Time for an Academic Labor Checkup

Leonard Geddes 61 Comments

The time has come for students to do a self-evaluation of their academic labor.

Believe it or not, students have been in class for about six weeks. If you are on a semester schedule, this means that a third of the semester is already in the books! By this time, each student is on a path toward either academic success or academic failure. But do they know which path they are traveling?

You can help students determine which path they are traveling based on the types of academic labor they are currently doing. No need to wait until midterms to kick things into gear; you can help students course correct now!

Micro versus Macro Academic Labor

In my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Avoiding Transition Traps: How to Successfully Transition Students into College, I share examples of students entering college with an incomplete set of academic work skills. These promising students are adept at microlaboring, which is a type of mental labor that prioritizes content accumulation at the expense of conceptual understanding. These students often miss the big-picture elements of their course, regardless of how much they study. Examples of microlabor include:

  • Attending class
  • Taking notes
  • Reviewing notes
  • Highlighting notes
  • Reading material
  • Reviewing study guides

These are also the types of activities that in-class educators and learning assistance professionals encourage, and the types of features that show up on most of our data reports. It’s tempting to conclude that weaker students aren’t doing enough microlabor tasks. Successful students, however, unknowingly tap a higher set of labor skills: they macrolabor.

Macrolabor comprises academic work that creates coherence across courses, and it generates the type of meaningful learning that educators are seeking to ascertain through their assessments. It’s the missing mental labor that struggling students don’t do.

Students who macrolabor tend to extract more meaningful information from class, study more productively, and score much higher than their peers. The following list includes some essential macrolabor activities:

  • Comparing and contrasting concepts
  • Examining how class material connects to the course learning outcome(s)
  • Forecasting how concepts or methods may appear in a future state
  • Developing concrete metaphors for abstract material
  • Assessing the informational ingredients needed to produce the learning outcome(s)
  • Assessing and adjusting thinking modes to match the cognitive requirements

The bottom line is that if students do the wrong type of labor, then they won’t learn or perform well. But if they do the right types of labor, then success is certain. If you are looking for ways to determine the types of labor your students are doing, then you can use the Academic Labor Checklist to discover the missing types of labor.

Leave a thoughtful comment below.

Also, we will be getting metacognitive messy with academic labor at the National College Learning Center Association’s Annual Conference on October 6 in Reston, Virginia. I hope to see you there!

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Comments 61

  1. I love how you’ve broken down low impact practices and high impact practices. This makes it much easier for students to understand where they should approach their study time.
    I’m teaching an academic recovery course now and would love to have my students complete your Academic Labor Checklist!

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      Hi Sarah,

      I had taught academic recovery courses in the past as well. You may find that your students are completely unaware that can have certainty about what they should know. For many of the reasons I detail in my forthcoming book, students believe they can only hope to know what they should know at assessment time. Check out my first article: Why Good Student to Badly in College.

  2. It’s a great idea for students to have something to help them check themselves instead of relying on a professor or advisor.

    1. I agree on the self-check. I try to impress on students (and their supporters) that the student should know how they are doing. I like this idea of a space for self reflection and passive programming. I look forward to seeing the checklist and seeing how I can adapt it at my institution.
      Always love your ideas.

  3. The checklist will help our students look concretely at how their study strategies and course objectives do/do not align and give an excellent starting point for identifying the need for, and making, adjustments. Thank you.

  4. Metacognitive skills are what my students most need to develop. The distinction between macro- and microstudying will be helpful in discussing how they study and how that may need to change.

  5. A self checklist is a great way to reflect and make yourself better. People who participate in self correction are head and shoulders above their peers who do not.

  6. Helping students understand what macro labor looks like is critical for their success. I love how this blog and all of the Learnwell materials paints the picture for students in ways they can relate.

  7. Thank you for sharing an approach that will be appreciated by the graduate students that utilize our tutoring services!

  8. I have often talked about this division labor of concept as the difference between doing homework and studying. I appreciate the micro and macro terms you are using as descriptors.

  9. Since labor-based assessment is becoming more common, it is helpful to have a clearer idea of what that labor should look like! I checklist would be most helpful.

