Attending a conference was fun but also cognitively demanding. Rob McDole, Jared Pyles, and I attended three full-day sessions at the AECT annual convention in Orlando in October. Every morning after three sessions, I felt I was experiencing mental fatigue. Interestingly, one session I attended was a study conducted by Inan Fetching from Texas Tech University on how course workload and perceived course value would impact students’ mental fatigue.
In Fetching’s study, he collected data from student surveys of over 500 online students who enrolled in undergraduate online courses. Among the participants, more than 60% were employed (32% were employed full-time and 30% were employed part-time). A total of 51.6% of participants reported severe levels of mental fatigue. The study revealed that course workload (including content difficulty, learning pace, and amount of work) directly impacted students’ mental fatigue. In contrast, the perceived value of the course (including student interest and content relevance) had a positive influence through mental effort.
This finding suggests that if courses are too demanding or overwhelming, students are more likely to experience mental fatigue, which can negatively impact their learning experience. Therefore, understanding during the course design phase how much work students will put into the course is important. Instructors can use the Enhanced Course Workload Estimator to help estimate students’ workloads. Once you enter the course and assignments’ parameters, it will estimate the required weekly study hours.
However, this does not mean that instructors should merely reduce students’ workload or make the course less challenging—they should seek a balance between overwhelming and challenging students. The finding from the study indicates that when students find the course material engaging and relevant to their interests, they are more likely to exert mental effort and remain motivated, reducing the likelihood of mental fatigue. The study recommends a few strategies that instructors may use in online courses, including clarifying the learning objectives; providing individualized feedback, mentoring, and scaffolding; facilitating student engagement; and providing a mentally friendly online course environment, such as a consistent layout of the course elements. Using these strategies can help keep students engaged and motivated even through courses that demand more mental effort.
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