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Faculty Burnout: How to Rekindle the Flame for Teaching in Higher Education

  • 16 Min Read

Faculty members in higher education are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of many. Most notably, they are instructors helping to shape the minds of the next generation. On top of that, many are mentors, coaches and mental health advocates for their students. They work long hours before, during and after classes. They design courses, write lectures and do research, spurred on by their passion for teaching. They also have personal lives with their own set of expectations and pressures that come along with being a friend, partner or parent.

Add a worldwide pandemic into the mix, and it’s not hard to see why faculty burnout is on the rise. Burnout can be caused by stress in the workplace, leading to exhaustion, less enjoyment of the work being done and producing less results.

In 2020, The Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed over 1,000 faculty members and found half of them maintained or upped their level of excitement for teaching. The other half felt their love for teaching decline. In the fall of 2020, 69% of faculty surveyed reported feeling extremely or very stressed, compared to 32% at the end of 2019.

Graphic highlighting stats on faculty stress from 2019 to 2020

Faculty are at the heart of the institution; students, staff and leadership couldn’t function without them. When the heart slows down, the rest of the body feels it. That’s why it’s so important not only to recognize and be aware of when faculty start to feel burned out, but to do something about it.

While there are many ways to rekindle the flame for teaching, we’ll cover three topics that can help make an impact: mental health, community and technology.

Acknowledging and Supporting Faculty’s Mental Health

Mental health has become a popular topic around the globe. People have become much more aware of the importance of being in touch with the state of their mental health and taking the time to improve it if it starts to slip.

In academia, a lot of the research and focus on mental health revolves around students. But what about faculty? While they’re watching out for the mental health of their students, who’s doing the same for them?

Recognizing the Gap in Mental Health Support for Faculty

The first step in addressing the mental health issues of faculty is acknowledging they exist.

In the Inside Higher Ed “2022 Survey of College and University Presidents,” 97% of presidents indicated they’re somewhat or very aware of the state of their faculty’s mental health. But when asked if they had the capacity to meet faculty’s mental health needs, only 55% somewhat or strongly agreed.

When comparing these stats, it’s clear that something needs to be done to help bridge the gap between acknowledging the status of faculty’s mental health and providing the right support.

Stat on university presidents' mental health awareness

Finding Ways to Support Faculty

Of the university presidents in the Inside Higher Ed report who said they had the capacity to meet the mental health needs of their communities, 71% said this was due to an increase in budget for mental health services, while 23% said their staff were given more time off for mental health days.

A 2020 Course Hero report surveyed over 570 full and part-time faculty in the U.S. and uncovered four ways they felt administration could help alleviate some of their stress:

  • additional compensation
  • changes to workload
  • better support for learning new technology
  • additional support staff or teaching assistants

Some institutions, like Barnard College—a liberal arts residential college for women that is partnered with Columbia University—are leading by example and have introduced programs to help manage the stressors faced by faculty.

At Barnard, faculty can get help in their online courses from students who apply for jobs in the Preceptor Program. Successful hires help instructors with their transition to online learning by moderating discussions or managing breakout rooms. Faculty get help with their courses, and students get experience working in different classroom settings.

Another program Barnard has introduced is a Virtual Tutoring Corps, which hires students to tutor the children of faculty and staff. This program helps alleviate some of the stress faced by faculty with additional familial needs.

A graph showing data around suggested changes to improve faculty job satisfaction

Acknowledging faculty’s needs, exploring options to help relieve their stress and committing to resolutions is one way leadership and administrators can help faculty move their focus back to teaching.

Building Support Through Community

Higher education isn’t always considered a collaborative environment. Instructors can be segmented by their specializations; faculty often compete for promotions or tenure; and there is high support for research grants written or authored by individuals.

In the 2020 study by Course Hero, 75% of faculty surveyed said they felt a loss of community after making the pivot to remote or online learning.

A strong support system can make the difference between faculty fading into burnout and fueling their fire for teaching.

Graphic showing that 75% of faculty felt a loss of community after moving to remote or online learning.

Building and joining the right community groups—whether online or in person—can lead to innovation and improvement for all parties involved, from faculty to those they influence, like administrators or students.

What Are Community Groups?

Community groups are established when people come together in support of one another or a common cause. They can be a way for faculty, administrators, staff or students to unite and discuss what’s working for them, what’s not and how it can be made better.

Communities can be built around a variety of topics, but for faculty who are feeling burned out, there are a few different kinds of groups that may help. Here are some examples of communities faculty members can join or create to foster their growth and development.

Professional Development Groups

Having educators connect with their peers on a professional level at their institutions and others is one easy way to begin creating community groups in higher education.

With the shift to online learning environments, it’s especially important for faculty to be able to share learnings on what is and isn’t working for them in an online setting. Instead of reacting to situations, proactively working together to learn from one another through professional development is a great way to implement changes to teaching before problems arise.

