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3 Ways Computer Science Programs Can Reduce Student Burn Out

December 19, 2018

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by Make School Instructor and Curriculum Designer Adam Braus


Student burn-out is the worst. And at Make School, it can be the worst for pretty much everyone involved. Most colleges will obviously say they don't want their students to burn out, but at Make School the problem is more urgent.

Student burn-out matters to us so much 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? Ultimately student burn-out hurts not just our students, but Make School as well in a very real way.

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 and productivity hacks, and sleep hygiene.

Project-Based Learning

Learning at Make School has always been and will always be based on doing projects. Whether going step-by-step through a digital online tutorial, hacking on a project in a hackathon, or launching 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 would burn out or lose motivation if they were doing project-based learning. But actually, like most everything, you have to plan well and ahead of time for project-based learning to stay interesting and lead to actual 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 ensure success, but not so much guidance that it squelches motivation. A less-helpful guide might say, "That sounds like your project is over-scoped 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 the three common phases of a project - design, build, test; let's make a plan for your project during each phase."

The biggest problem, however, is at Make School you have to do **many **projects at once - along with attending classes, feeding yourself, and keeping an active social life!

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 doing 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 poison 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 at 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 (the equivalent of General Education) courses so they occur only on Friday. Lastly, we have a fixed schedule that starts every day at the leisurely time of 9:30 am - meaning early-risers can use their mornings, and late-risers are held accountable to not sleeping 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.


Make School is a two-year computer science college based in San Francisco that offers a Bachelor's degree in Applied Computer Science. The focus of Make School is providing product-based learning that prepares students for real-world careers in software development. Students graduate with an average salary of $95k.

Learn more about Make School's philosophy, courses, and outcomes at https://www.makeschool.com/computer-science.

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