Reducing staff workload in higher education: Four ways LearnSci can help save academic time

Yasmin Wong
May 24, 2022

Your time is valuable. However, in recent years, we know that a rise in student cohort numbers and reduced funding has created even more work for educators. When we recently asked our community of university academics about the challenges they are facing, 86% of respondents identified staff workload as being one of their top three current challenges.

At LearnSci, we aim to help our partner universities make the most out of their resources to help alleviate the pressures caused by challenges they face. This means providing solutions that:

✓ reduce university staff workload;

✓ help educators engage with students efficiently and effectively; and 

✓ benefit the wellbeing of staff and students.

In this article, we explore how we can help educators with the pressing challenges of staff workload, inefficient practical sessions, lengthy material preparation time and identifying needs for student support. 

1 - Reducing unmanageable marking burdens to regain hundreds of hours of time

Student numbers are on the rise, and the ratio of staff to student numbers is growing. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows student enrolment has been on the rise for the last ten years. The most recent findings show there was a 10% increase in first year enrolments between 2019/20 and 2020/21. In contrast, the Higher Education Staff Statistical Bulletin revealed the number of staff employed in the HE sector had increased by less than 1% between December 2019 and December 2020. These increasing student numbers are undoubtedly creating a growing marking workload for academics.

How can we help?

While completely eliminating marking may be unrealistic, our university partners have found that the use of Smart Worksheets for formative and summative assessments has reduced the time spent marking, freeing up more time for research and improving teaching practice. 

At Plymouth University, the Foundation Year cohort increase of over 50% in three years made marking student reports and lab books after every lab session impossible. To address this, Dr. Roy Lowry implemented Smart Worksheets to replace traditional lab reports, and now an estimated 100 hours of marking time is saved every year across the module.

"The payback in terms of revenue time year-on-year was very significant. In the long run it has saved me a lot of time, a lot of energy, and students get better feedback. It’s a win win situation!"
Dr. Roy Lowry, Associate Professor at Plymouth University

Similarly, staff at Royal Holloway University of London estimated that an average of 21 hours of marking time was saved for each Smart Worksheet the department embedded, and estimated 440 hours each year. This has not only contributed to increased  staff wellbeing but has improved student satisfaction scores. These autograded worksheets can reduce marking of student assessments, and at the same time offer students immediate, personalised feedback that can be applied straight away. 

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2 - Face-to-face sessions enhanced with meaningful experiences

After the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a need to reduce the number of students in teaching spaces to allow for social distancing. Although much of the world is beginning to transition back to normal, it’s still imperative that time in labs, tutorials and workshops is efficient and effective for students to achieve the learning they need. 

Unfortunately, with large numbers of students in classes, academics are stretched thin, having to work their way around the class to answer questions about practical set-up, calculations or theory.

How can we help?

Introducing topics to students with pre-sessional activities and practise worksheets can prepare students for in-person sessions. For example, LabSims have been used by many of our academic partners as a pre-lab exercise to build student confidence before they arrive to practical lab sessions.

This allows them to see lab techniques and processes as many times as they need, becoming more familiar with apparatus and set-up. Academics and demonstrators can then spend more time discussing higher order questions and meaningful experiences.

The University of the Western Cape found using LabSims to prepare students for their lab sessions resulted in students needing less time setting up in the lab, there was less waste of reagents and fewer breakages of glassware.

3 - Regain time spent creating complex learning materials

Ultimately, you want to support your students and help them succeed in their learning. This can often lead to a heavy workload of material preparation, ensuring students have sufficient material to practise calculations and processes to prepare for assessment and enable mastery of skills.

However, developing e-learning materials and additional learning resources can also take a long time, and often means academics are working extra hours to innovate solutions that support struggling students. A report from JISC suggested that HE staff would like opportunities to research digital learning, but only 17% agreed they have the time to explore new approaches or digital skills. 

How can we help?

Learning is at the heart of what we do, and our pedagogically sound resources have already benefitted hundreds of educators and students across the world. LabSims and Smart Worksheets help students practise and continuously learn, boosting their understanding and letting them take control of their learning. The best part? These are all ready-made and easily embedded into your teaching.

Students can revisit practical experiments time and time again and understand techniques at their own pace. The visualisations in LabSims help bridge student understanding between what they do in the lab, and what’s happening on a microscopic level, enhancing their understanding. 

Smart Worksheets offer unlimited, randomised datasets that students can use repeatedly to practise calculations and data analysis skills to help them prepare for assessments. This means students can practise until they are confident they understand the processes involved, and less time is needed to create a bank of practice questions. 

4 - Identify struggling students and gain insights to help target support

When you have hundreds of students in your cohort, identifying the ones who are struggling with comprehension or lacking in confidence can be a challenge. However, it is crucial to understand who these individuals are in order to support their wellbeing, encourage their continued learning and help boost their achievement.

This identification can also  help educators recognise, reduce and potentially eliminate awarding gaps between different groups of students.

How can we help?

Knowing how students are progressing and where they're struggling results in huge time savings. Having access to the data that explains how students are engaging with resources, where they are achieving and where they are struggling, can help you target the support activities and interventions so they are the most impactful. 

Spotting early the students who struggle, and giving them support, is made easier with tools like Smart Worksheets. Staff can intervene before student welfare issues escalate, benefitting student wellbeing, which in turn helps improve their university experience and means more students continue with their learning to graduation. 

At the University of Kent, Dr. Alex Moores implemented a Smart Worksheet for students to complete at the beginning of the first semester. The results helped identify 40% of students that needed additional support in their maths skills to help them progress in the course, and informed staff of how to effectively implement additional resources and support strategies for the year. 

Details of students’ marks, the resources they’ve accessed, their attempts at completing exercises and their grades are all tracked and stored in your virtual learning environment gradebook. Students can review their attempts and staff always have an accessible place to evaluate progress.

Reduce your workload with LearnSci

LearnSci can help you and your colleagues reclaim your academic time and reduce your marking burden. Improving yours or your staff's workload can in turn improve wellbeing, reduce staff burnout and enhance the overall experience for students.

Arrange a free, personalised demo with our team to learn more about how we can support you in reducing workload.