  10. This is a great way to help students take ownership of their education and become active learners. We ask for early alerts from profs, but if the students can be mindful of their own performance and identify those things that work (and don’t work) they can make those adjustments that will help support their success. Rather than wait for an at-risk report, use the self-evaluation to determine areas of weakness and strength!

  11. This will be another tool for those of us who are being asked to assist students in understanding the differences between high school and college. At our institution, academic advisers are being asked to take on the role of academic coach or student success coach.

  12. Once again you’ve been able to concretely describe behaviors that result in real learning gains! One thought–it’s important to emphasize that macro labor (which suggests “big labor,” hard work) will become less effortful through practice. Micro work seems easier because it is “smaller” but also because it is familiar.

  13. I am intrigued by these labels to categorize different types of effort and their effectiveness. I would be curious to see the checklist and wonder if it is a tool I can incorporate with students.

  14. It’s incredibly helpful for educators to have tangible tools like a checklist they can give students to help them bridge the gaps in their learning process! The research and time that goes into creating these kinds of resources is much appreciated.

  15. Very useful distinction and description. I think that this kind of macrolabor is often made more challenging for new students who may be in only one major requirement and 3 to 4 Gen Eds. How they can think more effectively about connecting general education courses to major requirements seems to be a particularly valuable exercise for new students transitioning to college. This approach also presents some fruitful approaches to presenting the role of metacognition in learning. Thanks

  16. This distinction between different types of academic work seems to be the missing “link” that students can’t quite articulate when they tell me they “blank” on tests. Typically, they’ve spent hours reading, writing notes, and the like, but still don’t perform as well as they’d like. I usually use Bloom’s Taxonomy to help them see this difference, so I’m curious to see what new insights your checklist offers!

    1. Post

      Hi Jessica,

      I believe that getting students to macrolabor is the missing link as well. It created context for the content they encounter.
      Content without context creates confusion.
      Context with content creates clarity.

  17. Helping to give language to the students’ experience is so vital. When they better understand HOW they are working and learning, it can make the process so much easier. Thanks for this informative post.

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      I say we all need the proper lenses and language for academic work. Good things happen when these two elements are developed and aligned.

    1. Post
  18. I’ve heard that early-semester and mid-semester course reviews benefit instructors by helping them make course corrections while a class is still underway. I imagine that an academic labor checklist could accomplish similar things for students by giving them insight about practices that could impact their trajectory through the rest of the semester for the better – practices which also would transfer to other aspects of their academic careers as well!

    1. Post

      Hi Anne,

      To your point, instructors who learn to look beyond the microlabor and look to discover where students are or are not macrolaboring learn valuable formative insights about how their students do academic work. These insights help them shift the work to students where they belong while also empowering students to do the work well.

  19. I love the idea of having this metacognitive piece at this point in the semseter when students may be ready to stop and take a look at what is working and what isn’t. Trying this type of activity too early may not helpful for those who are not ready and willing to make a change.

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  20. I love the idea of teaching them about micro and macro learning. It fits in right with my mini talks about knowing why and how, not just what.

  21. I find the distinction between macro and micro labor beneficial as an educator in Higher Education and as a parent. I would love to incorporate these ideas in my classes and workshops to create an awareness of the current strategies students use and how they can improve. The academic labor checklist can be fundamental in ‘planting the seed’ to enable students to make smart choices and change what is not working.

  22. I am curious as to how other people have helped students understand the different kind of thinking that are required to be successful. I have created student scenarios (often from previous students’ experiences, both positive and in need of improvement) and asked students to evaluate what the students did that was helpful and how they might counsel the “person” to have better success. For many of the students with a growth mindset, it is a great experience. Students who have “immobile” thinking as you posited in another article are more of a challenge. I look forward to seeing a copy of the Academic Checklist.

  23. We are conducting an academic check-in with our first-year students [again this year] that is initiated by faculty and sent directly to the students FYE advisor.

  24. This is great!! I will be reviewing this with my student success staff. I think the microlabor tasks get missed and so are undeveloped skills for most students.

  25. This is such a good way to describe this concept to students. It allows them to evaluate their own learning techniques and encourages them to change it up when needed (they can see for themselves how to “work smarter, not harder”).

