Wednesday, January 8, 2014

An Early Thirsty on Student Course Load From Lurking Liz.

I am primarily a lurker, but as I sit here weaving together the threads of my newest course syllabus, a question arose that I thought the CM crowd might have some insights on. A colleague directed me to a section in the newest undergraduate catalogue in which it notes that undergraduate students should expect to spend ca. 5-6 hours (per 3-credit hour course) doing work outside of class.

For years, I have operated on the departmental guideline (suggested to me when I was hired many years ago) that students should expect to spend ca. 2-3 hours outside of class for each hour in class; thus, a 3-credit hour course would expect ca. 6-9 hours outside of class.

So it got me wondering.

Q: What is the standard at other universities? Is the university stipulation normal elsewhere? Are my departmental guidelines outdated? (I confess that the ca. 6-9 hour figure is what was expected of me as an undergraduate so I suppose I must now be outdated as well?!)


  1. How are these times calibrated with expected grades? Are your school's idea of 5-6 hours of study necessary for an A or a C?

    1. I don't think it ever was explicitly mentioned what grade to expect. I'm pretty sure that the assumption (at least when I was an undergrad in the '70s) was that following the 2:1 rule was what one needed to pass, which means a C or a D, depending on the academic program. An A was assumed to require substantially more effort, and that the quantity of effort was not all that mattered: it had to be high-quality, nay even inspired, effort.

      It's hard to say such things without smiling at something quaint, such as realizing one is driving into Amish country, isn't it?

  2. I was also told the 2:1 guideline, that students should work for two hours outside of class per each hour in class, when I was a first-year undergrad (at a quasi-Ivy in the '70s). This same guideline is still being touted here at Middlin' State. One of our deans recently made a big deal of it, having posters put up all over campus, and e-mailing and sending actual letters through the postal mail to all students and faculty about it.

    Of course, it's well documented that students spend less time on their studies every year. One such reference is Henry Bauer's 1997 article "The New Generations: Students Who Don't Study (," and the trend has gotten much worse since then. It's therefore hard for me to mention the 2:1 guideline to students without wondering who I'm kidding.

    It also doesn't take much lurking on this page to realize that what university administrators say and what they mean can be completely different civilizations. Still, here at Middlin' State now, the 2:1 guideline is still what they're saying.

  3. That was my undergrad experience - 3 hours of reading/study per lecture hour.
    So, I have had that as my expectation, however, I recently re-visited the math on this.
    I went to a smaller university in a small university city (sadly no longer the case, its enrollment has about doubled in the last 15 years), and travel time from my bed to the edge of campus was about 5 minutes, for a weekly commute with a sum total of 70 minutes (as I did study at the library on Sat and Sun). Now, I reside at mega-university in large metropolis situated near the periphery of said metropolis, mostly surrounded by large tracts of light industrial lands (i.e. only a small portion of students could ever live on or close to campus, even if everyone wanted to), and so the average student commute is probably 10 hours during the week. I also worked part-time, about 10-15 hours a week, to make up the difference of what student loans couldn't cover for the cost of going to uni. Now, I commonly hear ranges of 15-25 hours a week, and sometimes 30-35 hours a week, of students working part-time at places like East Side Mario's, or Chuck E Cheese (shudder...) in order to afford university. Add it all up, and it would involve quite a bit of sleep deprivation to actually fulfill the 3:1 expectation for a science major workload.
    I don't ever intend to dumb things down or present less material with this in mind, so something's gotta give somewhere...which can explain plenty of the snowflake misery I encounter...

  4. Actually, there are real standards for this: in the US, there are actually federal accreditation standards:


    Federal Credit Hour Definition: A credit hour is an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally-established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than:
    (1) one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit, or ten to twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or (2) at least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other activities as established by an institution, including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading toward to the award of credit hours. 34CFR 600.2 (11/1/2010)

    So, 2 hours out of class for every hour in lecture is the _norm_. Students should know that fi they are struggling with a class, they should expect to invest more time than tha

    1. Apparently, my keyboard is eating letters at random. Yum!

  5. Most times, I'd be happy to have my students manage a 1:1 ratio, given my suspicions about their actual time spent studying. 2:1 or 3:1 amounts to a fantasy.

  6. Our school follows the Carnegie Unit, which I think works out to 1:2 (one hour in class: two outside). In my lit classes, I recommend 1:3.

  7. I still quote the 2-3 hours per credit hour requirement to students, especially in the welcome/warning letters I send out for online and hybrid courses. In the online courses, I actually add up the time online in lieu of class time plus the prep time and give them the total, pointing out that the work will take different people different amounts of time, but if they expect the subject to be difficult for them -- one demographic that sometimes chooses the online option -- they should expect the time they need to be at least at the upper limit. I don't think most of my students actually do that much work, but at least I've set out the expectation (and also made clear that the semester-long project worth 40-50% of the grade is *meant* to take lots of time, which will be spread fairly evenly over the semester if they do all the intermediate activities and assignments, but will become an insurmountable obstacle to passing the class if they try to do it in the last week of classes).

    I'm not sure my school publicizes an expectation (though I'm sure they at least theoretically adhere to the standards Three Sigma mentions -- thanks, TS, I didn't know about those), but it does say that a student who works more than 20 hours a week for pay should not attempt a full load of courses. That guideline is, of course, widely honored in the breach (and, given the current state of state and federal funding -- institutional and individual -- I can't really blame them).

  8. I don't give a fig. If the student wants to learn, they will put in the time they can. I realize they have other responsibilities and/or priorities. If I am not accountable to what they do outside of class, then let 'em have at it. I have more important things to think about.

  9. I used to write things like "expected hours working for this course" on the syllabus, but I've stopped doing that. It's like Python says, they'll put in as many hours as it takes to read the sections in the text and do the small number of problems I ask them to. That's highly variable depending on the student, and if they choose to start thinking about the homework the night before it's due, that's not my problem. The fact is that way too many students take more hours than they should, especially if they are also working. There are many reasons for that (an unreasonably heavy load of GenEd and UpperDiv distribution requirements, for one), but I think a major one is the expectation that all courses will be "trivial"; that all you have do do is come to class and "watch the movie", as if this were high school. It takes them quite a while to understand that the material is not trivial, that learning is hard work they have to do on their own.

  10. I use an online homework system which tracks students' time on problems and it is very revealing. Half my students put in an average of less than two hours per week on the homework I assigned.

    I teach a five credit calculus based physics course.

    Every week, the day before the weekly quiz, I would check to see which students had not yet started. Every week it was between 30 - 50 % of the students. A further 20 - 40% put in less than one hour. I reported this number to the class every week, commenting that this told me the percentage of Fs of the quiz...

    Reading quizzes are revealing two. The majority of the class failed them because instead of doing the reading they would try to guess the answer from the questions. Example: "How does chapter 8 define 'moment of inertia'?" Half the class answers with some variation of "It's the time when an object comes to a complete stop." They know what the word "moment" means and they think inertia has something to do with not moving, so they guess. Instead of reading.

    One of my best students had trouble with a question. I told him to read the first paragraph of the chapter out loud and he would hear himself saying the answer. It was like pulling teeth to get him to do it so I finally read it out loud to him. He confessed that, as a junior in college, he had never yet had to read a textbook.