course workload

courses with heavy workloads

Course Workload: What Influences Student Perceptions?

Course workload is yet another of those amorphous terms regularly used in print and conversation for which we have loose and different understandings. It’s a term with connections to various topics: hard and easy courses, standards and rigor, effort and accomplishment. For students, courses with

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Students claim to be overwhelmed with additional work during the 2020–2021 teaching year, while faculty say that they are assigning no more work than usual (McMurtrie, 2021). Squaring these contradictory self-reports provides important insights into issues with determining workload for an online class.

Student perceptions

Why might students perceive that they are getting more work? Here are some possibilities:

If it’s true that students are actually doing more of the assigned classwork online, then that is a benefit of online education. Moreover, this consistent learning though short modules with interactions and spaced repetition of assessment on the main points produces far better understanding and retention that the midnight cram session (Oakley & Sejnowski, n.d.). But it also means that faculty need to take this extra time into account when designing their online courses.

Faculty perceptions

Faculty believe that they are not assigning any more work during the pandemic than they did in their face-to-face classes, but is that true?  My experience working with online faculty has been that most assign more work in their online courses than in their face-to-face courses. I think that this is at least partly due to the problem of determining workload in an online class. Credit hours have traditionally been determined by seat time. A three-credit course is supposed to meet around two and a half to three hours per week.

But online classes do not have seat time, and thus faculty are left to estimate how much work to give students based on time on task. It is traditionally assumed that students should do two hours of out-of-class homework for every hour of class time, leading to three hours of work per credit per week, or nine hours of work per week for a three-credit course. Online faculty then target nine hours of work for their students to do each week.

The problem is that many faculty use themselves, not their students, as the measure of time on task. They might think, “Well, it would take me an hour to read this 40-page article,” when in fact a non-expert student would need twice as much time or more to read the same material, leading to an overload of assigned work. Plus, each student is different, with some able to get through material much faster than others. I am not so much blaming faculty as noting how it is basically impossible for an expert to step into a novice’s shoes, and so faculty face an impossible task in trying to estimate student time.

I have also seen a “more is better” approach from some faculty when it comes to workload. They think that assigning students 100 pages of reading will produce twice as much learning as assigning them 50 pages of reading. But workload reaches a point of diminishing returns, where students will simply not do all the reading, instead picking what they think is important to read, not what the instructor thinks is important.

I argue that neither seat time nor time on task should be used to determine student workload. When an employer requires a degree to apply for a job, it is not because the degree demonstrates how long the student has sat in a class, nor how many hours the student spend studying. For the employer, the degree signifies learning. Someone with a degree in marketing should, in principle, understand marketing, and that is what is important.

If so, then faculty should take learning as the measure for workload planning. This is a fundamental change in mindset. Instead of worrying about the amount of work students need to do on a weekly basis, online faculty should start by asking what they want students to learn, and then assign just as much work as needed to achieve that learning and no more. It might be that a week’s learning objectives can be attained with only four hours of work—or more likely, four hours for some students and six or seven for others.

For instance, TED Talks captivate us partially because we walk away having learned more in 18 minutes than from many hour-long lectures. They get straight to the point, focus on what is important, and do so in an engaging way. They eliminate the extraneous content that only buries the main point and diminishes retention.

It is also important to remember that learning means retention and that we can retain only a few points from any lesson. Whether you speak for three hours or 15 minutes, your audience will remember only a few points at most. Thus, faculty should worry only about making sure that students retain the few core ideas in any lesson. All the extra information distracts from learning, and students will forget it anyway.

Freed from the need to fill up class time in a face-to-face session, online faculty should start by identifying those very few main ideas that are important for students to retain and reinforce them through focused content, discussion, and assessments. This “less is more” approach will yield better learning and a better student experience.


Barre, B. (2021, January 22). The workload dilemma [Blog post]. Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University.

McMurtrie, B. (2021, February 4). Students say their workload increased during the pandemic. Has it? The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. (n.d.). Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects [MOOC]. Coursera.

Supiano, B. (2021, December 17). Looking back on 2020. The Chronicle of Higher Education.