On Course Workloads and Time Audits

New to my syllabi this semester are course workload estimates. This was something my new colleagues at Monmouth encouraged.

However, the timing for this is very providential. I ran a little experiment last semester with my Introduction to International Politics class at Wesleyan. Following the guidelines of Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence “Course Workload Estimator”, I conducted a time audit of my course. I was (somewhat pleasantly) surprised to see that the estimator’s feedback suggested I could actually assign more reading than I had in the past. So I tried it out.

At the end of the term, I then asked students to answer a question as to whether they felt the amount of time they ended up spending on the course was more than, roughly the same as, or less than, the expected number of coursework hours per week at Wesleyan. A clear majority of the students said that they had spent either the same amount of time or less than the expected amount. Overall, it was only a smallish minority that thought the workload was too high. Of course, all of this required that students make estimates at the very end of the semester while completing final projects and preparing for exams. So it may be hard to judge what the results mean overall. I took it to mean that I wasn’t too far off with where my syllabus should be, but that this will be an interesting thing to keep monitoring moving forward.

On estimating reading

It seems that the Rice University course workload calculator excels most with its estimates of reading assignments. As they note themselves, there is a reasonable amount of research on college reading and comprehension. So this generally seems like a good place to start. But there still is some room for instructor judgment when assessing workload. For instance, you must have some knowledge of the background of your students to understand whether concepts introduced in the course will be “new”. Here are some sample estimates:

A paperback book, with 450 words per page, and no new concepts, where the students’ purpose is to survey the material, will have an estimated reading rate of 67 pages per hour.

If you just change ONE of those variables, the reading rate can change drastically. For instance, if instead of survey, the student is to engage the reading (their highest level of interaction with text), then the estimated reading rate is only 17 pages per hour.

If you assign a textbook (with 750 words/page), that introduces many new concepts, and the student engages the text, then the rate drops to 5 pages per hour.

That is a dramatic difference!

On estimating writing

My own cursory review of the higher education literature and of Rice University’s research suggest we have no f-ing idea how long it takes students to research and write a research paper.

That really shouldn’t surprise us, since we academics typically have no idea how long it will take us to write our own papers (and books) and usually dramatically underestimate the time required.

Nonetheless, we have to start somewhere and Rice University at least can provide some rough general guidance. So, here is an estimate range from their website:

Writing 250 words per page (a normal double-spaced typewritten page), as a reflection or narrative, and no drafts, will take students 0.75 hours per page. That is the top speed they seem to think we should expect of students.

What might be the slowest speed? Given the same words-per-page, as a research paper, and with “extensive drafting”, they estimate our students may spend as much as 5 hours per page.

Some final thoughts for teachers

Rice University helpfully provides estimates for EXAMS and OTHER ASSIGNMENTS and can try to tabulate your total semester’s workload (although it is a little hard to do that if your reading and writing assignments vary). I highly recommend a visit to their website to judge at least what a typical week of your course might look like. At the end of the day, however, we each must know our own student population. The art of teaching requires we blend knowledge, and experience, and a feel for the classroom to best meet the learning needs of our students.

Some final thoughts for students

In case you are a student taking the time to read this, I have a final thought for you. Consider how much time you are devoting to your courses. For the colleges and universities where I have taught, the total average course time expected per week usually hovers around 11 to 12 hours. If you are taking 4 courses (what I have been used to so far in my own teaching experience), then that means your teachers are expecting you to spend close to 44 to 48 hours per week (including time in the classroom) on your courses. That is more work than a full-time job. Does that match your experience?

You also might wonder where those hour estimates come from. Ultimately, they are linked to how institutions are accredited and are based on standards set by the US Department of Education.

A Quick Look at Gabon’s Electoral Crisis

By CIA – CIA World Factbook, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=610267

For the past week, Gabon has been facing a major political crisis, sparked by disputed poll results. According to Reuters, incumbent President Ali Bongo was reported to have won with 49.80 percent of the vote. Challenger Jean Ping, in those official polls, had just missed the mark with 48.23 percent. Ping and his allies immediately began to protest the results, and Ping declared himself President last Friday (Reuters). They argue the result was rigged (Frontera News). The European Union’s election observers also have noted anomalies (La Jeune Afrique). Bongo has served as President since 2009, when he came into power following the death of his father, the previous President. The opposition candidate, Ping, once represented Gabon as a diplomat, including service as Chair of the African Union Commission (an interesting piece on his background is online at The Star). The week’s protests have been violent, resulting in a number of deaths (estimates vary widely, but most are well under 100) and over 1000 arrests (Reuters). The National Assembly building was set on fire last week (BBC) and there were reports of looting (Reuters). Global Voices has a useful roundup of some of these events and early reactions.

The seriousness of the crisis has attracted the attention of the international community. The US, EU, France (which has economic interests in this former colony) and others have urged transparency with the election results (Reuters). Today (September 6), the African Union announced its intention to act as mediator. Chad’s President Idriss Deby is expected to lead talks (Reuters).

My new book, now available in Hardback AND Kindle.

African Coalitions and Global Economic Governance

Cambridge University Press, 2016

[Cambridge] [Amazon] [Barnes and Noble]

African Coalitions and Global Economic Governance


The proliferation of international institutions with overlapping scope and authority over issue areas creates strategic dilemmas for all states. While African states are often considered marginalised in world politics and global markets, Michael Byron Nelson shows how coalitions can form a crucial part of African strategies to influence international institutions and achieve results. Building a bottom-up analysis of global governance, through legal analysis, content analysis, and in-depth interviews, Nelson illuminates institutional and coalition dynamics through case studies of three key areas – food safety, intellectual property, and agricultural trade. He highlights the difficulties encountered by coalitions attempting to navigate institutional systems, emerging from institutional thickness (increasing the number of institutions involved) and integration (increasing the formal linkages between those institutions). Finally, Nelson shows how increasing the hierarchy of an institutional system, by creating a focal point on a single institution, can make coordination easier for coalitions

Fall 2015 Notes

Classes are about to start!

This semester, you can find out more about my courses via the following websites (which are in the process of being updated this week).

International Law: http://internationallaw.site.wesleyan.edu/

Africa in World Politics: http://africanworldpolitics.site.wesleyan.edu/

My office hours are tentatively scheduled for Tuesdays, 11 am – 12 noon, and by appointment. I will add more hours as the rest of the semester’s schedule gets nailed down.

– Prof N.

Submitting essays: The jeopardy of just-in-time | Which MBA? | The Economist

Submitting essays: The jeopardy of just-in-time | Which MBA? | The Economist.

Those who handed in their work at least a day ahead of the deadline could expect a mean mark of around 64% (it didn’t make much difference if students submitted essays even earlier than that). Those who waited until the very last minute, however, saw their mean mark fall to 59%—which took them to a lower grade.

How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang | Alexandre Afonso

From: How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang | Alexandre Afonso.

With a constant supply of new low-level drug sellers entering the market and ready to be exploited, drug lords can become increasingly rich without needing to distribute their wealth towards the bottom. You have an expanding mass of rank-and-file “outsiders” ready to forego income for future wealth, and a small core of “insiders”  securing incomes largely at the expense of the mass. We can call it a winner-take-all market.


The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core  of insiders. Even if the probability that you might get shot in academia is relatively small (unless you mark student papers very harshly), one can observe similar dynamics.