Applying Systems Engineering Mental Modeling to Academic Burnout

The following is the summary and paper for the Systems Engineering module of an independent study course called MetaOlin designed by 6 Olin College students in the Spring 2007 Semester. The six students involved in the course were: Mel Chua, Chris Dellin, Boris Dieseldorff, Chandra Little, Marco Morales, and Andy Pethan. For an overview of the entire MetaOlin independent study see this summary post.

Systems: Executive Summary

Our first module of the semester, Systems, was taught by Brian Bingham. In a period of two weeks, we learned about the mental models of systems engineering by discussing readings and concepts. We learned about the use of diagrams to communicate the ideas of stocks and flows, the complexity of large systems through case studies and the organization of Olin from a systems engineering point of view. We also attempted to pin down a definition of systems engineering by discussing it and reading a previous Systems class’ papers on the topic. Our discussions attempted to model portions of Olin in a way that would make connections between things easier to see and/or understand. This led us to create a model for one part of Olin that we found intriguing: the process of burnout. The following paper attempts to define a model to describe the stocks and flows present in the Olin systemand then apply that model to gain insight into the problem of burnout. The paper draws a great deal from varied fields. It includes Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Pareto Distributions, theLaw of Diminishing Returns and more. It is also worth noting that the MetaOlin IS gained a great deal of first-hand experience with burnout while writing this paper. This model, like any other, should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, one of the greatest insights from systems engineering is simple and obvious: all models are broken.

To see a pdf version of the report included in the remainder of this post, click here.


MetaOlin: Systems –> Burnout at Olin: A Model

Introduction

Olin is a very complex place, comprised of a multifaceted set of people, institutions, and activities. From a scientific perspective, we could attempt to describe and predict Olin’s behavior by first decomposing it into groups and then seeking to individually characterize each person, institution, and activity. However, we would soon find that most of the interesting complexity exists not in the individual components themselves, but in their varied interactions. Therefore, a model of Olin as an integrated engineering system has the potential to be highly informative.

As a group of six students representing all classes, we have chosen to undertake an independent study together analyzing Olin from the perspective of different disciplines. We have begun the study with system dynamics and have applied systems engineering thinking to create a model of Olin. Our model is designed to increase understanding about the concept of burnout.

In our model, burnout is an over-draw of a person’s resources. The decrease in happiness and productivity, caused by an excessive or prolonged amount of overdraw of physical, mental, and emotional resources, is the indicator of burnout. Simply put, if someone works too hard on the same type of thing for too long, his/her ability to do good work will eventually fatigue and crash. In a school like Olin that is full of high-potential overachievers, burnout is avery real concern that appears everywhere from tired students breaking down mid-project to accreditation committees expressing concern at the potentially unsustainable pace of development. In order to be sustainable and prevent burnout, we must first understand it. This paper is an attempt to explain several hypotheses via a systems engineering model of Olin as to why burnout occurs and how we can take steps to stop it.

Our model represents three major groups in the Olin community – students, faculty, and administration & staff. Each group is a separate entity with a set of resources at its disposal. The first resources, termed currencies, are quantities each person can spend or invest in different activities or institutions. These include both time and money. Money may accumulate and be used at varying rates, but time flows continuously. Each person also has a set of desired/required resources which he/she seeks to acquire as a return on an investment of other resources. In our model, people try to fulfill their physical, emotional, and intellectual needs, which are represented as three categories of desired resources. All resources can be spent, and all but time can be accumulated. As an example, a faculty member might invest time (a currency) into reading (an activity) and get a return of intellectual resources. People can also invest desired resources; a student may invest both time and emotion into a semester-long project and receive both intellectual and emotional resources later in the semester. The desired resources of our model are paralleled by the more widely recognized Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.

As shown above, there is a correlation between our requirements and human needs as Maslow defines them. This connection is important because it implies a particular behavior of our model: namely that inputs to a “higher-level”quantity are rendered inefficient if a “lower-level” quantity is severely lacking. For example, fulfilling an intellectual requirement is hindered by a paucity of emotional resources. As we explore different aspects and results of our model, we will take care to stress these interdependencies as they arise.

Academic Endeavors, Scarcity and the Law of Diminishing Returns

The success of any endeavor is dependent on the availability of its inputs. In the case of academics, these inputs are in the form of facilities, time, money and emotional energy. The ultimate goal of maximizing learning is limited by how much of each of these resources is available and how efficiently each is used.

