Time on Task: Tackling a Vague Standard

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash
Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

The pandemic’s effects on higher education are giving us the chance to rethink, reexamine, and redesign our teaching efforts. From objectives to tech use to assignment choices, opportunities abound. I want to include the time factor in this process—not the time we put into course design, student interaction, or assessment of learning, which is already demanding, but a consideration of the time it takes students to complete the tasks we assign.

The standard that for every hour in class students should study for two hours has been around for many years now. There are also several methods to estimate the time it will take an average student to complete various types of coursework. Whether it’s a face-to-face class, an asynchronous course, or some delivery mode in between, knowing how much time it takes students to complete the assigned work is worthwhile. Although I teach and readily think in quantitative terms, I admit that too often I have thought of these standards rather vaguely. I have tended to naively assume that students will simply take the time required (since that is what I did!). Even in “normal” times, that’s a questionable assumption.

Making reasonable estimates of the time required to complete course assignments to include in the syllabus is useful. But when coming up with those estimates, we need to recognize that the deviation from that average is broadening in terms of the diversity of not only students but also situation and course delivery. There are also differences that grow out of the nature of the subject material, the level of the outcome expected of students, and in students’ backgrounds and abilities. Considering the variation present makes the idea of a reasonable estimate seem hopeless. At the moment it is challenging enough to figure out whether an appropriate amount of course delivery time is being met (and how to meet it!).

Our current situation gives us the chance to step back to consider time issues from new perspectives and with different priorities. If education is to maintain its value, then contact hours must be respected. We and our students have learned that in these times many nonacademic tasks now have great value and may compete with coursework. Sometimes these external demands on students’ time make it necessary for them to compress their effort into the minimum necessary to complete the course, even though that’s frustrating and disappointing for us.

As our course designs evolve, it’s a great time to think about time issues. We could begin to prioritize task value in terms of how well it achieves course objectives rather than just summing the estimated average times for tasks and hoping they add up to two hours. Prioritizing by objectives requires that objectives be well-defined and have clear links with each task.

Might we relax some of our conceptions of how much time students should spend and think more about the most efficient means of ensuring understanding? More time spent on a task does not automatically improve outcomes. Exactly how much repetition and variation in required work is necessary to meet the course goals? Are the exercises assigned directly relevant to the desired outcomes? Frequent formative assessments of the various course activities should be used to ascertain whether students understand the content instead of whether they meet the predetermined standard amount of time.

It’s well established that innovative and diverse approaches engage students and meet a range of learning needs, especially if there’s flexibility and some room for students to make assignment choices. It’s likely that as creativity in design increases, the ability to estimate time on task decreases. Can we become comfortable with that limitation in order to give every student the opportunity to succeed with the material? Allowing diverse activity options ensures that at least one will be suited to a student’s strengths and therefore require less time to learn. Providing more flexibility and opportunities for student input increases motivation and decreases frustration, which also makes for more efficient time use.

Might we need to challenge some of our unconscious assumptions? Challenging content may not always have to be time-consuming. That favorite topic we love to include even though it is not in the course objectives—it might be time to let it go. Our automatic adherence to requiring the volume of work that our teachers required of us—Does that mean there’s only way to learn the material? Whenever we see a student complete material quickly, does that always mean we haven’t assigned enough work? What about the other students who need more time to complete the task?

Considering, searching for, and adopting best practices in teaching our courses is not at odds with considering the time demands of tasks. Our heightened sensitivity to the time it takes students to learn the material means one less thing they must wrestle with as they work to reach the learning goals we have set for them.

Nancy Schorschinsky teaches chemistry at Penn State Schuylkill.

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