Sue Frantz

How much work is in your course?

Blog Post created by Sue Frantz on Dec 28, 2017

In the FAQ section of my syllabus, I write:

 

The general rule is for every hour you spend in class, you need to spend two hours outside of class. In a face-to-face class, you're in class about 5 hours per week*, so you should spend 10 hours outside of class working on this course. That's also why three 5-credit classes is considered full-time. If you are taking three 5-credit classes, you'd be spending about 45 hours a week, both in and out of class, working on those courses.**

 

As I was writing this post I wondered about the origin of this general rule. It turns out that it is U.S. federal law that applies to any institution that doles out federal financial aid. I have no idea how I’ve managed to make it this long in higher education without knowing that this “general rule” is federal law. In any case, I know now and have changed my syllabus. “The general rule (and the federal law minimum) says for every hour you spend in class…”

 

This is the federal government’s definition of a Carnegie unit, the credits that our courses are worth. Quoting “34 CFR 600.2 of the final regulations,” a Carnegie unit 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 academic activities as established by the institution, including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading to the award of credit hours.

 

These 15 pages from the U.S. Department of Higher Education (published in 2011), will tell you all you could possibly want to know about Carnegie units. You’ll find the above definition on page 5.

 

That document also makes clear that each institution of higher learning can divide up those hours per week as they see fit. My 5-credit online class, for example, has 15 hours of work per week that is all outside of class time since the concept of “class time” does not exist in asynchronous courses.

 

Additionally, the 2 hours out for every hour in is the minimum standard. If colleges and universities so desire, they can set a higher standard, say, 3 hours outside for every hour in. Some colleges and universities make their expectations clear on their websites, such as Stanford, Northwestern, and Cal Poly -- all of whom, incidentally, go with the minimum 2 to 1 ratio.

 

Does your class, each week, have 2 hours of work outside of class for every hour in? How do you know?

 

Elizabeth Barre and Justin Esarey at the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University created a pretty cool tool, the Course Workload Estimator. Put in what and how much your students should be reading, what and how much your students should be writing, how much time your students should be studying for exams, and how much time students should be spending on any other assignments, then look at the estimated workload – how much time students should be working on your course each week.

 

The website makes it clear that this is an estimator. You would be hard-pressed to find two students who have identical reading rates, identical writing rates, and identical ideas on how they should study. This is a good place for you to plug the study techniques from the LearningScientists.org website. "The course is designed with the expectation that you will spend <x number> of hours studying for each exam. The more efficient and effective your study techniques, the more you will learn in that finite number of hours. Also, put away your phone while you are studying. You lose a lot of precious study time when you are frequently switching between tasks, between your studying and your phone." [This blog post describes a classroom demonstration that illustrates how much time is lost when we switch back and forth between tasks if you'd like to hammer this point home.]

 

On the Course Workload Estimator website, scroll down for the rationale and research that went into creating this tool. Their research points out some gaping holes in our knowledge. If you're looking to start a new research program in the scholarship of teaching and learning arena, their lit review is worth checking out. 

 

Using the Course Workload Estimator, this is how my Intro Psych course breaks down.

 

I added up the total number of pages I’ve assigned students to read and divided that number by 11 for the number of weeks in the term. My students are reading a textbook with many new concepts. I want my students to not just survey or understand the material; I want them to engage with the material, “[r]eading while also working problems, drawing inferences, questioning, and evaluating.”

 

For writing assignments, I sampled what some of my better-performing students submitted last term, and on average, they wrote 27 pages of single-spaced text over the course of the term. I give my students application essay questions to answer, and that sounds the most like writing an “argument,” “[e]ssays that require critical engagement with content and detailed planning, but no outside research.” Students can revise whichever responses they would like, but it is not required ("minimal drafting"). Since students’ engagement while reading the text is part of their writing assignments, I manually adjusted the “hours per written page” to 2 hours. That’s about 30 minutes per essay question. Of course that’s an average. Questions that students find easier will require much less time than questions students find more difficult.  

 

I have a couple other assignments that should take about 2 hours total between them, so I entered 1 hour per assignment.

 

The estimated workload per the Course Workload Estimator? For my class that meets about 5 hours in class each week, students should dedicate about 10.69 hours to this course outside of class each week.

 

To be clearer with my students about my expectations, I just added the image below to my course FAQ along with this text:

About half of your out-of-class time will be spent reading the textbook and thinking about what you are reading (estimated at 5 pages per hour, that's about 5.5 hours per week). The other half of your out-of-class time will be spent responding to the write-to-learn assignment questions (estimated at about 30 minutes per question, that's about 5 hours per week) where each completed assignment, minus the text of the questions themselves, will average out to be approximately 3 single-spaced pages. 

 

Course workload estimate from the Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence

Outcomes