Examples of professional development focusing on the integration of online tech can include:

  • using new course delivery methods
  • exploring useful tools or partnerships through a learning management system (LMS)
  • making learning accessible and inclusive
  • improving training techniques

Key Takeaway

Instead of reacting to situations, proactively working together to learn from one another through professional development is a great way implement changes to teaching before problems arise.

Using an existing LMS can be an effective way to bring together groups of instructors in a professional development setting. The LMS can be used to host webinars and dive deeper into data and insights made by instructors that they can share and develop with their peers.

Using an LMS like D2L Brightspace for professional development can provide faculty and staff with many advantages, including:

Making time for professional development is one way to ensure that faculty are always improving their skills and keeping a pulse on what drives their passion for teaching.

Faculty Learning Communities

Another way to bring faculty together to develop their skills is through learning communities. Faculty learning communities (FLCs), according to Milton D. Cox in Introduction to Faculty Learning Communities, “create connections for isolated teachers, establish networks for those pursuing pedagogical issues, meet early-career faculty expectations for community, foster multidisciplinary curricula and begin to bring community to higher education.”

These learning communities tend to have fewer members—between 8 and 12—and are a mix of faculty and staff from across institutions. Throughout the year, they collaborate through seminars and activities to explore a specific subject area for improvement.

At Miami University, FLCs were organized either by cohort or by topic. Cohort-based communities focused on a group of people, and topic-based groups looked more specifically at a campus teaching or learning need. In the research at Miami University, the FLCs were deemed successful through a variety of outcomes, some of which included:

  • students applying known concepts to new problems
  • improved collaboration among students
  • better engagement and discussions during class
  • more interest from students
  • increased skills shown in writing assignments

By bringing faculty together to share thoughts and learnings, FLCs help empower faculty to enrich their skills and allow their passion for teaching to burn bright.

Online Communities

Another way instructors can connect is through online communities.

The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE), a large, Canadian-based community for those with an interest in fostering excellence in teaching and learning in post-secondary education, offers a variety of community groups.

STLHE offers special interest groups for members who have a specific topic or niche they want to promote. STLHE also has a teaching and learning network with both national and international reach that can help members generate awareness, start conversations, discuss ideas, make connections and share learnings.

Similarly, EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit organization, uses information technology to propel higher education. It promotes over 60 community groups that its members can join, with topics ranging from data and analytics to diversity, equity and inclusion; information systems and services; and security, privacy and identity, among others.

Creating a community of peers and friends to lean on can help instructors avoid feeling overwhelmed and instead use these resources to advance their instruction and careers.

Through online communities like these, faculty can connect with like-minded professionals to find solutions if they start to feel burnout. Creating a community of peers and friends to lean on can help instructors avoid feeling overwhelmed, and they can use these resources to advance their instruction and careers.

Empowering Faculty Through Technology

The introduction of technology into teaching and learning has many benefits, provided it comes with a plan of action.

With the recent pivot to online or remote learning, colleges were forced to quickly adapt to the technology used to teach online, and the shockwaves were felt by students and faculty.

In the 2020 Course Hero survey investigating faculty burnout, 74% of respondents reported stress from switching to online teaching methods.

However, many students welcome the idea of online learning and have high expectations for online course delivery.

The Digital Learning Pulse Survey by Bay View Analytics and Cengage found that 64% of respondents from community colleges in the U.S. said they prefer to take a mix of in-person and online courses, while 76% said they want the option to take fully online courses.

Graphic showing that 67% of students expect digital services at their institutions to rival major digital companies.

However, the standard for online experiences is high. The U.K. survey “Higher Education Digital Experience Report 2022” showed that 67% of respondents expect digital services from their institutions to rival those of Amazon, Netflix or Facebook.

One of the ways faculty can be supported in managing in-person and online courses is through the effective implementation and use of learning technology.

Incorporate Proper Training

In 2021 McKinsey conducted research included interviews done with industry experts and decision-makers around the use of technology in the classroom. The research found that digital-literacy gaps have grown since the move to online learning in 2020, especially for faculty who are less tech savvy. The experts also noted that learning new technology can be tiresome for instructors.

A 2018 EDUCAUSE study found that digital equity can refer not only to instructors having fair access to tech but also having proper access to the training needed to be confident using digital learning tools.

“For learning tools to be effective, educators must have access to adequate and ongoing training and professional development—before instructors can help students navigate tools for consumption and creation, they must be digitally fluent themselves,” the report found.

If a new mode of technology is being introduced or used more frequently, providing proper training to faculty will help make the process smoother.

For example, a powerful LMS can offer valuable learning technology solutions for faculty and students. To help faculty learn the system, training can be conducted directly through it, providing many benefits such as:

  • empathy in faculty for their students who are also using the system
  • savings on the cost of training by using the existing LMS
  • useful data to track and monitor progress and adoption levels

Another form of training can be found through the services used to provide support for new learning tech tools.

