Course Workload: What’s Reasonable?

What is normal (not excessive, reasonable to expect) in a General Education class?

In a General Education course, properly calibrated for a group of student’s level of ability, it would be normal for faculty to expect students to utilize and demonstrate critical thinking and effective communication skills in order to meet the minimum acceptable standard for completing an assignment or a course.

It would be normal, in a properly calibrated course, for students to engage in the work of learning along the following lines:

  • Students should understand that it is normal to be working together in class, on topic, for the number of hours equal to the number of credit hours assigned to the course.  In addition, students should expect to do about 2-3 hours of work outside of class for every hour students are in class together. Taking those together, it would be normal, in a three (3) credit course, for a student to spend 9 hours a week engaged in doing the work necessary to achieve the learning outcomes of the course.
  • For a course with a lab, it would be normal to spend 2-3 additional hours engaged in solving the weekly lab problem.
  • When students are in engaged in courses where the delivery system is not organized by the standard semester, it would be normal to expect the work load for the course to require that the student engage in learning activities for 40-50 hours over the instructional term for each credit hour assigned to the course (class + preparation and demonstration time). (For a 3 credit class, it would be normal for students to spend 120-150 hours engaged in class related work over the term).

While there are a wide range of learning activities and a range of tempos by which students complete those activities,

  • It would be normal to expect students to read critically 10-15 pages (2500-4000 words) in an hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to compose 300-700 words of reflective writing to standard in an hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to research and compose to standard a research paper (essay with sources) at a rate of 100 words per hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to utilize 1-2 sources per page in a research paper. For those who like algebra, the equation might look like this: Number of Pages(Number of Sources X 2)= Normal.
  • It would be normal for students to spend 50-75% of the time together in class engaged  in active learning exercises that require them to collect and aggregate information (normally acquired outside of class) from one another and analyze it, either individually or collectively, in order to create knowledge for themselves.

Creating a common understanding among both faculty and students about what a reasonable workload is for a class has several advantages.

  • Faculty can evaluate the assignments they give and time frame in which they expect them to be done against some of the normal times it might take to complete the assignment.
  • If faculty are willing to commit to a shared set of criteria like these, will live by them when making assignments, and will communicate these expectations to students as the discuss assignments, it may have the effect of upgrading the overall educational culture of an institution. Some expect too little from their students and others too much. Evening that out might be beneficial for everyone.
  • Increasing workload from low levels to reasonable ones may increase student engagement in learning, but increasing workload beyond reasonable leads to diminishing returns in regard to student engagement and thus learning. If students trust faculty to make reasonable assignments, then perhaps students will be willing to engage the assignment.  This may be particularly true for reading in preparation for class.  I know that I have been guilty of making large reading assignments and then being frustrated that students didn’t read them.  After talking with students, I’ve come to discover that if they see 100 page a week reading assignments plus weekly writing assignments, they won’t read.  The load is too daunting.  By the standards above, I would be expecting 10 hours of reading and a couple of hours of writing a week in addition to class time.  That’s probably enough over the top to decrease student engagement in the course…exactly the opposite of what I want to do.

All of this is the fruit of putting together things I’ve heard over the course of my teaching career and then thinking though nuts and bolts and implications.  I think it would be great for folks to collect some real data in order to firm up the data on how much one can read and write in an hour in order to make the “reasonable” expectations even more reasonable by conforming them to findings drawn from a larger data set.

Tribal Leadership in Education

Faculty members make up a tribe.  Students make up a tribe.  It may be that the students and faculty in a course make up a tribe.  If you want to know how to make a tribe really work, then it is imperative that you read David Logan, John King, and Hallee Fischer-Wright’s Tribal Leadership.  In brief, the authors say this:

There are five types of tribes that identify themselves by the way they talk about their place in the world, which in turn indicates the way they interact with their world. According to Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright, these tribes are in fact people who live in a worldview that can be upgraded one step at a time toward the goal of a self-actualized community.  They categorize the tribal stages as follows:

  1. Stage 1 tribes believe and say things like “Life sucks.”  People in such tribes are often raging individuals who don’t think resorting to violence to get what they want is a problem.
  2. Stage 2 tribes believe that the world is made up of the “haves” and the “have-nots.”  Members of stage 2 tribes believe that they are among the have-nots and that their life “sucks” but they see all sorts of people around them whose lives don’t.  If you ask them why their life sucks, they claim to be victims of the oppression impressed upon them by the “haves.”
  3. Stage 3 tribes believe and say things like “I’m Great! (and you’re not).”  Members of stage 3 tribes are individuals on the make.  They are working hard to demonstrate to themselves and others that they are competent, in fact they want to be the most competent person in their line of work.  It seems amazing that such folks can live in proximity to one another, but stage 3 tribal members are willing to get along with other stage 3 folks as long as the other has a different (even if subtle) area of expertise.
  4. Stage 4 tribes are made of people who build teams that claim “We are Great! (and they are not).”  Stage 4 tribal members have networks of communication that rely on groups of 3 (triads).  Groups that work in this state are about 30% more productive than Stage 3 tribes.
  5. Stage 5 tribes, the rare few, live in a magical world in which members claim that “Life is Great!” and don’t see others groups as competitors.  They are out to change the world as we know it for the better.

