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GreyMatter - Still Learning

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Just how much studying do students do?

For a few years, our MSc students told us that they were stressed by the amount of work they were expected to do in their second semester. We carefully schedule all the coursework assignments we give them so that they are not due at the same time in an effort to help students balance their workload. Because of this, the initial reaction of most staff was that students weren't managing their time very well and were leaving things to the last minute. Yet their complaints were very real and we were seeing even good students presenting for pastoral support with very real symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Our second year undergraduate students started telling us the same thing about their second semester, and again the initial reaction of most staff was to blame the students for poor time management. Yet when I stepped back to look at the situation in more detail, it became apparent that most of the courses being taken in the second semester by these two groups were assessed solely by single large coursework assignments. We try to be helpful to students by specifying an expected amount of time that it will take them to complete the coursework, expressed as a minimum-maximum range. When I looked across the courses to see the whole picture, and considered the expected effort and the actual amount of time we were giving students to do the work, it turned out we were expecting students to be spending 60 to 70 hours a week studying for these courses. No wonder they were feeling stressed and burnt out! Our expectations were completely unrealistic.

I think many of us try to help students out by indicating how much effort they should put into different aspects of our course. It is easy to state the amount of class time (lectures, seminars, practical labs, etc) that students will attend, and also the amount of time consumed by fixed-time assessments such as exams. In the UK, we assume that each credit requires 10 hours of student effort, so a typical 20 credit module requires 200 hours of student work. Once we've accounted for class-time and exams, we assume that the rest of the time is free for students to work on all the other things we give them (formative and summative coursework assignments, directed reading, etc) and that these can all be achieved within that 200 hour timeframe. But can they? And just how much time do students actually spend studying our courses? Do we actually know? When I try to estimate how long it will take a student to carry out an assignment or read a textbook, is my estimate accurate? I can probably do those things faster than students who are coming to the subject material for the first time, so if I base the estimates on my own experience they are likely to be wrong.

I was interested to come across a blog post from Rice University this week which discuss just this issue and provides a handy Course Workload Estimator tool to help academics get a better feel for the actual amount of work that students put into their studies on a course. You can enter into the tool the type of course activities you are expecting students to engage in (exams, assignments, directed reading) and it will calculate an estimate of the weekly workload which that imposes on students. The tool didn't really align very well to what we do - for instance, it assumes the maximum amount of time a student can spend on a coursework assignment is 50 hours and this is perhaps because the US higher education systems assumes more frequent, shorter assignments whereas some of our courses have some large project assignments which can take up to 100 hours. You can still use the tool to gain an approximation, or use the detailed information in the blog post on how the estimates are created to build your tool more suited to your particular circumstances.

If you want to get a better idea of just how much time students are likely to spend studying for your course each week then the Course Workload Estimator blog post is definitely worth a read.