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.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. brinticus
    Mar 10, 2009 @ 18:04:35

    You know, I wish somebody had given me this about 13 years ago. Like you, I had to work it all out inductively, but there are a few things I was never so sure of. Here’s a couple I never did figure out, but which I appreciate you sharing: (1) 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. (2) It would be normal to expect students to utilize 1-2 sources per page in a research paper. I will now make this my official estimate.

    I am less enamored by the 50-75% active learning ratio you purport. It seems to assume that the other students are worth hearing and helpful to their peers. I suspect this is true at top-level institutions, but at institutions with substantial provisional admits or with low quality students, it tends to morally and (or, and thus) cognitively drag down the good students who recognize they’ve been paired with cro-mags.


  2. dwilliams5
    Mar 10, 2009 @ 20:27:11

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m fairly confident in those estimates based on anecdotal surveys of students, but they deserve some more formal testing.

    On the 50-70% active learning ratio, I think it might be like playing sports. If you were explain to a group of people how to play a sport but then only put the natural athletes on the field while leaving the clutzes, the small-fries, the uncoordinated and the weak on the bench, I don’t think they have much chance to learn how to play. At the end of the season, they won’t be much more than klutzes, etc. If they get played, though, if they get to try week after week in front of the fans (failing a few times and succeeding a few times), it might just happen that the light turns on and they learn how to play the game. Some may even commit themselves to the game. Certainly not all will.

    I think having to do the mental gymnastics of talking through it, solving the problems, doing the simulations is like that. The real problem for me is holding them accountable to high standards of action…letting them fail but being mindful enough to engineer enough successes and rewarding that success sufficiently that they don’t just give up. I don’t do that well enough yet. Furthermore, you might be right…some may not try and some may not be able to accomplish it, but I can’t help holding out some hope.

    I think that it might be worth enlisting the good students to help the weaker students. For me, I never really learned anything very well until I had to teach it myself. I’ve heard my good and reflective students say the same thing when I make them “teach” their fellows.

    Maybe there are different kinds of active learning exercises for students at different levels of ability. But now this is getting complex.

    Thanks for encouraging me to think more about this.


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