7 Design: Total Work Hours

One of the conversations that kept coming up with students was about the variability of expectations for students in different courses. Yes, they all had 3 hours of live class time or equivalent, but expectations outside that time varied wildly from one course to another. You could see the bewilderment in student’s faces in this conversation. No one had explained to them why there was so much more work in one class or another or, in many cases, why they were doing the work they were doing.

In a face to face environment, we imagine the classroom hours that we have to teach, and then add on the activities and assignments after that. We have three ‘contact hours’ and then students have other work to do. A contact hour, however, is a constraint that is applied to the learning process because of the organizational need to have people share a space in a building. It’s a need brought on by scheduling, by finding place for people to be in a room.

Also called a credit hour, (particularly for American universities) university tradition has it that, from a workload perspective, every in class hour a student is meant to do at least 2 (in some cases 3) hours of study outside of class. For a full load of five classes, that’s 45 to 60 Total Work Hours for each student per week, per term.

Now that we’re teaching online, we don’t have to worry about scheduling in the same way. Maybe we’re not even doing synchronous classes. How do we decide how much work to give students? 3 hours of videos plus 6 hours of readings? What about other assignments? How much work do we want them to do on those assignments?

I’m not suggesting you need to give students 6 to 12 hours of work a week, workload is very much something that is under faculty control in most institutions. I’m saying that this is how our current system was designed. If you have two 90 minute f2f/live classes a week, you have some expectation that students are reading something, working on a paper, or doing something else outside of class.

Who says we’re even allowed to do that?

Every institution is different, and I highly advise you to check with your local people in case you have specific guidelines that apply to your school or department.

At the end of the day, outside of those guidelines, you are the arbiter of what happens in your classroom. Let’s go with 6 Total Work Hours as a sample number to think through what we might do.

Scaffolding to 6 TWHs – Activity Method

Those 6 total work hours are going to work out to 90 hours of work over an average term of 15 weeks(the Carnegie unit, the ultimate foundation of how we calculate student work, says 120 hours). We, however, have chosen to imagine that we have 90 hours to work with over the term for a course. How do you want to break that down from a student perspective? It’s going to be drastically different for different courses and styles. But whatever you’re teaching, keep trying to think about it from the perspective of what a student is actually going to do.

Simple break down (not quite 90, yes i know)

Watch 3 hours of video* – 5 hours
Read articles – 20 hours
Listen to lectures – 15 hours
Talk with other students in a group – 15 hours
Write reflections about group chat – 7.5 hours
Respond to other people’s reflections – 7.5 hours
Work on a term paper – 10 hours
Do weekly quizzes – 3 hours
Write take home mid-term – 3 hours
Write take home final – 3 hours

A thousand variations of this might be imagined, and there are certainly some of these activities that are going to take less/more time depending on the contexts of each individual student. But imagine being a student (particularly a first year student) and getting a breakdown like this to help you see what you’re supposed to be doing.

There are two main goals to thinking in terms of total work hours. One is to help you think through how much work you imagine students are going to be doing. The other is to make it clear to the students what your expectations are. Those expectations vary, sometimes wildly, from one course or program to another. Making it clear to students is going to give them a much better sense of what ‘being a good student’ is in your class.


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Engaging Students in an Online Era Copyright © by David Cormier; Ghanem Ghanem; and Brandon Mailloux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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