Downscaling course prep tasks
When students don’t do my prep assignments, I teach them how to ‘downscale’ homework instead of not doing it at all. This leads to homework being done more consistently as it empowers students to consciously manage their resources and priorities.
This text has been cross-published in December 2019 at Unconditional Teaching.
In one of the literature classes I taught in 2016, I realised at some point that the session prep assignments during a busy phase of the semester became too much for many students so that fewer and fewer did it at all. As a result, class work stagnated because the written prep tasks I set are often preparation for plenary discussions.
So, I took some time at the beginning of the next session to talk about task management and prioritizing work. I stressed my conviction that not doing the course prep assignments is okay as long as it is not just an avoidance strategy but a professional choice and a conscious decision to allocate time away from seminar work and towards other activities (work, maybe, or course prep for other seminars, or time with friends and family, or self-care).
Along with this explanation of my stance toward student work, I introduced the notion of ‘downscaling’ homework, of intelligently scaling down a task to a level that is doable – instead of not doing it at all when doing it completely is impossible. In the next session prep assignment, I asked students to write a review of a scholarly article, and added a guideline on how to downscale the task:
If the homework for next week looks like a lot of work, that’s because it is. If it is too much for you right now, that’s okay.
‘Downscale’ the homework incrementally: skip writing the review, but read the article (with pencil and marker to highlight aims, hypothesis and main arguments); if that’s a no-go, just read the article (without pencil and marker); still too much? read the introduction and the conclusion in full, then read every first and last sentence of each paragraph (if you do that with concentration, you’ll still get the gist of it).
If none of that goes, promise that you’re going to do something fun in the time you spend not-homeworking. Please come to class next week anyway and we’ll talk a bit more about task management, about how to prioritize work, and about the necessity to embrace middle ground and sometimes even mediocrity in order to make time for, you know, life.
Only five students actually wrote the review, but amazingly (to me), almost everyone had done the reading with marker and pencil; they did the homework to a large extent, rather than not doing it at all.
The plenary discussions went great and during the following sessions more students consistently did the course prep assignment – completely or in only slightly downscaled form. And by seeing how students downscaled the tasks, I learned something about the amount of work that is doable for my class and when it becomes too much.
In effect, signalling to students that I don’t judge them (personally, morally) for being overwhelmed by homework tasks and, instead of berating them, teaching them strategies to reduce a given workload to manageable levels in the end led to more homework being done instead of less!
To me, this shows again the advantages of an empathetic teaching practice which acknowledges the difficulties of student life and communicates strategies for effective task management. Importantly, the aim here was not to improve the students’ performance, but to make them conscious of their resources, the individual limits of these resources, and the choices they have in allocating them.
I do realize the problems inherent in the fact that this rhetoric sounds similar to neoliberal self-optimization rhetoric designed to enable people to cope with stress so that they can ‘function’ under even more stress. This is why I explicitly shift the focus away from management strategies with the purpose of facilitating higher performance and towards management strategies with the purpose of facilitating self-awareness and empowering students to prioritize time for self-care.
I completely and gladly accept if this means that students occasionally do the prep they do for my seminars in less depth or only in part – they also do them with less anxiety and more confidence.