Motz, B.A., Quick, J.D., Wernert, J.A., & Miles, T.A. (2021). A pandemic of busywork: Increased online coursework following the transition to remote instruction is associated with reduced academic achievement. Online Learning, Vol. 25, No. 1.


I found this one of the most interesting articles in the special edition of Online Learning. It shows that in the pivot to emergency remote learning, many instructors overloaded students with work, which resulted in decreased academic achievement.


An online survey was sent to all students over 18 years of age who were enrolled in a credit-bearing undergraduate course at any Indiana University campus. In total, 66,826 eligible students were invited to participate. After filtering for incomplete responses and other confounding variables, a final sample of 4,636 unique students resulted, with representation from all nine of Indiana University’s campuses. The final sample was further along in their academic progress, more likely to be female, and less likely to be international than the general university population.

Survey items were written specifically with the goal of understanding how the transition to remote instruction due to COVID-19 affected college students along a variety of dimensions. The study was exploratory, and data were not initially collected to confirm or test a specific hypothesis.

A focus on workload

This article focuses on the results from three specific survey questions:

  • It took more effort to complete my coursework;
  • I felt I was successful as a college student;
  • I earned lower grades than I expected 

Each of these questions was preceded by the heading, “After courses transitioned to remote instruction…” Responses were on a five-point scale of agreement (strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree, strongly agree).

All respondents who are included in the current study provided a digital signature at the start of the survey, giving permission for members of the study team to access specific elements of their private student information contained in the Canvas learning management system (LMS) for the purposes of this study. From these records, four measures were computed:

  • navigation time (the cumulative time, in minutes, between web browser navigation events in the LMS),
  • number of events (number of actions performed within the LMS)
  • number of assignments,
  • estimated course score (the cumulative percent score a student has earned at the end of the course, estimated from all grades entered into the Canvas gradebook.)


  • when courses transitioned to remote instruction due to COVID-19, there was an increase in the cumulative number of assignments students were expected to complete in the learning management system by an average of 9.4 more assignments following the pivot to remote instruction
  • the large majority of respondents (72.5%) Agreed or Strongly agreed to the statement “It took more effort to complete my coursework” after courses transitioned to remote instruction.
  • while students spent more time in the LMS after the transition to remote instruction, students generally spent less time on each assignment
  • students who invested more effort in their coursework reported that they felt less successful and that they earned lower grades than expected. These self-report measures were corroborated with students’ performance scores from the LMS, finding that students who invested more effort after the transition to remote instruction received measurably lower grades than their peers who did not report increased effort: students who invested greater effort simply had a larger volume of comparable assignments to complete.

Authors’ interpretation

The authors advance three possible hypotheses, which are not mutually exclusive:

  1. the online learning activities assigned during remote instruction were misaligned from the evaluative assessments that determined students’ grades;
  2. students were generally unprepared to manage an increased online workload within the circumstances of rapidly updated course requirements,which necessarily created more confusion and provided more opportunities to fall behind; and
  3. the difficulties of daily life during the pandemic were disproportionately burdensome for students who had larger workloads

When instructors transitioned their coursework online, they created learning activities rapidly, largely without expertise in the design of online courses, and thus without careful consideration of how these activities would help students become prepared for course assessments.

My comments

This is a strong endorsement of one of the key best practices in online course design, specifically the need to manage carefully student workload or rather, what happens when you don’t. As the authors point out, this is not a criticism of the instructors, who were given the impossible challenge of completely changing their method of delivery overnight while maintaining high academic performance. It also clearly explains why many students were unhappy with emergency remote learning. It is also a very useful set of findings, in that it suggest practical ways in which instructors can improve their online teaching.

This is only one set of results from the survey of students at Indiana University. I look forward to seeing the rest of the results from this study.


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