On an individual level, these scarcity issues result when resources are used up at rates greater than their rates of generation. The simplest case is time. Time flows in at a rate of 1 second per second and flows out at exactly the same rate; therefore, we can conclude that time is never the direct cause of burnout. That being said, time is a very important factor because it is a scarce resource required for almost every part of life. In looking at academic life atOlin, we chose to concentrate on classes, research and curriculum development. All three of these require the expenditure of time by both students and faculty in order to achieve the end goal of furthering knowledge. Thus, it is apparent that there is in some sense a competition for the scarce resource of time between these three elements of academic life. For example, if Olin spent all of its time on curriculum development and never invested time in either research or classes, we would expect to see a large amount of intellectual burnout because curriculum development’s main benefits are in the future. In the end, there is a balance between these elements that must be maintained if burnout is to be avoided.

As an important example, consider the balance between time spent on research and time spent developing and teaching classes. Research and teaching both require an emotional investment and an investment of time on the part of the faculty. As a result they expect to gain emotional fulfillment, intellectual stimulation, and a paycheck. The difficulty lies in the allocation of a professor’s time in order to maximize their emotional and intellectual stimulation while making it possible for students to realize their own emotional and intellectual fulfillment. To answer these questions, we will turn to the law of diminishing returns.

The law of diminishing returns states that the output generated by each additional unit of input is not constant; after a point, the returns gained by each unit of input become smaller and smaller. A commonly cited example of this law is the 80-20 rule. The 80-20 rule states that the first 80% of the work can be completed in the first 20% of the time that it takes to finish everything. The law of diminishing returns can be used in our framework to optimize time invested in activities such as exercise. If I run and do pull-ups for a total of 30 minutes a day, I should be able to find an ideal balance between them where I am maximizing my returns based on time invested. In our example, doing pull-ups is only helpful for about 12 minutes. When we take into account the benefits from running, we find that to optimize the total benefits from exercise, I should only do about 10 minutes of pull-ups. The discrepancy between the optimization of one activity and overall optimization is what makes it so hard to decide how to allocate time to maximize overall fulfillment.A similar thing can be seen happening at Olin with a number of professors. While a professor may love teaching and gain a good deal of intellectual and emotion fulfillment from it, we can be confident that teaching will not be sufficiently fulfilling if a professor passes the point of diminishing returns. Research generates a wholly different type of both intellectual and emotional fulfillment. It is clear that there needs to be a balance between research, classes, and curriculum development in order to prevent intellectual burnout of faculty in the long run.

Types of Learning and their Effect on Burnout

Approaches to Learning

At an institution like Olin, which strives to improve engineering education, it is not surprising that there are a variety of different techniques or approaches to learning present in the curriculum. Each of these approaches to learning at Olin has a measure of emotional and intellectual investments, and each affects burnout in its own way.We can see an example of this variety by focusing on the classes offered to first-years. Design Nature is very much a “do-learn” class, where students learn the fundamentals of design as they labor through the design process individually and then again as a part of a team. ICB: Modeling and Control employs spiral learning and interdisciplinary thinking as its backbone, allowing students to draw connections between disciplines (thermal, electrical, hydraulic, etc.) while continually building on each week’s concepts and adding complexity to the material. ICB: Math and Physics projects are very much self-directed learning, encouraging students to take control of their learning by allowing them to apply the concepts they covered in class lectures to problems or case studies of their choice. There are also classes such as Differential Equations; these types of classes may be less integrated into other disciplines than other classes at Olin, but they usually provide a rigorous, efficient, and more “textbook” approach to learning that cannot be overlooked. Each approach to learning is a valuable part of Olin’s curriculum that affects the academic state of Olin students and professors; intellectual burnout can be minimized by maintaining a balance of different learning paradigms.

Case: Spiral Learning

Using our model of the intellectual and emotional aspects of Olin’s state, we can compare and contrast different approaches to teaching and show their advantages and disadvantages. Spiral learning, in particular, is an integral part of an Olin education. Using our model, we will discuss the relative amounts of time, intellectual investment, and emotional investment that flow through a typical spiral learning system, as shown in the figure at right. Spiral learning relies on the educational idea that concepts are best learned through repeated experience with the material. As a result, students are exposed to a particular concept on a number of occasions throughout the academic program – oftentimes “thrown into” a new topic initially,without the expectation that they develop a full understanding on their first pass. Olin classes that employ spiral learning are often interdisciplinary, and thus their subject matter is often an idea and not a discipline. Modeling and Control of Compartment Systems, a course which uses the concepts of effort and flow to describe electrical, thermal, hydraulic, and other systems, is a good example of this. Spiral learning is emotionally draining due to the difficulty that students have grasping advanced concepts the first time they see the material. When the students cover the material for the second time, often with a different context, the material makes more sense. However, students often do not fully appreciate what they have learned until the end of the course or academic program, when the entire semester or year comes into focus. While the intellectual gains from a spiral learning course are high, the amount of stress-inducing emotional input that isrequired is also high because students must struggle to grasp concepts throughout the semester. A schedule made up of spiral learning courses would most likely stress a student more than is necessary to achieve the goals of lifelong learning and critical thinking skills. This type of stress can cause academic burnout due to unbalanced course types.

