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Detail from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Why Talk About Time?

How much time should students spend working in your course? The poet William Blake wrote, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” Eighteenth-century literature includes some of the longest published works in the English language, so my intuition of what is too much has been honed by innocent but terrible mistakes I’ve experienced as both student and teacher. This semester, a team of instructors asked me to help students to better manage their time in the course. This is the first of three blog posts about estimating how long students spend consuming content, doing homework, and otherwise engaging with the course. For your own teaching, I hope you’ll find something useful in the way I learned to talk about time.

In time-honored academic fashion, let’s begin by talking about what we won’t talk about. No one can calculate a single, correct workload for your class. We have an anchor in university policy—two hours of homework per hour in the classroom—but that anchor hasn’t made me feel less adrift when I’ve been lost at sea. Minutes of engagement are the university’s bluntest measurement of educational experience, and you have more nuanced questions than whether your course meets a statutory minimum. Instead, I encourage you to think about time to better understand how students experience your course.

  • Where are students spending time in your course?
  • Does that apportionment match your values and priorities?

Every student will spend time in a different way, but making some basic estimates can help you and your students to better navigate your course.

Understanding Student Experience

You might feel uncomfortable discussing how much work you assign. Do you worry that others will judge you heartless for assigning too much work or unserious for assigning too little? Like assigning grades, assigning work is something complex pretending to be simple. I’ve heard a lot of strong opinions but found very little consensus. Roughly estimating how much time students spend working in your course won’t tell you anything about your character as a teacher. Or, if it does, then it will only tell you that you cared enough to work for a better understanding of how your students learn.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned an instructor team that wanted to help their students better understand coursework time requirements. In future posts, I’ll discuss how I went about preparing time estimates for the course and the kinds of questions we used these estimates to explore. The faculty made some content adjustments based on my analysis, but the estimates also helped us to think about the student experience in other ways. For example, when a student opens a reading in iCollege, there’s no obvious way for the student to guess whether the reading will require thirty minutes or three hours. If you make workload more transparent to students, then you can eliminate discouraging surprises and help your students to succeed. Understanding time supports students in ways beyond simply adding or removing content from your course.

Takeaways & Reflections

  • We often worry about the time students are spending on coursework, but being an effective teacher is more nuanced than whether you assign too little or too much work.
  • Have you ever felt anxious about the workload in your class? What factors keep you from talking confidently and freely with your colleagues about this part of your teaching?
  • Understanding how your students are spending their time working for your course can help you to make strategic decisions to guide and support your students.
  • How do you imagine your students working through each part of a course module? Where do you or your students recognize that students are struggling? What does that struggle look like for a student sitting down to study?

If the thought of estimating student engagement with your course sounds impossible or prohibitively time consuming, do not fear! My next post will discuss methods for creating time estimates that are backed by research, can be tailored to your individual course, and make efficient use of your time.

Photo: Jared Jones
Jared Jones is a Learning Experience Designer at CETLOE. In his free time, he holds infinity in the palm of his hand and Eternity in an hour.