Course 6 employs survey to measure student workloads

Shared course calendar led 6.046 to move exam from packed week

Part of a larger institutional response to student feedback, MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has been collecting data on its students’ workloads since last spring. And the results are starting to take effect behind the scenes.

Professor Rob Miller created a tool to show all main assignments and exams for major Course 6 classes. Instructors, after entering their class info, can check for week-to-week conflicts with other classes. After consulting the tool, Professor Shafi Goldwasser shifted a five-day takehome midterm in 6.046 to another week. Professor Daniel Jackson, who teaches 6.170 Software Studio, cancelled a pset for his class.

A few weeks ago, Goldwasser presented some of the visualizations that have come out of the data — among them, a week-by-week graphic of the average amount of time students are spending on courses, a visualization of the most work-heavy weeks, and a ranking of courses by how much they deviate from their advertised workload.

The data come from weekly surveys that have been sent out to Course 6 students.

For each class, students are asked how many hours they’ve spent that week studying, psetting, working on projects, or taking exams. They’re also asked whether they think the work is too stressful, too excessive, unevenly distributed, or causing conflicts with other classes.

Sometimes, it takes a little bit of humor to get students to respond. Goldwasser, who signs each of the emails, once wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to not fill out surveys.” Still, roughly 20 percent of students respond each week, according to Goldwasser.

Anantha Chandrakasan, the head of the EECS department, is hopeful about the potential of these changes. “Faculty are eager to support this initiative and committed to improving the student experience,” he said.

It’s likely that the ideas that Course 6 is testing will expand to more of the Institute, possibly resulting in interdepartmental coordination.