Case: Experimental Learning

A high degree of novelty in a course is experimental learning. This novelty can appear in new teaching techniques,or as a unique combination of subject matter. While it is true that a purely experimental course, (what most Olin courses were and have been for many years) will eventually reach a semi-stable combination of other learning approaches mentioned before (spiral learning, do-learn, self-directed learning, and project-based learning). A major tenet of Olin’s innovation in education goal is to be able to export teaching techniques at Olin to other institutions,such as Jon Stolk and Rob Martello’s Stuff of History. Due to the high input costs involved with an experimental approach to learning, we can see why there would be a trend towards other learning models where the material is not completely new for both students and faculty. While the intellectual gains may be harder to quantify in experimental learning than in a well-defined course such as Design Nature, there are definite benefits in the way that both professors and students develop their abilities as educators and “future leaders” when using this approach. Students in experimental classes often have a difficult time grasping the traditional engineering concepts associatedwith such a class because they are spending a significant portion their time learning how to learn instead, which often causes stress given the high amount of emotional investment they have put into the course. However, this approach to learning allows students to be a fundamental part of their learning experience, while pushing for professor innovation and thinking outside the box. The student and professor’s collective goal is to develop a course that might be a future keystone of an Olin education, but more importantly, they are both constantly evaluating the way they look at the “normal” classroom environment and teaching method. This type of thought process is one of the most valuable facets of experimental learning; it allows an entrepreneurial approach to learning. In experimental learning, risk-taking, resource management, and other business and management techniques can be seen outside of their normal context. It is often said that Entrepreneurship is the weakest leg of the Olin triangle,because it is generally treated as a separate discipline. Most students have only one experience with business or entrepreneurship, namely the Foundations of Business of Entrepreneurship class usually taken in a student’s first or second year. While experimental learning can be used as a way to bring in more entrepreneurial thinking into Olin’s curriculum, as an approach to learning it is covered with signs of potential burnout. No other teaching method requires as large of an investment of time, intellect and emotion for both student and professor, and for this reason any ventures into this realm of learning require a keen sense of when burnout is occurring.

Project Case Study: SCOPE

SCOPE in particular, and class projects in general, deserve closer attention because of the unique dynamics that develop around projects. We’ll discuss SCOPE first, as it is mostly an amplified case of the typical class project.

Much of the stress of SCOPE seems to come from overdrawing on student time. Even the large emotional investments by the student seen in the diagram tend to correlate with a proportional increase in the student’s investment of time. For this reason, we’ve examined which factors influence students to allocate a disproportionate amount of time to their SCOPE projects, and which factors provide balancing effects.

Three main factors seem to increase a student’s allocation of time to SCOPE: a pressure to do a good job on theproject, the fact that the projects are intellectually challenging and fundamentally time consuming, and the student desire to finish the project.

Students feel pressure to do a good job on their SCOPE project for two reasons: they know that Olin and the SCOPE Office want to maintain a good relationship with the corporate sponsor, and they also know that the corporate sponsor invested $50,000 in their year of work. Olin wants to maintain a good relationship with the corporatesponsor because they are serving as an invaluable source of funding and learning; it would be fantastic if they wouldreturn in later years to serve as a sponsor again. Sponsors are convinced to provide funding for a project by learning about the wonderful parts of Olin’s curriculum and student body, and the desire to bring them back adds pressure tothe student to not disappoint the sponsor’s expectations. The large amount of money invested by the corporate sponsor also directly gives impetus to spending time on SCOPE. To the average Olin student, $50,000 is a weighty sum of money, which serves as a constant reminder of the magnitude of the projects that they are undertaking.

The wonderful selling capacity of the SCOPE office also leads to projects that are quite intellectually challenging and time consuming. This is partly because the projects have a significant amount of self-directed individual work,project management and group work learning structured as part of the experience. Time must be spent on all ofthese components in addition to the actual engineering part of the project.

Finally, because Olin students are hard workers, they feel compelled to finish their SCOPE projects, even as the circumstances change and it is perhaps more rational to discuss modifications to the end goals of the project with their SCOPE sponsors.

