27 August 2012

Getting Students to Understand Workload

Last week, Jill Rooney published an excellent post on questions students should never ask. She duly noted the general principle that there is no such thing as a stupid question, a principle that, having worked at Disneyland while an undergraduate, I know to be false: "What time is the nine o'clock parade?" is a stupid question. The rest, however, is excellent, mainly because the questions boil down to questions that students should ask themselves.

Today she followed that up with an equally useful post on questions students should ask. It includes a question that I pose to all of my students at the beginning of the semester:

Students frequently don't quite get the time required for a course; the refrain of "this isn't the only class I'm taking" is all too common. To help them understand that, I work out a detailed time budget for the course, using the three-to-one rule of thumb. That's 135 hours total for a standard three-credit course at my institution. For my Introduction to Comparative Politics course this fall, the budget looks like this:

NumberTime EachTotal Time
Class Meetings281.542
Final Exam Meeting122
Additional Readings90.54.5
Lynch Reading11212
Current Events16116
Country Study12020
Group Paper12020
Office Hours20.51

That forms the basis for a section on my syllabus:


According to the accreditation standards that validate your degree as a legitimate one, to receive three semester credit hours requires 135 hours of study, including not more than 45 hours in class. In this course, study hours are budgeted as follows: Class meetings (44 hours), Readings (41.5 hours), Assignments (48.5 hours), Office Hour Consultations (1 hour).
When I go over the syllabus, I make clear that 135 hours is a non-negotiable standard, and students should expect to do poorly if they can't put in the required time. If their time commitments don't permit that, I suggest that they should consider cutting back on either their commitments or their expectations for performance.

Since I started doing that (back when I was a full-time faculty member rather than a bean counter—but they're such glorious beans that tell us so much!) I found that  I receive fewer complaints about the workload, and when I did they were specific things that I needed to respond to, e.g., "We can't get this assignment done in the time you think it will take us." That's especially good to me, as I tend to think that most students who complain about seemingly trivial things usually either have a legitimate concern but can't articulate it in relation to legitimate standards, or they have unrealistic expectations. This solves both of those concerns.