Asynchronous Learning, Burnout, and Parkinson’s Law

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By Jessica Simmons 

Parkinson’s law is an adage that says, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”. For example, if you have a group project due in two weeks, the group members will likely prioritize everything with an earlier due date. Then, once the project has the group’s focus, they’ll probably continue to tweak details in the work up to the due date. As students, we often advise avoiding waiting until the last minute to complete our work. Still, when we wait until the due date to submit an assignment or take a test, it isn’t necessarily because we’ve been procrastinating.

The past twelve months have seen record numbers of students moving into online learning modalities. There are a few versions of these. Synchronous online learning involves attending scheduled classes remotely. The sometimes maligned “Zoom school” has introduced so many to one another’s pets. While some people dislike attending video conference-based classes, they can better communicate between professors and students, mitigate social isolation, and help with time management. Asynchronous online learning allows students to access their learning materials at any time. Rather than attending a Zoom class, pre-recorded presentations and lectures are typically used. While this doesn’t allow a real-time question and answer periods, it does provide a large degree of flexibility. Yet, with great flexibility comes great responsibility.

I’m personally in my second semester of full-time asynchronous online classes. I’ve grown to enjoy being able to make my own schedule. If Tuesday doesn’t feel like a math kind of day, I’ll work on history instead. But there is a learning curve with these kinds of classes. Navigating the varied ways professors communicate about coursework can be challenging. Some publish all assignments on the Canvas dashboard; others use only the syllabus. Some message within Canvas, some use email. Some of them are available on weekends; others are not. And I’ve learned that if I want to have a weekend myself, I can’t base my schedule on my assignments’ due dates. Currently, the majority of my due dates are on Sundays. I always intend to complete all my coursework by Friday, but, as Parkinson’s law dictates, work can expand to fill the available time. Especially during midterms.

Time is our most valuable resource as students. The lead-up to midterms and finals involves ramping up the review and study level that we need to do. When we’re doing asynchronous learning, that means none of that happens in a scheduled class. I’ve learned to avoid starting anything at the last minute, but not utilizing all my available time to study for exams feels like I’m leaving a resource on the table. So, if I have an exam due on a Sunday, I’ll study until Sunday before taking it. It isn’t procrastination, but it isn’t necessarily the best approach either.

In the lead-up to midterms this semester, I didn’t take any time off doing coursework for two consecutive weeks. I felt like I was using all my available time to ensure that I did well on my exams, but I was entirely burned out as soon as they were over. I should have gotten right back into the subsequent work on Monday, but I couldn’t concentrate and slept half the day. I’ve been completing tasks at a slower pace all week, and as the weekend approaches, reality sinks in that once again won’t be much of a weekend. Once I’m back on track, I intend to make sure I keep the rest on the priority list. Time is our most valuable resource, but we can sabotage ourselves if we don’t set aside to relax.

Jessica Simmons

Community Writer

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