With all of these three positive factors, students are working on projects that are quite intellectually challenging and time consuming with the goal of both doing a good job and finishing the project completely. This influences them to spend more time on the SCOPE project than 4 credits worth, leading to a decrease in time spent on other aspects oftheir life. As the time spent on things that will lead to Physical, Emotional, and other types of Intellectual payback decreases, students experience burnout.

Counteracting these reinforcing interactions, there are some factors that oppose a student’s over-allocation of timeon SCOPE. These mostly arise from social and external factors from Olin. Students in their second semester of theirsenior year experience diminishing benefits from hard work; the desire for social interactions encourages students tospend time there, and finally there is an intriguing social pressure against burnout behaviors.

As seniors go through the year, their future becomes less and less dependent on their immediate performance. Students get job offers and graduate school acceptances, have GPAs that are relatively unaffected by their final semester, and know that they are going to graduate soon. This security allows some students to make wise decisions about how to allocate time so they don’t experience burnout.

Students are also less likely to allocate too much time to SCOPE when they want to have a good time. Olin is a small community, and the time spent on social interactions with friends will increase a student’s emotional returns. This will help to balance the emotional investments spent on the SCOPE project and will also encourage students to allocate a more appropriate amount of time on their project.

Finally, a rather complex cycle of behavior has seemed to emerge at Olin as a result of burnout. When one student is engaging in burnout behaviors such as spending a disproportionate amount of time on SCOPE, they will have less time to allocate to behaviors that will provide them with physical, emotional, and other types of intellectual returns. The student recognizes that they are in an unhealthy situation, and because they care about their friends within Olin’s small community, they become a part of the negative social pressure for others to not engage in burnout behaviors. The individual that is spending too much time on SCOPE will encourage their friends to not overspend time on SCOPE, despite the fact that the individual doing the scolding is also participating in the unhealthy behavior. This cycle of watchdog behavior by community members that may not be taking their own advice is not limited to SCOPE, but can be seen in other projects, in outside activities, and even in the case of sleep.

A broader perspective and positive social pressures encourage seniors to approach their SCOPE projects with more appropriate investments of time and emotional attachment. This helps to prevent students from experiencing burnout.

So much of the SCOPE experience is unique to each individual that it is difficult to predict whether or not burnout will occur; however, there are some factors that we feel could shift the balance towards healthier students.

First, the paradigm of the SCOPE project within the curriculum seems to be that each student should spend 12 hours each week working on the project. If the student is spending more than that amount, they are over-allocating their time towards SCOPE and will have less time for other activities. Few projects have constant workload levels, andeven if the average number of hours spent on SCOPE is 12, a student will experience the imbalance on their physical,emotional, and intellectual returns for the time periods in which they are spending too much time on their project.This issue is made more dangerous near the end of the semester, when all class-related activities but particularly projects drastically increase the number of hours the student is allocating to work. One possible solution to thisproblem is to change the way SCOPE is counted in terms of credit. If students were given the option of increasing the number of credits that SCOPE could count for, then students could take fewer classes. While the amount of time actually spent on SCOPE could remain the same as the current overdrawn situation, the student would no longer be spending a disproportionate amount of time on SCOPE because the proportions will change.

A second way in which the SCOPE project could be structured to decrease burnout addresses the concern that students spend a large amount of time and emotional investment on the non-engineering aspects of SCOPE. One of the major benefits of SCOPE is that students learn about how to do self-directed group work, self-directed individual work, project management skills, and long-term group skills. Most seniors are learning these skills from a basic level, and time and emotional investment are spent on the do-learn process of developing some insight in how to beeffective as a part of a long-term group engineering project. This learning, when added to the rigor and difficulty ofthe engineering aspects of the project, often leads to a prolonged period of physical and emotional stress. This burnout is seen most dramatically among project managers and students on teams with team difficulties; it is often exhibited as an overdraw on the emotional needs of the students. Perhaps this problem could be addressed by factoring in non-engineering learning when choosing the engineering scope of the projects, ensuring that finishing the total project will not require students to spend too much time on engineering and learning.

Finally, creating a support structure that will help burned out students to assess their sources of burnout could ensure that students recognize what they can do to balance their life and prevent the failure of a SCOPE project.

Class projects are similar to SCOPE projects but are smaller and over a shorter time span. Compared to SCOPE, faculty members tend to have a higher emotional investment in class projects because the projects are a part of the courses they are teaching, while students often have a lower emotional investment because the pressures to do well and finish are lower. However, the burnout model and its possible solutions remain the same. A better matching of the credit hours to projects, an accounting system that includes non-engineering and engineering work and learning, and support for struggling students could all help to alleviate student burnout caused by project-based learning.

