Amid the myriad changes that ensued following the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly few may be more familiar with their negative effects than those that live and work within the realm of higher education.
Burnout, defined by Mayo Clinic as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity,” appears to be running rampant among students and faculty alike.
In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, students went from normal, in-person classes, assignments, projects and so on to completely different methods of learning in just a matter of weeks. Faculty within the University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information are finding that these changes—such as adapting to online learning—can act as a catalyst for burnout, resulting in more absences, a loss of engagement and a decline in grades for many of their students.
“Students that I've had in the past that were excellent students are struggling to make deadlines in an industry or type of course work where deadlines are super important,” lecturer Jennifer Smith said.
Many of Smith's fellow faculty members shared in her findings, noting the level of exhaustion among students.
“A lot of students just seem tired. They don't have a lot of excitement in their eyes. And then, of course, I ask myself, is it just me? Am I not presenting the content in a more engaging manner?” Professor Deborah Chung said.
In addition to missing assignments, some faculty noticed that following the pandemic many students were not doing as well on exams or showing up as often for class. In a time when so many of us do not know what the next step may be, Smith chose to meet this issue with flexibility and compassion.
“I tell people to take the weekend and get this assignment in next week; we'll figure this out together,” she said.
Notably, burnout is not a completely foreign idea. Often described as "senioritis," there comes a point in many students' educational careers where, as graduation nears, they are increasingly eager to leave school and all the associated responsibilities behind.
“Upperclassmen tend to check out sometimes if they're not being engaged or challenged enough or if they have their mind on other things like jobs or balancing course work with a job that they currently have,” Anthony Limperos, associate professor and associate dean for graduate programs in communication, said.
Juggling school, work and the many other obligations college students face can lead any bright student to eventually reach the end of their match. However, it's possible that this burnout has been exacerbated on account of digital or online learning giving rise to the 24-hour workday.
No longer are students and faculty going into the classroom to work or learn from 9-to-5. Instead, they may be working from behind a computer—a computer that is likely with them at all times. Work going mobile means that the obligation to do work or be productive follows as well.
“It’s taxing because you're expected to be available at all times, you really don't have time to yourself … you can’t compartmentalize your day where I'm going to teach my class, then I'm going to go do this and do that. You're going to be on at all times because that's what we got used to,” Limperos said.
Not only are faculty finding they have to be on at all times but, when they are on, the workload itself is increasing to accommodate for online learning.
“We're having to teach in maybe two or three different modalities at the same time, which just can double or triple the kind of work that we have to do,” David Stephenson, assistant professor, said.
This increase in workload due to online formats weighs heavily on Associate Professor Yung Soo Kim, who instructs courses that all but require in-person meetings for students to fully understand the material. One of these courses is Web Publishing and Design, where student success depends on their understanding of complex computer programs like Photoshop and Dreamweaver.
Kim often uses the breakout room feature while teaching in an online format to better address questions from a small number of students at a time. However, how well this feature works can depend on whether or not the student has responsive Wi-Fi or a computer that can seamlessly run the programs while also in a video call.
In the classroom, each student has access to the same Macintosh desktop provided by the school. That luxury is no longer available when learning from home.
“I'll take 20 minutes to do something that could be done in two,” Kim said.
Frustration with technology and the burnout that can ensue as a result is something UK has attempted to combat by encouraging faculty to attend workshops put on by The Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT). These workshops, many of them virtual, typically last for 60 minutes and draw from research-based practices and involve discussion, activities and take-away resources, according to the center’s website.
Chung attended many of these sessions as “it created some sense of comfort for me and some colleagues because we wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing,” she said.
Despite these efforts, it remains unclear how to truly combat burnout among both students and faculty. As the pandemic continues to develop, those in higher education stress the importance of remaining flexible and adaptable in efforts to persevere everyone's health, both physically and mentally.
“We can't just wait for normal to come back ... We're doing innovative things and recreating classes and experiences so that we can move forward,” Chung said, referencing what Jennifer Greer, the dean of the College of Communication and Information, told her and other faculty when the pandemic first began over two years ago.