Skip to main content

Grinnell’s expected student workload

In spring 2016, Grinnell’s Curriculum Committee released a document that provides guidelines for minimum workloads in classes (because of our misguided Web policies, you will only be able to read that document if you have a GrinCo account). This essay is my attempt to gather my thoughts in response to that document.

Grinnell has now decided that a four-credit course should require a minimum of twelve hours (combined in-class and out-of-class time). While I understand the rationale for that decision (we’ll need to defend our three-hour per week classes to bean-counting accreditors, and there’s a standard Carnegie hour that we’re trying to follow), I think it’s both excessive and inappropriate to expect that the minimum academic workload for a normal Grinnell student should be 48 hours per week.

Why am I concerned? First, it’s likely that some classes will be much more than the minimum. I’ve talked to colleagues in a number of departments who feel that their upper-level seminars should require a minimum of twenty hours per week. A student taking three normal classes and one of these classes will have a minimum of 56 hours per week of academic work. That’s more than most (reasonable) jobs. As an academic advisor, I work with my students to balance the more time-consuming courses with courses that I expect to be less time-consuming for that student, so that their total workload is reasonable. With these new policies, we shouldn’t have those lighter classes. And it’s not like most students can take fewer than 16 credits; to graduate from Grinnell, you should take 16 credits seven of your eight semesters (or take more than 16 credits a few semesters).

I’ll also admit that I’m not sure whose hours we are measuring. I know that I see factors of two or more in how long it takes different good students to do a homework assignment. Should I be shooting for a minimum for the strongest students, for the struggling students, for the average students, whoever they are? I also know that students perform differently in different classes. I have some students who need to spend more time on assignments that emphasize writing and less on those that involve quantitative analysis; others are the other way around.

But even if we found a way to solve all of this, I still think that 48 hours per week is too much. Most of our students work a job to help pay the costs of attending school (say 10 hours per week); many are in varsity sports or participate in theatre or other (15 to twenty hours per week); most are in one or more clubs. That adds up to a lot. I’d much prefer that we keep the academics to about 35-40 hours per week. It still adds up to a lot, but it’s enough less to feel manageable.

I’ve had at least one colleague who I respect suggest that College is a time for students to learn. It makes sense to expect learning to be more than a full-time job. And I agree with that. But I don’t think that all learning happens from a student’s academic work. Part of what students learn is how to be adults, how to interact with people different than them, how to govern themselves, and more. There’s a reason that we value co-curricular activities, and try to integrate them with the curricular activities; both are ways to learn. In addition, students learn things that I consider academic in their co-curricular time, not only skills (such as writing and speaking), but also ideas, particularly in the not-so-mythical late-note conversations and arguments about deep topics. They need time for these things.

I also worry that a sufficiently large workload makes it very hard to make a misstep; to lose a few days because you are sick, or because you are helping a friend, or because you have a family crisis, or because a new campus policy or event makes you too frustrated to work. Now, you not only have to do the normal large workload, you have to fit in the missed work. Students need some slack in their workload and schedules.

If we saw that all Grinnell students were thriving and healthy with current workloads, I wouldn’t worry so much about this. But we see that large numbers of Grinnell students suffer extreme stress from the high workload we already give them. (They too often make bad decisions to deal with the stress that end up increasing future stress, but the initial stress is often from our classes.) We should be thinking more about limiting workload than setting miniumums.

Side note: I know that the Carnegie hour assumes one hour in class and two hours outside of class. So a four-hour class should be twelve hours. But I don’t believe that most classes at other institutions really require that much work of students. Certainly, syllabi I’ve looked at at many institutions don’t require that much work; many also cover significantly less material than Grinnell. The Carnegie hour is a myth, and we should not impose policies that try to meet it.

Snarky side note: We are increasingly an analytics-driven institution. Are we planning to start measuring how long students spend on each class? Will we change the crediting for classes that aren’t time-consuming enough? Will we increase the crediting for classes that are more time-consuming?

Follow note from awesome former student: Obviously I gained a tremendous amount from the formal instruction, but my non-classroom time really defined my college experience. I gained as much from the stereotypical late night discussions with other students, working at the Helpdesk (as a manager! an amazing opportunity for a 21 year old!), administrating GrinnellPlans, and teaching at Swing Club. Honestly, it’s those opportunities that made Grinnell unique. By the time I graduated, I’d taught weekly dance classes for 3 years, organized a multi-state dance event, helped hire, train, and manage 20+ nerds for two years, and learned more about public relations than I ever intended to (oh, Plans). And balancing (and often failing to balance, but that’s part of it too, right?) it all.

First version released on 2016-05-06.

Version 1.1.2 of 2017-05-28.