Sleep

If one were to ask Olin students to name the biggest thing the average Olin student lacks on a day-to-day basis, the answer would be almost unanimous: students don’t get enough sleep. To discuss this phenomenon, we will first describe the way sleep fits into a student’s life in the context of Olin.

As shown above, sleep is simply the investment of some of a student’s time, which yields the physical resources of restfulness and alertness. While we will discuss the mechanics of this return as a function of invested time, we will first turn our attention to the general perception of sleep in the Olin student community.

To an Olin student, sleep is a precious commodity. While it is generally the case that students get far too little sleep, this is due primarily to a perceived deficit of time-in which the student is too busy to have time to sleep. At the end of this section, we will discuss this time-deficit dynamic more fully.

The mechanics of the time investment can be represented as a system described by a function. This function takes as its input the time invested in sleep during a given day and outputs the change in “restfulness” – the rate of change of sleep– that results. See the figure below for a graphical representation of this function.

As shown in the plot, there is a certain amount of investment (say, 90 minutes per day), below which the return is quite low. Beyond this point, the return grows substantially, although there are diminishing returns as the size of the investment approaches some amount (say, 9 hours). Arguably, there is a point at which the function ceases to be monotonic; at some point, an additional hour of sleep might have a negative impact on restfulness and alertness.

Of course, this simple curve, which describes the return on time invested in sleep, is only interesting if it is related to the resource itself – the accumulated amount of restfulness and alertness, the amount of “sleep” resource. (See above Figure.) Since effects accumulate over a period of days, many possible accumulations are possible. The steady-state solution is the most ideal. However, the “crash” scenario may unfortunately be the most interesting in the context of understanding burnout at Olin.

In this so-called “crash”, a student is unable to invest a sufficient amount of time in sleep, and therefore the change in amount of “sleep” resource is less than the steady-state rate. As this accumulates over a period of days or weeks,the change in “sleep” resource level reaches a dangerous low. At this point, the student’s consciousness loses control as arbiter of his investments, and his/her body decides how to allocate time. In this scenario, of course, the student sleeps for a long amount of time in order to partially “pay back” the deficit.

So why, in the context of Olin, do students routinely accumulate a sleep deficit? While there are a number of factors that contribute to this phenomenon, we have identified three in particular which operate at different scales to contribute to this effect.

First, Olin is a very small place, with fewer than 400 students and faculty combined. At the same time, it is a full,active undergraduate engineering college community encompassing classes, countless research studies andpositions, faculty administration, and over 100 individual student and faculty committees, clubs, and organizations. The discrepancy between these two figures can lead to a substantial workload placed on a large number of students,faculty, and staff.

Second, Olin’s constricted population has social implications as well. Students and faculty work together in a naturally fast-paced and isolated environment which is conducive to group projects and long hours. As discussed above, Olin’s social dynamics place new pressures on group projects which can intensify workload. In addition, Olin’s isolation can make it difficult to take short breaks or longer “days off” from work.

Third, Olin students and faculty are naturally highly-driven individuals with high expectations and standards for themselves and their peers. This form of individual pressure can have a substantial effect on the amount of work piling up on the desks of students and faculty members. Between these three factors, students regularly feel pressure to invest a disproportionate amount of time into intellectual activities – such as classes and clubs – and this often does not leave enough room for a sufficient amount of sleep.

Summary and Discussion

In our model, we use the concept of currencies and resources to represent the state of groups of people at Olin. In particular, we believe that the various forms of human burnout can be attributed to an unacceptably low reserve ofphysical, intellectual, and emotional resources. As we discussed in the academics section, the law of diminishing returns prevents a single approach to learning from giving the greatest net return for the resources invested. Because of this, it is crucial to ensure a balance of activities yielding each type of resource. In the context of academics, intellectual and emotional resources are held in balance by a variety of learning approaches, minimizing burnout and maximizing academic efficiency and progress. Physical resources are defined by Maslow as the lowest level of human needs. Due to the high-achievement culture of Olin, students often prioritize their work over their physical need for sleep. When students get behind on work, sleep tends to decrease, time efficiency decreases, and emotional stress goes up throughout the week. Prolonged physical, emotional, and intellectual stress often lead to student burnout. Among faculty, a more common type of stress is caused by a lack of intellectual diversity. When a professor spends too much time teaching and not enough time pursuing their own research, they may eventually reach a point of intellectual burnout. One must also proceed with caution here too, however, as asking for too much of a time investment from professors to the college can reduce resting and personal time, reducing the input of physical, emotional, and intellectual resources.

As the trustees of Olin College, we ask you to use our model as a tool for understanding the various types of burnout in both students and faculty as you address the sustainability of the school. Though our model is very limited in many ways, it can provide valuable insight into a very complicated issue.

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