Cut Out the Busy Work

Olivia Silvey ’25

Contributing Writer

Busywork is the bane of my existence. Small assignments that are simply checking boxes rather than making me think critically are exhausting, from weekly reflections to mini presentations. Don’t even get me started on weekly discussion boards. It feels like I’m wasting precious energy on assignments that don’t even contribute to my learning. That style of learning just doesn’t feel effective, especially when our mental energy is stretched incredibly thin after COVID. In environments such as Trinity, where a smaller school warrants more connection between students and professors, we should champion a course style that emphasizes lecture and discussion–leading to students demonstrating their learning in the form of larger assignments.  

Now, I agree that this sounds scary. When I first read some of my syllabi this semester, it was incredibly intimidating to see that my overall grade is made up of three big tests and a little bit of participation. If professors mainly focused on larger, more heavily weighted assignments (such as tests and essays) to determine students’ grades, it would have to be done in the right way.  

First, the big assignments would have to allow for the showcase of broad learning rather than finding the one answer a professor wants to see and having the same thesis as the 26 other students. You know when the professor asks a question in class, and people give some good answers, but the professor never really seems satisfied? It’s obvious they have one answer they want someone to bring up in order to move class along, and they shut down any answers that aren’t exactly what they want to hear. This is a method I’ve always found frustrating, and sometimes professors structure tests or essays in the same fashion. Methods of testing, as well as classroom environments, need to foster development, critical thinking, and open minds. In research done by Winona State University and promoted by the University of Michigan, a list of “Seven Principles of Practice” for advancing undergraduate learning emphasizes active learning. This rejects the idea that students are memorization and regurgitation machines, and instead encourages multiple ways of learning and multiple ways of exhibiting that learning in the classroom. 

However, this is a two-way street. It’s not just the professor’s job to make the class a welcoming space for exploration. As college students, it’s our job to advocate for ourselves and put in the effort. One of the biggest reasons why professors give us meaningless work is because we don’t show them that we can handle the alternative. Without discussion boards, mini-reflections, class worksheets, and weekly check-ins, the need for students to approach their professor if they don’t understand a concept increases. This is difficult for some people, but, ultimately, it’s on us to rise to that occasion, especially at this point in our education.  

I know we are capable. Especially with COVID burnout, the dozens of small, weekly projects are particularly exhausting, for both students and professors. We need to adjust our classroom environments and learning styles to emphasize connection and big ideas. It is true, though, that this is much easier to apply in humanities classes, so STEM kids, I think you’re stuck with at least some busywork, but being students at a small liberal arts school, we are already a little more in luck than those at state schools. It’s much easier for us to cultivate that culture of connection and learning. It’s time to cut out the box checking and change our ways.  

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  1. 1

    Leslie: Great idea, but my demographics require that I test and quiz everything if I want students to participate. Sounds like forced learning, doesn’t it? Yes, I think so, too. I detest grading busy work, but they won’t read the assignment without a quiz. With retention and learning outcomes the primary focus at community colleges, and students who were taught to the test in high school, your proposal is best for graduate work.

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