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Grinnell’s student workload

Topics/tags: Grinnell, academia, data, rambling

*I know that I’ve written about this topic before, but it seems like my muse wants me to write about it again. At least she was keeping me up at night having me think about it.

In response to my recent rant about the lack of attendance at a stellar Scholars’ Convocation, an alum noted that it may just be that students don’t have enough time to attend Convocation. That, along with my desire to reflect on the associated issues of student persistence, workload, stress, and belonging, led me to return to the question of workload. If student workload is high, it adds to stress and likely gives them less time to participate in activities, which can make it harder for them to find a sense of belonging. I believe those are all contributing factors for students choosing not to persist at Grinnell.

What might workload look like for a typical student? I’m not sure that there is a single typical Grinnell student, so I’ll consider a few groups that I’ve encountered.

Before we do that, let’s start with a baseline of available hours. Let’s say that our students should have one day off a week. How many hours can they work in each of their six other days? We’ll give them eight hours of sleep [1], two hours to eat [2], one hour for personal care, such as showering, and one hour for social or personal activities [3]. That leaves twelve hours per day for being a student. How will we occupy their seventy-two hours a week? And does that sound like a lot or a little? It sounds like a lot to me.

Most students are taking sixteen credits. At least that’s Grinnell’s recommended load. At our expected credit-hour workload, that represents 48 hours per week. That leaves twenty-four hours for other school-related activities.

Our first example will be an athlete on a team since about 40% of our students fall into that category [4]. In season, these students are spending at least fifteen hours per week on athletics, since practice runs 4-7 pm, including changing and getting to the Bear [5]. Most students need to work for about ten hours per week. Whoops! We’ve already exceeded the left-over twenty-four hours. And we haven’t even given these student-athletes time to join a club.

Our next example will be a student working twenty hours per week [6]. Yes, I realize that it’s a lot. But I certainly encounter many students in that situation. How do I know? Well, when I ask them if they’d be interested in serving as a Class Mentor, they tell me that they are already at the limit of hours that Grinnell allows them to work. Or I know that they are sending money home to support their family. Or they are an advisee and we’ve sat down to map out their week.

We’d like these students to be active on campus, so we’ll assume that they are in a student group and it takes two hours per week [7]. These students also need to exercise for wellness. We’ll give them an hour a day, including time to shower afterwards. Let’s see … twenty plus two plus seven is twenty-nine hours. Once again, we have exceeded the twenty-four hours they have outside of class and a reasonable life.

I realize that these cases may seem extreme. Nonetheless, they are fairly common, at least in my experience. At the same time, my list of student hours is likely incomplete. For example, many students I know are involved in multiple extra-curricular activities, which adds more of a time burden.

In any case, with all of this work, it’s not surprising that students have to cut corners somewhere, whether it means missing valuable talks, getting insufficient sleep [8], sacrificing wellness, neglecting academic work, or whatever [9].

I also worry about how all of this work meshes with our desire to inculcate a growth mindset in our students. While I certainly believe that all of our students are capable of mastering any topic at Grinnell, I also acknowledge that doing so sometimes takes significantly extra time and effort. If our students are already over-burdened, will they be willing to take risks?

What should we, as an institution, do? I’m not sure. We can’t change the definition of a credit hour since there are Federal guidelines about that [10,11,12]. But the forty-eight hours does seem to be a large contributor to workload and stress. As I’ve written before, we might work with the ambiguity of twelve hours per week for a four-credit class [14] by asking Twelve hours for whom? Is it for the average Grinnell student, the student who spends the most time on the class, the student who spends the least time, the average college student across all colleges in the US, or what? I know that I see ratios of 3:1 or more for the amounts of time equally successful students spend on a take-home exam or homework assignment.

And then there’s the question of what grade the student is working toward. I know many students who can write a draft at a rate of about thirty minutes per page, a draft will earn them at least a C, and more likely a B. But earning an A would likely take multiple hours per page of editing and revising. The same holds for other kinds of homework assignments, such as problem sets. Doing something nearly perfect requires substantially more time than doing something acceptable.

Ideally, we would want to make sure that no Grinnell student would have to spend more than twelve hours per week on a four-credit class to be successful in that class.

How do we do that? In part, it requires that we determine how much time a class takes. I know that my estimates have been known to be a bit off [15]. And it can be hard to tell; I was surprised last semester to receive complaints about the length of assignments that my colleagues had given and not heard complaints about. I also know that some colleagues across the College don’t even try to estimate the length of assignments or other classwork. Students don’t always estimate or count well, either. There’s a difference between time spent focused on classwork and time spent with, say, Facebook or YouTube on the screen at the same time.

I realize that some might handle the problem, in part, by using a metric that is closer to the amount of time the average college student would take. After all, my experience is that we give our Grinnell students more work, or at least more challenging work, than many other institutions give their students. But that short-changes our students. Unfortunately, no one has found a good way for people to learn things both deeply and quickly, no matter how skilled the students.

One approach might be to help students learn to study better, or at least more efficiently. Certainly, there has been a good push to get faculty and students to think more seriously about the results from the learning sciences. But if students become more efficient, don’t we have an obligation to increase the workload so that we can once again meet the Federal definition of credit hour? [16]

It’s a thorny problem. Nonetheless, like the problem of student persistence, it’s one we need to address. I’m glad to know that some folks who are better at this stuff than I are considering them.

Postscript: There’s some evidence that the U.S. Department of Education is revisiting the definition of a credit hour. That would certainly make our task a bit easier.

Postscript: This musing ended up much more disjoint than I’d planned. The more I wrote, the more nee things came to mind. What about growth mindset and the implications thereof? Different grades likely require different amounts of work; how should we address that?
What groups of students should I consider?

[1] I believe the evidence is that students of college age may need a bit more, but we’ll stick with eight.

[2] It’s likely a bit less, but lines can be long in the dining hall.

[3] I know that I did not include exercise in that calculation. I’ll add it later.

[4] I don’t have a source for that number. I’m not even sure that it’s correct. I don’t know whether it includes our club sports. But it’s a number I’ve heard used a lot, and it’s a number I believe.

[5] I realize that fifteen hours per week significantly underestimates the time student-athletes spend on athletics in season. It doesn’t count the extra time they are supposed to spend in the weight room, time in competitions, and so on and so forth.

[6] My wonderful children tell me that they have encountered many peers who fall into both categories. That is, they work twenty hours per week even during their primary athletic season.

[7] In my experience, the students working twenty hours per week are also taking a leadership role in a student group, which means that it’s much more than two hours per week.

[8] Not a good approach.

[9] When I started at Grinnell, a surprising number of students had decided to forgo showers because of the extra time it gave them. I’m thankful that that has changed.

[10] Here’s what I found.

Credit hour: Except as provided in 34 CFR 668.8(k) and (l), a credit hour is an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than—

  1. One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit, or ten to twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or
  1. At least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other academic activities as established by the institution including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading to the award of credit hours.

[11] There’s also a Dear Colleague letter.

[12] It appears that you can blame the Obama administration for instituting this far too vague policy.

[14] Or three hours per credit hour, depending on how you think about it.

[15] Again, that’s because I see a wide range in how long things take students, and I tend to estimate based on what I think the average students will take. But my sons tell me that my sense of average may be a bit off.

[16] That question is only somewhat facetious. If we have to prove that we’re requiring a certain workload, and we measure it against our students, then more efficient students necessary lead to more of a workload.

Version 1.0 of 2019-12-04.