How does this apply to education.  First, listen to your students.  What do they say?  I taught a group of students who had failed their college orientation class (go figure!).  I was stunned by the way they talked about themselves in context of the academic universe.  For the most part they existed in a Stage 2 tribe.  They weren’t succeeding, but it wasn’t their fault…that prof, that staff member, that….  A few of them were willing to make the cultural shift to Stage 3, but most were not…they were on their way out the door.  The only thing holding them to the university was their connection to the athletic program.  Maybe they were a Stage 3 athelete…I don’t know.

Many of my students are at Stage 3.  They are competent students.  They know how to learn, at least learn enough to get the grade they want without too much stress.  Set the bar, show it to them, and they’ll figure out how to jump over it.  Some of them are even highly competitive.  They get their self-esteem from being able to say, “I’m great,” and, while looking around the room, muttering under their breath, “(and your not).”  Faculty, and I’ve been one of them, figure out that some students can be highly motivated by messing with their “I’m great” self-image.  Grade them down a little and they get stressed and work harder.  Notice here the subtle claim by the faculty member…”I’m great, dear student, and, well, your not.”  According the Logan, King and Fischer-Wright, Stage 3 tribal members exist in a symbiotic relationship with Stage 2 tribal members.  In traditional education, the Sage-on-Stage needs those adoring and over-awed students who fawn after him or her…and the teacher’s pet needs the dumb kids.

According to the authors of Tribal Leadership, a few pockets in academia are conducive to Stage 4 tribal development, particularly scientific research groups.  For them, the problems are too big for any one person to solve them, so a team of three or more is necessary to get the job done.  This becomes the basis for the potential development of Stage 4 tribes.  Of course, low on the totem pole grad students in a research group answer to Stage 3 senior grad students, who are themselves caught in between 3 and 4 as they relate to the god-like PI.

Stage 5…Life is Great. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a thing in education…maybe Jesus on the cross…maybe Paul’s “to live is Christ to die is gain”… I don’t know.  But those aren’t really examples from education, are they?

The goal of 21st century skills proponents, though they might not know it, is to help students achieve Stage 4 tribal status.  According to Tribal Leadership, that’s not going to be possible until those students not only pass through, but own and discover the inadequacy of stages 2 and 3 tribes. Finding ways to get students from Stage 2 to Stage 3 is imperative to getting them to Stage 4. Is that a too linear way of thinking?  I don’t know.

I think it might be interesting to explore how upgrading tribal cultures among both faculty and students might be the real goal of 21st century education.

More on this later….

Upgrading Educational Culture: Rhee Plans Shake-Up of Teaching Staff, Training – washingtonpost.com

Michelle Rhee highlights a good practice for achieving educational excellence: train teachers to teach.  She’s proposing to do this by 1) providing new teachers with a competent mentor whose task is to help the new teacher become competent, 2) only retaining teachers who demonstrate that in fact they can teach effectively, 3) making decisions based on evidence of results, and 4) supporting teachers with further training that helps them use best practices based on good research to guide teaching practice.

Here are some excerpts from the story in the Washington Post.

“[District of Columbia Education Chancelor Michelle] Rhee plans to move the District away from the regimen of courses and workshops that have defined continuing education for teachers. Borrowing from best practices in surrounding suburban districts, she is building a system of school-based mentors and coaches to help instructors raise the quality of their work. She also wants to import a nationally prominent Massachusetts consulting firm with a reputation for improving teachers’ skills.

“But budget uncertainties, labor tensions and the timetable for the program’s rollout have sparked questions from teachers’ advocates about its effectiveness. At the same time, Rhee has dropped the school system’s direct support for instructors seeking certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a rigorous one- to three-year teacher development program, citing a lack of evidence that the training improves student achievement.

“Rhee’s five-year plan flatly stated: “There is no comprehensive professional development program for teachers.”

“George Parker, president of the teachers union, said this is especially true for first-year teachers, who sometimes struggle. “Great teachers don’t come into the system pretty much as great teachers,” he said. “They are developed. It’s going to take a teacher around three years to hit a stride.”

“Under Montgomery [County]’s program, operated jointly by the school system and the teachers union, novice instructors are paired with master teachers who visit them in the classroom regularly and monitor their progress. Within the first five years on the job, most enroll in The Skillful Teacher, a program of six day-long sessions devised by Jon Saphier of the Massachusetts-based Research for Better Teaching program.

