1. Course Planning

Recommendation 1.3: Workload
Explain the amount of work you are asking students to do, and how the time commitment fulfills the federal guidelines for course time.

Synopsis from Self-Review

Calibrating and communicating the workload of the course (at the level of overall credit hours as well as individual elements) helps students channel their time and intellectual effort towards what is most critical.

How to Put Into Practice

Transparency about workload expectations—including a strategic amount of two-way communication about students’ experience of the workload—goes a long way towards cultivating the shared understanding and trust that fuels a learning-focused course environment. Communicating time expectations for individual activities helps students organize their time and thereby focus on the core purpose of that activity.

Strategies for Calibrating Course Workload

  • Estimate the amount of time you think it should take students to complete activities under typical circumstances. Ask yourself how much time it should take an average student to complete major course activities (e.g. readings, problem sets, discussions postings, or quizzes), remembering that you work faster than your students. As a rough guideline, students may take 1.5 to 3 times as long as an instructor to complete a task. (So if a task takes you 30 minutes, assume undergraduate students will need 45-90). 
    • Be sure to think through all the potentially hidden steps involved (exchanging messages with groupmates, identifying and accessing assigned readings, understanding submission procedures, proofreading and peer review). Complex and group tasks may require substantially more than 3x longer.
    • A workload calculator such as Rice University’s Course Workload Estimator can offer more specific projections. It allows you to generate finer-grained time estimates based on different variables such as the type of work assigned (e.g., research writing vs. reflective writing) or the relative difficulty of an assigned reading. 
    • Talk about student workloads with TAs. They can provide useful perspectives based on their own experience, and may be in closer communication with students.
  • Complete a course map or course planning document (scroll down to view templates) to plan course content, activities, and assessments to ensure that they map onto credit hours.
  • Consider the current environment you are facing and build some “cushion” into your time estimates accordingly. Keep in mind that it takes time for students to learn new technologies and practices. If students need to consult instructional materials to understand course technology, add the time it takes to review these to your workload estimate. Students also need time to adjust to the rhythm of a course, especially when these vary substantially across different courses they are taking. For the first few weeks of term, consider extending your estimates by 10% to account for this.     
  • Ask for student feedback. This is particularly important during times of disruption when students may be facing unique challenges. The best way to determine the impact of these challenges on their workload is to reach out directly. The Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence program offers strategies for collecting feedback from students about their learning experience. Collecting feedback about workload does not mean catering to student demands. Instead, it involves gathering information for the purpose of making informed decisions (See Recommendation 1.5: Collecting Student Feedback)

Strategies for Communicating Expectations

  • Use sample language for syllabi from the Office of the Provost to explain credit hours and course workload.
  • Communicate expectations for individual activities. As you present work to students online, consider adding a description that communicates the amount of time you expect them to spend on an activity. 
    • Example: Please spend 15 minutes reflecting on the following article and share an important takeaway from it in a 3-4 sentence discussion post. 
  • Explain why you are having students engage in an activity, how the activity can contribute to their learning, and how it relates to the learning course outcomes or unit objectives.
  • Support students in managing their own time and study habits. For example, you might share study tips that apply well to your course or have students create a “Study Calendar” to map out their study time. See Recommendation 2.5: Academic & Learning Support for these and other ideas for reinforcing positive study strategies.

Additional Resources

Background Information

What is this?

Workload reflects what students need to do in order to achieve the course learning outcomes within the credit hours associated with the course.

Why is this important?

Calibrating and communicating the amount of work you are asking students to do is critical when students are encountering change and disruption in their learning spaces, as well as in the environment at large.

Where is this?

Examples include: a syllabus statement that explains how course activities map onto credit hours; assignment instructions that list time estimates for completion.

Success Factor 1: Course Planning

The amount of time a student spends learning reflects the university’s guidelines for credit hours (including lectures, discussion, reading, assignments, studying, etc.). The definition of a credit hour is based on federal rules and ensures students receive the enriching and engaging education they deserve without demanding more effort than is required.