Take Advantage of Existing Support

In the McKinsey study on how technology is shaping learning in higher education, one chief academic officer who was interviewed said that it can be difficult for individual faculty to tackle new platforms, and success often depends on having good IT support. The report found that providing the right training and technical support—like self-service resources or stipends for faculty to partake in technical training courses—led to the successful introduction of new learning technologies.

One avenue for this support is directly through an institution’s IT support services. To help curb faculty burnout, having a reliable internal team to turn to can be a big help. A support team that understands the learning technologies can quickly share knowledge with less tech-savvy educators who need help.

Graphic of a quote that shows the importance of faculty within higher educaiton.

As mentioned previously, online community groups can also be a good resource for faculty who might be struggling with new learning technologies. For example, EDUCAUSE has a variety of existing community groups related to IT services and management.

An effective LMS provider will also be able to support institutions with its adoption and use.

At Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA), some faculty had been using D2L Brightspace to share course materials or administer quizzes. But many faculty had never used the platform to build out an entire course.

After the shift to online learning in 2020, leadership knew they had to act quickly to get their faculty up to speed with the necessary skills, said Dr. Jason Todd, associate director at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at XULA.

Using Brightspace, XULA built a quick-start course called Learned Everywhere XULA (LEX) to show faculty how to become better online instructors. The course covers many facets, from logging in to advanced features like release conditions.

Almost all the 217 full-time faculty—96%, to be exact—have finished the course.

“Our teaching staff can now create online courses on their own, with minimal support from the technology team,” said Janice Florent, technology coordinator at XULA. “As well as helping XULA to accelerate the shift to online teaching, we’re reducing the volume of support requests to our team, which helps us focus on enhancing the Brightspace platform and introducing new features.”

Use Data to Reduce Workloads

By choosing an LMS with powerful data reporting and analytics, faculty can save time, as they no longer have to manually pull data themselves. Instructors can find actionable insights quickly, and helping students improve their learning is made easier than ever. Not only will faculty be happy to get more of their time back, but their passion for teaching can also continue when they know the impact they’re having on their students.

Data insights and advantages provided through an LMS like Brightspace can include:

  • the ability to view, compare, and track class and learner performance
  • creation of individualized learning through custom learning paths
  • automated communications that can be used to create helpful nudges based on predetermined milestones
  • access to up-to-date information to improve adoption, engagement and retention
  • the ability to use over 120 actionable data sets or create custom reports and visualizations

Using existing technology in innovative ways can also help faculty make the most of their time and avoid burnout.

Make Use of Existing Technology

Taking a deeper dive into additional benefits of technology that the institution is already using is another way to help relieve some of the administrative burdens felt by instructors.

For instructors who may be recluctant to adopt new technology, show them how it can improve the student experience, reduce administrative workload and integrate with other systems.

While students at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) were engaging with their LMS, Brightspace, the challenge was getting buy-in from faculty to make the platform a central part of teaching and learning.

“I used to be an instructor, so I understand why they can be reluctant to adopt a new system—particularly if they think it will distract them from teaching,” said Matt Karns, education developer at SAIT’s Center for Learning and Teaching. “We had to find a way to show our faculty how Brightspace could both improve the student experience and reduce instructors’ administrative workload.”

The Center for Learning and Teaching turned to faculty to help implement the change. It created a community of practice—now including 60 faculty advisers—where instructors could share Brightspace best practices and knowledge. This community helps train colleagues on how to make the most of the LMS.

Another tactic to get faculty on board was working with D2L to integrate Brightspace with other campus systems. Initially, some faculty didn’t want to upload grades into Brightspace, as it would mean duplicating the uploads used in another system. D2L was able to help integrate both systems, eliminating the need to upload the data twice but still making it available in both locations.

Faculty can also get some of their valuable time back by spending less time on administrative tasks.

“The time I spend managing my classes, marking assignments and prepping my lessons has decreased by at least 30% since I started to use Brightspace,” said Dan Stephenson, new media production and design instructor at SAIT.

By looking at existing technology and exploring other ways it can help faculty, it can be used to make workloads lighter, and the instructors can remain engaged with teaching.

Rekindling the Flame for Teaching

Faculty’s passion for teaching needs to be protected. As found in the report “On the Verge of Burnout,” since 2020 35% of the 1,122 faculty respondents said they’re seriously considering finding a career outside of higher education, and 38% said they’re considering retirement. Of the tenured faculty who responded to the question, 73% said they were planning to retire sooner. Nearly half of the tenured faculty said they planned to retire within two years, compared to 20% who thought they would be retiring within two years at the start of 2019.

Graphic showing the increasing retirement rate of faculty since 2020.

For such an important and impactful profession, these numbers are a clear indicator that changes need to be made by institutions to prevent faculty burnout.

The first step is acknowledging that something is broken. The next step is putting in the time to understand why, and how to make changes to help support faculty.

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