From the Trenches #2: How Much Work Will College Courses Take?

The Lexington Herald-Leader recently ran an advertising supplement that purported to list ten things college professors wanted incoming freshmen to know.  I didn't necessarily agree with all ten, but one piece of advice offered by a UK chemist matched almost word for word the answer I give to students who ask: "How much work should I expect to put into your course if I want a good grade?"

Her answer started the same way mine does: "College is a full-time job," she said.  I agree: If you're a full-time student, you should approach it as a full-time job.

Neither answer may seem particularly helpful, because what students really want is a simple number: Exactly how much time should I expect to budget if I wish to succeed in a typical course?  Once you accept that a "full-time student" should be on the job full time, though, the answer calculates itself:

  1. How many hours per week does a full-time job demand?  The standard is 40 (even though few salaried professionals these days really get to spend so little time at work).
  2. How many courses does the typical full-time student take?  The range runs from 12-18 credit hours, but let's say 15, or roughly five courses.
  3. If you spread 40 hours of work over five courses, then you get your answer: A typical student in a typical 3-credit-hour course should budget about eight hours, or five hours of work outside of class each week.

Do I really think average college students are working full time at their coursework?  No, sadly, I know they are not ... far from it.  All you have to do is look at what students are reporting in their teaching evaluations when asked how much time they studied outside of the classroom.  Despite the tendency people have of overestimating how hard they've worked, few students claim that they've put in five hours.  For example, in my Fall 2011 American Government introduction, barely more than a quarter of my evaluators reported putting 4+ hours per week into their studies.

But that doesn't mean the rule of thumb is wrong.  Only a fifth of the students in that same PS 101 course earned an "A" grade (no secret, given that my grade distribution periodically pops up on the Internet).  There's no way to know for sure, but it's a good bet that many of those top students are the same ones who reported doing the expected amount of work!  This rough expectation -- five hours per week -- guides the choices I make designing my course.  A typical week in my syllabus might require about 30 pages of textbook reading, a handful of newspaper articles, and some study time.  Figure three hours for the text, even at the leisurely rate of ten pages per hour; one hour for perhaps a dozen (mostly short) articles; and an hour looking over notes or getting clarification on things they do not understand.  Students who meet the five-hour rule ought to be in good shape.

Of course, not every professor is going to calculuate things out the way I have.  (Can you tell I teach quantitative analysis to our graduate students?)  But I'm confident that, one way or the other, the average college professor ends up roughly where I am in terms of expectations.  Take my colleague from Chemistry ... She told the Herald-Leader supplement writer: "They should plan on two hours...outside of class for every one hour in a class."  In a literal sense, students spend 2.5 hours in class to earn three credit hours, and 2.5 x 2 = 5 hours.  Her answer's basically identical to mine!

As with so many questions about how to succeed at UK, there's really no right answer to how much time any one course will take any one student.  One undergraduate might be able to breeze through a course with little effort, because she already did a lot of the work in high school needed to acquire a set of skills, while the student sitting next to her might have slacked through the same high-school courses and will need to work harder to achieve the same results, and the next student in the row may be operating outside of her native language and therefore require lots of extra time to translate the words and concepts.  Any rule of thumb will have its limits.

But this question is asked so often in the trenches that I wanted to venture an answer: A typical student should budget at least 5 hours of study time per week for a typical 3-credit-hour college class.  If you cannot put in that amount of time, then you still may enroll in a course and do your best, but unless you're especially gifted then expect a lower grade.  And if you make the mistake common to a lot of beginning students, and act as though you're only on the job for the 12-18 hours when you're sitting in the classroom (treating the rest of your week as play time or as time to earn spending money), then you run the serious risk of becoming a statistic: percentage of students who receive a D, E, or W; percentage of students who do not earn a degree in four years; percentage of students who do not earn a degree in six years; percentage of students who do not return to UK after the summer.  Don't end up in one of those statistics!

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