  26. I appreciate the delineation between microlabor vs. macrolabor. It seems like microlabors are consistently mentioned when discussing tools/actions students need to take to succeed, but it’s the macrolabors that really ensure meaningful learning. It’d be great to find a way to incorporate this into some of our peer education programming!

    1. Post

      Hi Timurhan,

      Your observation is on point! microlaboring without macrolaboring promotes surface learning. You may be interested in knowing that I discovered this “hidden” type of labor when exploring the difference between successful students (often peer tutors) and struggling students. They all do microlabor, but the successful students unknowingly macrolabor. They are always surprised to learn that they actually do qualitative different labor than those they are trying to assist. This knowledge makes them much more effective peer assistants.

  27. Working with first-year students, it is challenging to get them to switch from microlabor to macrolabor when they’ve been using the same study techniques all throughout their elementary and secondary education, and especially when they’ve achieved what they believe is success. Examining how they labor and providing techniques to shift their thinking about how to study, as needed, is essential. I’m hoping the checklist comes with some of these suggestions.

    1. Post

      Hi Areatha,

      Tell me about it! That’s the focus of my forthcoming book. It focuses on how in many ways the skills that get students into college don’t sustain them in college. It identifies three categories of transition traps that predictably ensnare students, and then shows how educators and institutions can help students avoid the traps. It will be published by Stylus and will be out in the late Spring or early summer of 2023. Stay tuned.

  28. I believe assessing the types of efforts (labor) that students are putting in — and guiding them to the most efficient types for particular disciplines, issues, archives — is a valuable path to increasing both their satisfaction and their success.

  29. We are discussing active learning strategies in class right now, and I love this language of micro and macro efforts. This provides a clear framework for students to see more clearly the type of work they’re engaging in, and be more likely to make changes.

  30. I have a how to study workshop which addresses the macrolabor from the viewpoint of study. Breaking up the time spent on each course and recognizing how they relate to each other leads to an understanding and comprehension versus just a recall list!

  31. What a wonderful list! Thanks for making such information so readily available to use. I not only will use it in my own classes, but am meeting with our Tutoring Center Director to share. I think it would make a great addition to the work they do.

  32. This is such great information. I feel like we focus a lot on “engaging” students and measuring that, but it doesn’t always feel like they should be doing “work” in that model. So, this is appreciated!

  33. This is such an excellent resource and I can see implementing this information in class, workshops, and coaching sessions with students. Thank you for sharing!

  34. This material is so valuable–I love it, and I know that my team of peer and professional tutors (university-level, regional public university in Minnesota) will also find this to be a trusted resource. In fact, the entire Student Success Team will benefit from this information, and the team includes 16 departments!

  35. This looks like a great tool. Teaching students how to slow down and think through their metacognitive process is both essential and a challenge at the same time as students just click and go. I appreciate any tools that I can locate.

  36. This is particularly applicable to introductory STEM courses. I am looking forward to receiving the checklist. Thank you

  37. I work with underprepared students and run an academically intensive summer program designed to build up their academic skills to better handle the rigors of college life. The concepts of microlabor and macrolabor efforts would add to our discussions and reinforce the concept that they are responsible for their learning while in college. I would appreciate receiving the checklist too because this can help them practice self-reflection and self-assessment

  38. Definitely important for students to have a chance to reflect on strategies they currently use and their effectiveness, and make them aware of what they need to be doing to achieve success in college. I look forward to getting the checklist and sharing it with my staff.

  39. This brings to mind that students more oftenly engage in activities that are passive and therefore not effectively instead of active learning strategies which i can relate to the macro labor.

    1. Post

      Hi Nathalie,

      Thanks for your contribution. I’m not sure if students would self-identify microlabor practices as passive. For example, participating in class by offering comments and taking copious notes and then investing time into reviewing, reformatting, and rewriting notes seems very active to them. However, taking time to ponder confusing material may seem passive, but it is macrolabor.

  40. I love showing the difference between the micro and macro. I would like to share this as part of a lesson I can incorporate these two items to feature. Thank you for sharing.

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