3 Ways Computer Science Programs Can Reduce Student Burn Out

How at Make School we’re designing a college that maximizes learning and minimizes burnout.

Student burnout is the worst. And at Make School’s College, its the worst for pretty much everyone involved. Most colleges probably would say they don’t want students to burn out, but at Make School the situation is more serious.

At Make School student burn out matters because we pay our students’ tuition for them with the promise that they will share 20% of their future income with us for a few years after graduation. If they burn out, how likely are they going to become successful?

At Make School we’ve analyzed the problem of student burnout and have implemented a designed solution based on evidence and research. We use three things that we think all colleges should consider adopting.

  1. One-on-One Coaching
  2. Project-Based Learning
  3. Reduced Context Switching

One-on-One Coaching

At Make School, your coach is not an advisor or a counselor or a therapist or even your friend. They are friendly of course! And they might even become your friend, but as your coach they are The Guardian of your Highest Potential. The easiest way to understand your coach’s role is if you’ve ever had a sports coach. Your sports coach does everything they can to increase your athletic performance. Your Make School coach has specialized training and tools for helping their coachees increase their engineering performance.

Coaches are the front lines of student burnout. They detect it, ask about it, and then help the student grow and change their habits and mindset to avoid it. Remarkably, all this work can happen in just one 20 minute-long meeting twice a week.

Coaches mainly ask questions and tell stories. They must ask permission before providing any sort of advice. Some of the common tools coaches share with students to help them avoid burn out are growth mindset, focus & productivity hacks, and sleep hygiene.

Project-Based Learning

Learning at Make School has always been (and probably always will be) based on doing projects. Whether going step-by-step through a digital online tutorial, hacking on a project in a hackathon, or starting what you hope is the next big startup — our students learn by doing real projects in the real world.

It is easy to have rose-colored glasses and assume that no one could burn out or lose motivation if they were doing project-based learning, but actually, like most everything, you have to set things up right for project-based learning to stay interesting and lead to learning.

Projects must have deadlines and clear standards so everyone feels accountable to everyone else. Students must have some choice among projects. When someone has a totally original project idea, they usually need enough guidance to help them be successful, but not so much guidance that it squelches their motivation. Not such a good guide might say, “That sounds like your project is overscoped and I don’t see how you could turn that into a viable business model, now if you …“. A good project guide says, “Here are commonly the three phases of projects, design, build, test; let’s make a plan for your project using each phase.”

The biggest problem, however, is at Make School you have to do many projects at once, along with attending classes, along with feeding yourself, along with any semblance of a social life you’d like to have!

That brings us to one of the biggest factors of student burn out: Context Switching.

Reduced Context Switching

Neuroscientists have discovered that your brain uses a lot of energy to switch between different tasks. Say you were emailing a friend, but then interrupted yourself to practice piano for 3 minutes, and then you switched to baking cookies. In this case the energy you spent switching between these tasks was far greater than the energy you spent in any one of them. This inefficient use of mental energy is called context switching, and in our society of infinite phone and internet distractions, it is like anthrax for completing your goals and becoming who you want to be.

So maybe your coach tells you about context switching and you turn off your notifications and get more focused — even then, you still have to go to huddles in the morning, work, lunch, then class in the afternoon, then get home, eat dinner, etc. There is so much context switching just in going to a school how can you avoid it?

To reduce context switching Make School we’ve set two 3 hour blocks a week where no classes or meetings can be planned — we call them programming lab. We also silo all of our Science & Letters courses onto Friday. Lastly we have a fixed schedule that starts every day at the leisurely time of 9:30am, meaning early-risers can use their mornings, and late-risers are accountable to not sleep the whole day away.

Make School is not perfect (yet!) and so we are still looking for ways to reduce context switching for our students. Moving to something like block scheduling, where students only take 1–2 intensive courses per term could really be the right choice!

With the right design choices, any school can minimize student burnout.