9 February 2018 • HOP
Ten tips for work-related stress
Work-related stress: what can you do about it? Take these ten tips from lecturer Thijs Brilleman.
Workloads are out of control according to university lecturers. Labour unions are fighting it out with employers, and people are coming up with all kinds of plans and programmes to alleviate the problem. Nevertheless, it’s the lecturers themselves who have to hold their own in the daily avalanche of e-mails, assignments and checking students’ work. But how can they manage it all? Thijs Brilleman, a lecturer in Industrial Robotics at The Hague University of Applied Sciences who also runs training activities for lecturers, gives his ten best tips.
1. Don’t spend as much time in front of your class
‘When I tell lecturers this, they’re often simply amazed. But your goal as a lecturer is not actually to stand there teaching but to provide the best conditions for students to learn. A lecturer doesn’t have to be physically present in the classroom at all times. You have to be there when students run into problems.’
‘This gives you a lot more time to prepare. For the Robotics minor at THUAS, forty percent of the programme is new every year because of how fast technology is developing. I couldn’t keep up with this even if I were crazy enough to try. Instead, I divide my class into small groups of students and assign them to make a certain device or develop a certain piece of software. After three days, they know more than I do. I then ask them to write a manual or spend an hour teaching the rest of the class. This gives the next period’s group a head start. It saves time and students learn a lot more. The bottom line? Find a smarter way of organising your system.’
2 Limit your lectures
‘Giving lots of lectures is pointless. After all, you’re always telling the same story. We’ve already developed something for this. It’s called ‘video’. Giving a lecture in person for more than thirty people isn’t efficient. You can scarcely answer questions, and the students are bored to death. Have them watch a video over the subject matter and then spend 60 to 90 minutes on answering their questions afterwards. This way, you’re making the most of your expertise.’
3. Don’t try and do ten things at once
‘Instead, focus on one at a time. Multi-tasking is actually a myth: it’s hard to do a lot of things at once. Even so, what you often see is an energy-sapping process of people going from one task to the next all day long. What I do, for example, is plan a whole day of having groups of students present their project instead of spreading this over several days. First of all, I have to reserve a classroom only once. Secondly, I don’t have to keep thinking about what I’m going to do time after time. What’s more, the students know exactly what to expect.
‘And do all of your checking and feedback all at once, too. Check group reports together with your students. Reserve a classroom, make sure they can see everything you’re doing on a screen, and get on with it. This saves time, and students learn a lot from it because they can ask questions at any time.’
4. Don’t do things you’re not good at
‘I don’t teach programming anymore. Coursera has online courses from Harvard that are ten times better than my programming lessons, so I have my students watch these. Since I save time on giving the lectures myself, I have more time to answer questions.’
‘What’s more, a lecturer’s time is actually quite expensive. So engage only in those activities that really get the most out of your capacities. For some tasks, it would be better for a degree programme to pay a student to do them. They’ll be cheap, enthusiastic and also invest a lot of time and effort. And in some cases, they’ll do a better job than their lecturer, so why not make use of their expertise?’
5. Take advantage of individual differences
‘As a corollary to this: remember that you don’t have to do everything alone. Lecturers complain that they have to teach students with a wide range of competencies, but this actually offers a great opportunity. Divide them into small groups with one student in each one who knows more about the material. This way, they learn from each other which is ten times as effective. I make sure that I get a good mix of students taking my minor. Ultimately, this makes everyone happy.’
6. Avoid contact by e-mail
‘It’s the curse of our lives today: the e-mail. E-mails are usually inappropriate for contacts between students and lecturers. I have an online appointment system that students can use to see me. I also have a couple of hours a week when students can just drop in. This means that I’m easily accessible for them but only at certain times. This saves a huge amount of time.’
‘What’s more, the delay built into this automatic system serves as a shit filter: since it schedules appointments later in the day, students don’t want to wait that long and solve their own problem in 8 out of 10 cases.’
7. Take control of your mailbox
‘Keep your cc mail out of your regular mail. Those messages are only meant as information; if you were really important enough, you’d have been the ‘To:’. OK, you have to read them but do this just once a week. The same goes for newsletters: filter them and put them in a separate file. You don’t want to be continually pestered with them. They simply aren’t your top priority.’
8. Don’t take responsibility for everything
‘Let students themselves demonstrate that they are good enough. For exams and assignments, put the burden of proof on the students. In the case of graduation projects, be careful not to make yourself co-responsible for the report. If a student keeps asking you what has to be done next and you provide an answer, you’re removing all of his independence; later, you can’t let him fail because you’ve become co-responsible for the input.’
‘Actually, the supervising lecturer shouldn’t be the examiner. What we’re doing now is like having a butcher inspect his own meat. This kind of conflict of interests is deeply embedded in today’s educational methods. Give your students a final assignment and leave the entire responsibility up to them. As a lecturer, you’re only there for very specific content-related questions.
‘The same goes for colleagues. It’s not much to be asked to read over a text if a colleague requests this. But never make changes in it yourself. Otherwise, you’d only be maintaining such behaviour and spending too much time trying to advance your colleagues. Instead, create a separate document suggesting what has to be changed and let them do it themselves.’
9. Be selective
‘It might sound obvious, but it’s really important. As a lecturer, you should be very selective in what you do and don’t do. Certain tasks simply have to be done, of course. But remember that if you promise to do one thing, you won’t be able to do others. Too many lecturers fail to make this association.’
10. Consider what people really want
‘People often approach you for help with this or that, but there’s always another reason behind it. Think about what they actually want to achieve. Is it advancing a student or getting a degree programme through an accreditation? I no longer automatically do what people ask of me. Because what they’re asking often doesn’t result in what they really want.’
‘You see it a lot in bureaucratic organisations like educational institutions: what they miss is a focus on results. This isn’t true of commercial operations, however, since otherwise their competition would drive them out of business. The field of education doesn’t get punished like this so many institutions don’t automatically consider results – even though this would save a lot of work. This bureaucratic approach is one of the biggest threats to our educational system.
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