“Saphier said the program fosters teachers’ belief in their power to lift student achievement despite conditions outside school.

via Rhee Plans Shake-Up of Teaching Staff, Training – washingtonpost.com.

It looks like the Montgomery County school system, and under Rhee maybe D.C.,  is upgrading its tribal culture, as per the model articulated by David Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright in Tribal Leadership (henceforth TL).  whether they know it or not.   To become successful, new teachers, who in their gut feel overwhelmed and incompetent, need to develop the skills necessary to be a competent classroom teacher in a hurry. They learned about some of those habits and practices in college, but they didn’t really learn them, because the were taught them in a largely de-contextualized environment.  Pairing the new teacher with a master teacher helps upgrade them from stage 2 (my life sucks)  to stage 3 (I’m Great) on the TL scale.  The Master Teachers, if they are forming teams to promote system-wide best practices that get results, then these competent teachers are upgrading to TL stage 4 (We Are Great).

I wonder if upgrading the culture of the teachers translates into upgrading the culture of students.  The last sentence about Jon Saphier seems to suggest that maybe it does.  That goes to the expectation of nation-wide education reform…except in unique situations, only competent teachers can help make competent students.

With the emphasis on 21st century skills (teamwork, critical thinking, communication, etc), it will take this kind of teamwork to model for teachers what they want their students to be doing in class.

So What’s a College Student Supposed to Do in College, Anyway?

Ask a group of 18 year olds that question and one might get answers such as “get a degree so that I can be a xxxx,” “have fun and meet new friends,” “find a mate,” and the more self aware of them might say, “grow up.”  When Arthur Chickering thought about student development, he created a set of ideas known commonly as Chickering’s Seven Vectors.  Below are Chickering’s vectors and what they might mean for a person trying to figure out what a college student should be doing in college.

Chickering asserted that while in college, students continue to develop into competent adults along seven pathways.  They learn to

  1. develop intellectual, interpersonal and physical competence
  2. manage emotions
  3. move through autonomy to interdependence
  4. develop mature interpersonal relationships
  5. establish identity
  6. developing purpose
  7. develop integrity

Further discussion of Chickering’s Seven Vectors can be found in Education and Identity (Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education Series).

If Chickering’s observations are right, then students who reap the personal benefits of a college education  can expect to have some uncomfortable experiences and personal discoveries.  They can expect to discover that

  • They are not as smart as or as good as they thought they were (based on their high school sense of themselves).  In college, thought, they get to become even better thinkers (more analytical, better informed, wiser), savier and more mature in their relationships and able to relate to different sorts of people, and perhaps even more physically skilled as they have opportunity to participate in and learn new skills through college activities such as choirs, art classes, and  intramural sport programming (how many high schools had classes in racketball or backpacking?).
  • The new situations, the new environment, the new demands of college, in which they don’t have the same kind of family and friend network, makes for some rough emotional times.  Learning to recognize the range of emotions that situations can evoke and control them, channeling emotional energy into productive pathways, all by oneself can be really tough.  Many students coming to college have experienced a couple of different kinds of emotional environments.  Some have been told how to feel and what to do with those feelings by family and friends. College requires them to experience emotions and figure out what to do with them for themselves.  Others have been cut slack by parents and teachers regarding their emotional outbursts.  Many believe that adolescents are supposed to have nearly uncontrollable emotional drama and that it’s best to let them emote.  College students learn that emotional drama is counterproductive to successful college life, but that the college experience can provide them support and opportunities to figure out how to develop a more mature emotional outlook.
  • Some students who come to college are good at school, others aren’t.  Some students know how to be themselves, others have lived like chameleons. College provides opportunities for students to become individuals who know that they are personally competent even without lots of people telling them they are (or in spite of it). It also provides opportunities for students who are or become personally competent individuals academically to move to the next level…to learn to rely on others, building teams of academically competent people, to accomplish tasks too large for one person to accomplish.
  • In college, students from lots of different backgrounds come to live and learn in close proximity to each other.  Faculty encourage active participation and critical thinking in classes.  Some students find that their view of the world is not shared by everyone.  Developing mature interpersonal relationships requires students to figure out how to tolerate and appreciate those different from them.  Maturity in interpersonal relationships also means that students have to figure out how to develop healthy intimate relationships, with appropriate boundaries.  Girls and Guys Gone Wild, stalkers, passive-aggressives, possessors, and other “bad news” kinds of improperly bounded relationships are legendary parts of college life.  Good colleges help students develop mature interpersonal relationships that value individual worth and promote relational health.
  • Unstrung from the family social network, college students often struggle with “Who am I?” questions in profound ways.  In college they often put on different kinds of identities in order to explore the comfort of the fit.  An oft heard saying is that a college student will change his/her major at least three times in their career.  That can be scary, but it’s natural and its just the tip of the iceberg of a whole gamut of issues that students have to figure out for themselves that include “(1) comfort with body and appearance, (2) comfort with gender and sexual orientation, (3) sense of self in a social, historical, and cultural context, (4) clarification of self-concept through roles and life-style, (5) sense of self in response to feedback from valued others, (6) self-acceptance and self-esteem, and (7) personal stability and integration” (Chickering and Reisser, 1993, p. 49).
  • Who will I be? is another question that seems urgent and alarming to many college students.  This goes back to changing the major three times or more.  One of the tasks of college in terms of developing a sense of one’s purpose revolves around participation in experiential learning opportunities, service projects, and developing networks of friends while in college that will continue to be important to one’s life network in the future. Faculty who actively mentor students contribute significantly to helping students discover and resolve how they will answer the question of who they will be “when they grow up.”
  • Developing integrity is one of the most important things that students do in college.  Most come to college with a received view of world.  Their parents played a significant role in shaping that worldview.  Most leave college with one similar to what they came in with.  However, part of the college experience at a good college is to put that worldview through the fire and refine it.  College should help students learn to think openly and critically about ideas.  Being willing to change one’s mind in response to sound, evidence based reasoning, even if it means giving up something one has held dear, is the mark of a mature person and a person who will be able to make the world a better place.  A college education should provide students with opportunities to learn how to formulate good questions, gather sound information, analyze truth claims, identify assumptions and control for presuppositions, identify (develop) and apply useful conceptual tools,  see the problem from other points of view, draw conclusions based on reasoning informed by this process and identify the implications that those conclusions have for a persons beliefs and actions.  In addition to being able to think for oneself, which is fundamental to the well-being of a free society, one needs the ability make decisions within an good ethical framework…one that is less egocentric than most adolescents initially possess.  In college, students learn that doing what is right means acting in a manner that values others, builds rather than destroys relationships, values life, encourages and takes individual responsibility and participates in the development of a just society.

