomplishment and connection with their peers throughout the course?

Volition: Help learners maintain commitment toward achieving learning goals. Weak volition may result in being easily distracted and they may easily quit. Too high volition may result in excessive study preparation. Assessing volition early in the course is important as added motivational strategies may not be needed for students with satisfactory volition and may waste instructor and students’ time. In some cases, motivated students may be annoyed by excessive strategies ( Keller, 2016 ).

Example: Assess the degree of commitment learners bring to the course; this can be as simple as asking students why they are taking the course and what they hope to achieve.

  • During the pandemic, some students may have low volition as they struggle to adapt to a new way of learning, and time management becomes a significant challenge. Some of that challenge is on students to manage. Still, instructors can help by (a) making due dates very clear, (b) building in some kind of pattern in due dates (e.g., discussion forum posts are always due on Mondays and Fridays), and (c) providing students assignments well in advance of due dates so they can work ahead.

All other strategies previously discussed can help with volition while realizing that there is also an intrinsic level that is out of the instructor’s control.

Reflection Question: What is in your control to help learners maintain their goal orientation and task-focus throughout the course?

Keller (2016  p.9),  provides an excellent job aid for motivational strategy design.

The fourth node of connection is with self or you, the instructor. The instructor Self-Analysis questions proposed by Keller (2016), above are great for connecting with how you feel about the learning experience. I often ask instructors to connect with the love they have for their disciplines before designing any learning experience and use that passion and enthusiasm to spark the creation of interesting activities.

I love the advice from

In concluding, I want to emphasize that no instructor intends to create busywork, and this blog post acknowledges this. The goal is to implement strategies within our control to prevent students from having this perception so they can get the most out of the teaching and learning experience. Recognizing that perception is internal, and some aspects are out of our control. As you think about assessments and activities, keep the four nodes of connection (course learning objectives; discipline or community of practice; students, and self) and the reflection questions in mind.


  1. Dyment, J., Stone, C., & Milthorpe, N. (2020). Beyond busy work: rethinking the measurement of online student engagement. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-14.
  2. Keller, J. M. (2016). Motivation, learning, and technology: Applying the ARCS-V motivation model. Participatory Educational Research, 3(2), 1-15.
  3. Watson, F. F. (2016). Using a two-factor framework to optimize online students’ satisfaction while minimizing their dissatisfaction (Doctoral dissertation). Order No. 10137922. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I. (1803636297).

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