How to Survive and Thrive in a Semester Without a Spring Break
By way of an introduction, I’ll relay Prof. Andy Mienaltowski’s observation about the Spring semester: “In a typical semester, there are break points built in where the university is closed. Students and faculty choose what to do on these days off. There are no break points built into the spring term, so everyone has to keep moving forward without this extra free space in our time. Promises we make in our personal and professional lives to get something done tomorrow that could not get done today will have to be honored without this valuable ‘free time.’ For us and for our students, this creates the risk of an unmanageable workload where unhealthy and unproductive sacrifices are made to rebalance demands for our time.”
Given our common context, CITL asked several WKU faculty for strategies they’re planning on employing to make the coming semester more manageable for themselves and their students. We hope that the suggestions below help you build some flexibility into your semester that may save you time and reduce stress for you and for your students.
Strategy 1: Build in White Space
In the absence of Spring Break, it is imperative for faculty and students to build in white space. I wish I could take credit for this notion but a family member would always tell me to do this when they could see I was getting overwhelmed with life’s demands.
Building in white space means making sure to block time in your schedule for you and you only. Doing so intentionally without regret. For example, if you find yourself burned out by Wednesday mid-day every week, make a note of it and schedule time on Tuesday or Wednesday morning to take your mind off the day to day. Plan a Zoom call with friends, order yourself an extra special lunch or do that one thing you have wanted to do for so long. Creating time blocks on a calendar helps tremendously but even more so, is respecting your dedicated time block and taking the time you need.
Strategy 2: Work/Play Course Design
In this setup, it is important to acknowledge the effects a pandemic has on both faculty and students; necessitating the introduction of what I like to call: “Work/Play” course design. Inherently, the “work” portion would include any conceptual or heavy content lectures, readings and/or work problems essential to the course itself. Whereas, the “play” portion is just that; a way to incorporate fun into the course on a continuous basis---not just one or two times during the semester. Example activities could include virtual role play, Zoom breakout rooms or simply, a true focus on applied pedagogies. This can be done by dedicating one class meeting day to do the “work” and the next class meeting day to “fun” only. This approach often breaks up the monotony some may find themselves in while attending classes and help relieve the pressures of reality even if just for a class meeting.
Strategy 3: “What Else?” Prompt
I often would get the occasional student each semester inquiring about the topics that are not usually taught in many courses while in college (let alone high school). After some pondering, I decided to implement this one-time prompt in all my courses—usually towards the end of the semester; asking the entire class: What else would you like to know? Or in other words, what is one topic you are not taught but would like to know more about? When I first started using this prompt, I was shocked at how receptive, open and forthcoming students were. Topics varied but were plentiful; examples included how to balance a checkbook, how to meal plan, how to budget, what is a mortgage, explain credit, and so on. This exercise not only allowed for a different type of discussion but gave students an opportunity to hear of life experiences from their peers as well. This can be done in face-to-face, hybrid and online modalities. All in all, this is by far a favorite.
Strategy 1: Online activities and assessments
Students have fewer obstacles to submitting work if they can do that where ever they are. CITL offers support on creating online activities and assessments, on developing rubrics, and on minimizing cheating if you need more information. Using online activities, I grade faster and get feedback to my students more quickly. Time I save shuffling papers is time that I can invest into something else.
Strategy 2: Regular, Predictable Deadlines
I have different types of activities and assessments in my classes. Each type has a fixed deadline – the day of the week and the time stays the same so that students have predictability. It also gives me some certainty as to when I can commit time to my own non-class endeavors.
Strategy 3: A More Generous Late Work Policy
When I instituted a 24-hour, no questions asked, no penalty late work policy half way through the term, I had far fewer emails to answer from students and students were more likely to complete activities. Often the extra day for students really comes at no cost to us. If you can afford to make it 48 hours, why not?
Strategy 4: Recording Your Lectures
I have been recording my lectures outside of class and posting them for students in small chunks (10-30 minutes). You may consider recording a few during the spring term to share in place of class. If you know which units are best suited for this, you could build this into your course calendar. Alternately, if you find yourself in a pinch, you could set aside time to record to free up future time. If you have not recorded yourself before, give it a go before the semester starts to familiarize yourself with the technology. CITL offers support. Please do not be surprised if the experience is awkward at first. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
Strategy 5: Online Assessments + Mental Health Days
Because I normally assess students in class, moving exams online means that I can give students time off. The days that would have otherwise been used for exams are now used as catch-up days for students. Consider this if your course includes regular assignments, problem sets, and/or papers.
Strategy 6: Re-Structuring Assessments and Activities with Time-Saving in Mind
Using what worked well for me in the fall, I am strategically re-formatting spring activities to reduce the grading demand on my time. I wrote down all of the objectives for a course, categorized them as conceptual versus skill-oriented, and have started generating multiple choice question pools for conceptual-oriented objectives and short-answer questions for skill-oriented objectives. The former are scored automatically, and the latter are assigned fewer in number and designed to use low memory capacity addition scoring. I am generating roughly 4 times the questions that students actually see across objective categories within units so that random assignment makes it very improbable for students to get the exact same questions. As noted already, CITL offers support for Blackboard assessment. This may seem challenging to jump into in the spring without planning in advance, but, if you already use self-generated pools of questions, there are tools available that convert question lists into Blackboard pools.