So what’s a college student supposed to be doing in college?  Growing up is part of it, learning to think, having healthy fun, making mistakes and learning how not to make them again, learning how to be a whole and real person, learning how to be true to oneself and one’s beliefs while valuing and respecting others are other parts.  College students have their work cut out for them, and those who design college experiences do to.

Novice teachers trained under new program outperform veterans in some subjects

Learning any good practice occurs best done with awareness of why it is immediately relevant and when one gets feedback immediately.  I suspect those things account for why the Teach For America alternative certification program works best.

Teach For America is a national program that places high-performing college graduates in low-income rural and urban schools for a minimum of two years. It has a particularly large presence in the New Orleans area, with about 350 members currently teaching.

In science, The New Teacher Project graduates performed about as well as the average experienced teacher, the study found. In social studies, experienced teachers outperformed the alternative program’s graduates.

Gains for the alternative program’s teachers were particularly large in math, while evidence they outperformed experienced teachers in language arts and reading was more modest.

via Novice teachers trained under new program outperform veterans in some subjects – Breaking News from New Orleans – Times-Picayune – NOLA.com.

A few things I noticed here are that these teachers are good at school (high-performing college graduates).  They are at Stage 3 on the Tribal Leadership scale.  That means that hey really want to succeed at what they do and know how to learn to be successful.

I suspect that they want to be excellent teachers and make a difference in the lives of their students.  They are passionate about school.  The social studies teachers aren’t saying “I want to be a xxxx coach and teach history” as too many social studies candidates are wont to say.

Wikigate: A Wikipedia-Based Learning Activity

Wiki-gate: (v) an activity by which students begin reading a Wikipedia article, identifying and recording relevant information from the article and the begin following wordlinks or other links, repeating the activity, in an effort to aggregate information into a network of information.

Why? Students on campuses where laptops are prevalent often aren’t focused on the task at hand in class but instead distracted by social networking, youtube, etc. Faculty complain and students admit that they don’t read textbooks. Thus, finding a way to leverage student computer use and increase time on task should reap some learning benefits. Wikigation gives students an opportunity to use Wikipedia to aggregate information on the assigned topic.

I imagine doing this in two formats. For small classes (less than 30) assign students a topic for discussion and a starting wikipedia page. Starting at that page, they surf Wikipedia following links (paths of desire) and aggregating information they find along the way. At some point along the way, each student needs to read a discussion page in order to see some of the debate over content by page creators and maintainers.  Each student will then summarize her/his findings indicating the most interesting, useful or significant parts. These summaries will serve as the foundation for continued class discussion.

In a large class, students will share their knowledge with fellow group members. Groups will discuss individual finding and synthesize them into a report that summarizes their findings. Group oral reports can then be used either to engage the class in further discussion or as the basis for a quick mini-lecture to tie loose strands together.

As a follow-up activity, students will write a short essay synthesizing the knowledge gleaned from the topic…a learning log perhaps.