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.

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.

Scheduling with Students: youcanbook.me

Update via Jack Dougherty:

Updated on February 26, 2015: The friendly folks at YouCanBook.Me tell me that the “On Duty” feature (which displays my office hours, as described below) now requires a paid premium-level subscription OR a free non-profit account. Users who log in with an .edu email address automatically qualify for a free non-profit account, or you can request one by visiting their Non-Profit help page. Also, for more up-to–date instructions, see also YouCanBook.Me’s own tutorial on using the “On Duty” (aka “office hours”) feature.


I have used a number of different websites over the years to streamline appointment scheduling with students. Unfortunately, whenever I find something that seems to work (Tungle.me or “Google Appointments”) they end up going out of business.

So, my current implementation involves yet another niche website that I hope will last a bit longer. It also involves a set of instructions which, though lengthy, provide for a very effective synchronization with my Google Calendar.

Here is the service: http://youcanbook.me/

Here are the instructions: http://commons.trincoll.edu/jackdougherty/2012/12/16/youcanbookme/

And here is my current implementation (this is active so don’t set-up an appointment with me unless you need to!): http://michaelbnelson.youcanbook.me/

Thanks to the African Student Association!

I just wanted to send out a quick THANKS! to the African Student Association. Saturday evening they held their annual cultural event. This year it was titled “Ariya: The Beats of Africa”. At the end of the event I was extremely surprised to discover they had an award for me! Both Professor Alice Hadler and myself were honored for our support to the African Student Association. As a professor, this is one of the greatest things that can happen: to have your students honor you in this way. So Thanks!

Why college works

College at Risk – The Chronicle Review – by Andrew Delbanco (may be behind a firewall)

Delbanco takes issue with the instrumental view of education that we see in policy statements, such as the idea that education is about producing “a work force that’s productive and competitive” (former President Bush).

But in several important respects, the American college is a unique institution. In most of the world, students who continue their education beyond secondary school are expected to choose their field of specialization before they arrive at university. In America there has been an impulse to slow things down, to extend the time for second chances and defer the day when determinative choices must be made. When, in 1851, Herman Melville wrote in his great American novel Moby-Dick that “a whaleship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” he used the word “college” as a metaphor for the place where, as we would say today, he “found himself.”

He mentions that the trend towards inclusion in American higher education has also been a unique contribution, including the “California plan”, which unfortunately is under attack.

He also argues that it might be hard to preserve the liberal arts experience that is so special:

One of the difficulties in making the case for liberal education against the rising tide of skepticism is that it is almost impossible to persuade doubters who have not experienced it for themselves. The Puritan founders of our oldest colleges would have called it “such a mystery as none can read but they that know it.”

There is a lot more to his defense of the American liberal arts tradition and I recommend it. As he notes, we are under a lot of pressures to change, but there is much that deserves preservation.

The past fall’s teaching

I’m not yet done grading but her are some of the highlights from this past fall’s teaching and advising:

  1. Just finished teaching two courses, Africa in World Politics and Introduction to International Relations.
    • My students in my IR course wrote some fantastic research and policy papers. One of the stronger policy papers examined US food aid policy options vis-a-vis North Korea. Reviewing many of the obstacles and some of the bad experiences of the past, she suggests that the best idea out there might be to provide information and technology that is targeted for improving food production. These are resources that are not
    • I am still reading through my Africa in World Politics research papers, so I’ll just mention some of the interesting questions they are asking:
      • How has the international Islamic community influenced the development of Islamic law in northern Nigeria?
      • How have African diplomats and ambassadors been treated by Western nations, and how is that treatment related to the broader relationships and political dynamics between African and Western states?
      • How did colonialism differentially impact political cultures in Libya and Egypt?
      • How did the DRC’s colonial legacy contribute or lead to developmental problems in the DRC in the last two decades?
  2. I have been advising several independent student research projects. Two of them are long-term honors theses and are not yet finished. A third was a semester-long independent project that arguably should have been a full senior thesis.
    • Thesis One’s Question: “Why despite the prevalence of microfinance in Uganda, do moneylenders continue to exist?” This student is basing much of her research on original fieldwork she did in Uganda with IPA.
    • Thesis Two: “How does the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) impact effective leadership in Umlazi high schools?”. Once again, this student is basing her research on original fieldwork she carried out in South Africa, this time on her own.
    • An here is an excerpt from the introduction of the 86-page semester-long project (which also relied on in-depth interviews with key informants that the student carried out last summer and spring): “ This paper will identify the process by which software intended to promote security becomes a tool of repression. It will answer the question: what are the primary factors that promote government adoption of political content filtering at a national level? In order to answer this question, I will focus on three cases from a single region, the Middle East and North Africa, that have a history of restrictive press laws, but have chosen to apply different degrees of political filtering. Iran exhibits substantial filtering, Jordan filters selectively, and Egypt has no evidence of filtering. In comparison, these cases demonstrate that changes in filtering are motivated by two main factors: Internet proliferation and/or online communication threatening to political authority. However, filtering can only occur if a government has access to filtering software and this software can be integrated into the network. Democratic institutions, international agreements, and circumvention efforts, moderate the costs and benefits of filtering, while other tools, such as Internet surveillance and cyber attacks provide less costly alternatives.”
  3. Finally, my research assistant, Ivan Stoitzev, has been making we look lazy with his progress on our study of the determinants of participation in international organizations. He has been busy coding participation in terms of attendance and in terms of mentions in meeting minutes. He has also done a great job with some preliminary analysis of the data.

So, after yet another semester at Wesleyan, I must say I am still very impressed with these students!