Spring Break usually provides a much-needed respite from a busy semester. It gives us something to look forward to and helps us to avoid burn-out. This semester we are going to have to find other ways to prevent fatigue.
Set limits for yourself on work time. In an online or hybrid environment it is easy to “be on” 24/7 which can be exhausting. Set a time to turn off your computer and engage in activities that reduce eyestrain. Take a walk outside in the sunlight. Sunlight can boost your mood and help set your internal clock which leads to better sleep! In addition, sunlight helps your body produce Vitamin D that benefits your overall health, including your immune system! Use your walk to listen to a podcast or an audiobook. Listen to something inspirational or funny.
Laugh. Laughter is a great way to reduce stress. Intentionally enjoy every day rather than anticipating one big trip. Plan little adventures, such as a day trip to explore the outdoors at Mammoth Cave or Lost River Cave. Instead of looking forward to spring break, enjoy the entire season. Celebrate the lengthening days and the first flowers of spring.
What Is the Issue?
I think that the two big worries are how to force students to take breaks and how to take breaks myself so as not to get burned out on the semester. This seems like an issue that needs active changes to course calendars and teaching styles rather than statements and messaging alone. I also think it means interrogating the question: what does “taking a break” mean for me? For students? I think that for me it means a week away from not only teaching and service, but from research and from emails as well. It’s the ability to get up and not think about work for a few days. But with the semester ending a week early, canceling an entire week (in terms of completely dropping off the radar) doesn’t seem feasible.
Strategy 1: Meeting with Students One-On-One
One method that helped students in the fall was to take a week to meet with each student individually for 15 minutes and assign little-to-no other work to complete during that week. This created small, 15-minute check-ins for students to talk about upcoming projects and their initial ideas. Now, in the fall these were coupled with a full Thanksgiving Break, and I realize that my students may have a large mound of work other than my class to complete those weeks. However, in these circumstances I’m trying to change what I can. Critically, in my course-calendar I am trying to set up these weeks between major projects/checkpoints so that students do not feel like there is an unstated assignment that they should be working on in the background.
My biggest question is how to encourage students to take breaks without making them feel guilty about their time choices. I don’t want to come to the end of the semester with a message of “Don’t tell me you’re tired. I gave you that time to relax!” At the same time, college is a game of time-management, and without a conscious instruction to rest students may feel guilty for taking breaks.
Strategy 2: Secure “Off Days”
The use of “meeting weeks” is not much of a break on my end. Scheduling (even with an app like Calendly) is troublesome, and meeting with all the students takes hours and hours. As junior faculty I also need to carve out the time for research each week as well. My current plan is to block off a few Fridays (days that I don’t teach in-person) and count those as “off” days when I won’t look at email, grade, or think about work. Having even a few of those days scheduled beforehand might create some of the normal ebb and flow of the semester, where there are small islands of break to look forward to while powering through the semester. I’m not sure if these can cut through the ever-present guilt of grading/teaching/research responsibilities, but then again, Spring Break was never a full release to begin with.
Strategy 1: Hold a Weekly Planning Meeting
While not solely a teaching strategy, I recently tried out a strategy from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity called “the weekly planning meeting” and it made a big impact on my overall productivity and my stress level. On Friday afternoons, I take 30 minutes to write down every to-do item for the week ahead across teaching, research, service, and my personal life. Then, I fill in all of my commitments and tasks for the upcoming week on my calendar. When inevitably, not everything fits on the calendar, I proactively decide what to do about tasks I don’t have time to complete (e.g., delegate, compromise, re-negotiate deadlines, let it go). This helps me prioritize and make informed decisions about when I can schedule meetings or how to respond to other last-minute requests. Throughout the week, I update my calendar to track my time on tasks to better estimate completion time in the future (I tend to underestimate how long things take).
Strategy 2: Peer Review
To give students multiple opportunities for practice and feedback without substantially increasing the grading burden, I build in peer review assignments during class. Peer review gives students the opportunity to learn from reading and analyzing a classmate’s work and to improve their own work before receiving an assignment grade. To make peer review most effective, I create three rubrics: one for the assignment, one for students to use to evaluate their peer’s work (modeled after the assignment rubric), and one I use to grade them on their review. The first time students complete the process, we go through the instructions to make sure they understand how to provide objective feedback and to review examples and non-examples of the assignment and feedback. After they’ve completed the written peer review rubric and annotated their peer’s assignment, students conference with their partner to review the feedback. I’ve found this process results in deep thinking about course material as students interact with the assignment from a different perspective. Students ask each other thoughtful questions, and as a result of the process, the assignments turned into me for grading better meet course objectives than the first draft their peer reviewed.