How to help your students rest

If you are exhausted, your students probably are too. Some of this is likely developmental, as people in their late teens and early twenties may naturally struggle to fall asleep before 11 pm but still typically need up to 10 hours of sleep daily (and sometimes more)–which is often not how we design their schedules. One of my favorite parts of teaching online, though, is that students can schedule their asynchronous work when they are best able to do it, which, for me, is much nicer than the nodding heads at 8 am.

As teachers, we can’t tuck our students in for a good night’s sleep, but we can promote rest. Indeed, in a culture on a quest for more that often overvalues productivity, we may have a greater obligation to teach students to rest than to work hard, which they have likely heard is important their whole lives. Theologian Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry, argues that “rest is a form of resistance” and allows for community healing, especially from racial oppression. 

How can you help students rest?

  • Make breaks actual breaks. End modules before break, and don’t assign students any reading or writing over breaks. If you are going to schedule something to be due on Monday, make sure they have at least the Friday of the week before to work on it so they don’t HAVE to work on it over the weekend. More time is even better.
  • Model time off. Use your out-of-office email function every weekend to remind students that you’re away from your desk and won’t be responding to emails over the weekend. Schedule emails (the down arrow next to “send” if you have Gmail) so that emails you choose to write over the weekend or outside of office hours won’t be sent until 8 am the next workday. 
  • If your current semester doesn’t include any breaks, schedule some days without homework if teaching in-person or synchronously, or lighten the load occasionally if teaching asynchronously. 
  • Set due dates for no later than midnight. That might sound late (it is), but if you set them for 8 am, students aren’t going to wake at 6 am to finish their work–but they will stay up until 2 am. 
  • Don’t over-assign readings or videos. This can be hard online, because you aren’t physically handing out readings to students. Help yourself track how much work you are assigning by estimating the time to read (then multiplying by 1.5 if you teach native speaking students because you’re probably thinking students are reading faster than they are) and adding run times for videos to their links. Keep the total hours of assignments (including all the work beyond the reading) within the credit hour limit: no more than 12 hours of work per week in a 3.0 credit course that runs for a full semester. 
  • Teach students to take breaks away from the screens. Schedule silent work time online, with short breaks. During the break, put on a timer and require that students stand up and move away from their computer. Or lead them in a short mindfulness exercise in which they attend to each of their five senses for a few moments. 
  • Most students continue to prefer paper, not online, textbooks. That’s good news, since they also tend to learn better when reading paper books. Help them out by making sure that your textbooks are always available in paper and e-copies (which may be best for students living abroad or those with visual disabilities). Paper copies allow students to get up from their desk since they can easily and safely be read outside, on the treadmill, or in the bathtub. While we’re not trying to teach students to do their work everywhere, we also don’t want them to be tethered to a desk.

How do you help your students rest–not because they need to be rested to learn, but just because we all deserve rest and because rest is a good in and of itself?

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Vincent Van Gogh, Noon: Rest from Work, 1890, shows a man and a woman stretched out by a haystack. His hat is pulled down over his eyes, and his shoes are off his feet, next to him.

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