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Estimating Student Workload for Your Courses

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As the start of the fall term approaches, many ProfHacker readers are designing or revising course syllabi. Among the challenging decisions that instructors face in creating syllabi is the question of how much reading, writing, and other work to assign each week.

The federal definition of course credit hours assumes a minimum of “two hours of out-of-class student work per week for a semester hour.” According to this metric, a student should assume at least six hours of out-of-class work per week for each 3-credit course.

But as instructors (who were also former students) know, different kinds of assignments demand different kinds of time and attention. Different kinds of texts may require different reading speeds, and assignments that draw on new skills will take more time than those that are already familiar. Individual learning styles and abilities will also impact the amount of time students need to complete assigned work.

Rice University faculty Elizabeth Barre and Justin Esarey have developed an online Course Workload Estimator tool to help faculty better calculate what they are expecting from their students in a particular course. As Barre explains in the accompanying essay How Much Should We Assign? Estimating Out of Class Workload, “there is very little research about the amount of time it takes the average college student to complete common academic tasks.” Barre and Esarey draw on existing research on reading speed and comprehension, as well as a study of students’ self-reported time spent on writing assignments. They explain in detail the calculations that go into their workload estimations, noting that their tool allows for manual adjustments as well.

For example, when inputting the amount of required reading into the Course Workload Estimator, you are given options for estimating the page density (reading paperbacks vs academic monographs), the number of new concepts introduced in the reading, and the purpose of the reading (from surveying the topic to deeply engaging with it).  These factors help produce a more accurate estimation of student effort required than a simple count of page numbers alone.

Barre and Esarey suggest that many faculty underestimate how much time it would take students to complete all the reading and assignments for the course. Student learning can be improved, and faculty frustration decreased, with clearer communication about course workload expectations. This estimator tool is a great step in that direction.

How do you estimate student workload in the courses you teach? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Ryan Hyde]

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