How much time should you require students to work outside class?

November 1, 2016

 College web sites, orientation leaders, and “how to succeed in college” books often tell students they should expect to spend 2-3 hours per week studying for each hour they spend in a classroom.

  Where does this number originate? What kinds of preparation and study time do you demand from your students based on the work you assign? Is the amount of time students spend completing these activities a “good investment” for learning? That is, do the activities promote meaningful engagement with skills and content you want students to learn?

  What is a credit hour and where did it come from?

 In 1906, the Carnegie Foundation defined “high school preparation” as part of its efforts to define what counted as a “college,” assuming colleges only admitted students with adequate high school preparation. The Foundation extended these standards to higher education and defined the credit hour in terms of contact hours, the amount of time students spent in class with an instructor. Thus, a 3 credit hour course requires students to spend 3 hours per week in class over a 15-week semester. University calendars and class schedules are driven by calculations driven by the Carnegie credit hour, making adjustments each year to account for meeting times cancelled by holidays. The Carnegie Foundation is silent about how much time students should devote to study and preparation for class.

  The U. S. Department of Education (2008) states that institutions in the United States typically award 3 credit hours for academic work (lectures or seminars) that requires 3 contact hours per week during a semester (the Carnegie credit hour) and requires 2 hours of student preparation time for each hour spent in class.

  How much time do course readings, assignments, and exam preparation require of students?

 The Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University created a web-based tool that will estimate the work load imposed by reading assignments, writing assignments, other assignments, and preparation for exams (Barre & Esarey, 2016). The tool adjusts estimated times required for reading and writing for assignments of varying levels of difficulty. Dense readings that present many new concepts require longer reading time than work written for novices. Students can skim content and identify main ideas in less time than they need for close reading, to engage with the new concepts, or to develop deep understanding. Students require less time to write a contribution to a discussion thread than to write multiple drafts of a paper presents an argument based on a careful analysis of evidence.

  The authors of the tool describe the assumptions underlying their time estimates in a blog posting on the Rice CTE site. They also describe strategies for adjusting the time demands imposed by work you assign in your class.

  How can we make sure study time promotes learning? Develop learning activities that promote the learning goals for your course.

  Backward design entails identifying learning goals, selecting learning activities that support those goals, and developing assessments that evaluate success in achieving those goals. Give some thought to the learning goals supported by assigned readings, practice problems, projects, papers, and exams. If the activities do not support course goals, either by providing meaningful practice enabling you to assess student achievement, why ask your students to spend time on them? If students report that they studied for long periods of time but did not do well on a test, they may have used their time on ineffective learning activities. Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch- Römer (1993) distinguish between “practice” (repetition of skills already learned) and “deliberate practice” (activities that develop and refine new skills). Design learning activities that promote deliberate practice to ensure that the time students engage in study helps them learn.



 Barre, E., & Esarey, J. (2016). How much should we assign? Estimating out of class work load. Reflections on Teaching & Learning: The CTE Blog.

 Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.

  Silva, E., White, T., & Toch, T. (2015). The Carnegie Unit: A century-old standard in a changing education landscape. Stanford, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. []

  U.S. Network for Education Information (2008). Structure of the U.S. Education System: Credit Systems. US Department of Education []


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