How can I ensure that my online, blended, or face-to-face course has a reasonable expectation of student effort?

Consider the following questions:

  • Considering an existing course, how do I know if the workload is reasonable?
  • When designing a new course, how do I judge a reasonable student workload?
  • When redesigning a course, how do I determine whether new components are balanced by the removal of other components?
  • When flipping or blending a course, how do I ensure that online or out-of-class components of the course are not overwhelming students?

In some cases, you can ask students using a survey or focus group how much time they spend on the course. However, that is not always possible especially within a course design or redesign process. You can also do your own estimates of how much time an average successful student ought to be spending each week and how they could be effectively spending that time. This all boils down to a question:

How much am I asking students to do each week, and is it a reasonable amount?

How do I know how long course activities take a student?

It is a challenge to estimate how long a student will take to complete readings and activities, study, and do homework. We may have estimates for how long it takes us to read a 20 page chapter of a textbook, but we are not always accounting for:

  • our additional years of practice reading strategically
  • our background knowledge that allows us to move through a reading without grappling with new concepts.

One of our favourite tools to overcome these challenges is the RICE CTE Course Workload Estimator. Enter your weekly reading, writing, and other assignments into this calculator to see how much you are likely asking students to commit to your course. For reading, as an example, you can enter average page counts, the type and difficulty of the material, and what students are supposed to take away from the material (survey? understand? engage?). This process is also a good reminder to consider whether you’ve made clear to students how you expect them to engage with the readings.

A screenshot of the course workload estimator from RICE CTE

How much can we ask of our students?

This answer to this question is partially dependent on the culture of your particular department, but a common rule of thumb is that students should spend 8-10 hours per week per course. 10 hours a week means that school takes 50 hours a week for your average successful student with a full course load (plus additional courses in some programs like music and engineering). 

Aim to average 8-10 hours per week or fewer

Consider the implications of exceeding 10 hours a week:

  • Will students be unable to manage their additional commitments? (Other courses, work, family, extra-curriculars)
  • Will students be more strategic about what parts of your course they complete? (i.e., choose not to complete parts of the course)
  • Will students fail to complete components of other courses in order to complete requirements for your course?
  • Will students be able to take care of their mental and physical health in the remaining hours of the week?
  • Will students be able to properly process additional material that pushes their efforts over 10 hours a week?

How is work distributed throughout the course?

Identifying how students are ideally spending their time throughout the course is an important part of the redesign process to help us determine if what we are asking students is reasonable.  Creating a visual of “Student Hours of Effort” is one way to assess this (Lockett, 2017).  If you find the student workload is consistently above that 8-10 hour per week threshold, it is likely time to evaluate the necessity of all components of the course.

Below you can see a sample sketch of student hours of effort for a first year Physical Geography course, plus download a blank chart to fill in yourself. The example and handouts are by Beth Hundey (adapted from Lockett, 2017).

A bar graph indicating how students should spend their time in a 14 week course using a hand out and coloured pencils

How can I use this process to communicate with my students?

Communicating hours of effort can communicate to students how you recommend they spend their time outside of class, noting that students are varied in their strengths and abilities and that some students will need to spend more or less time on certain activities as a result. Consider that many students (particularly in first year) are advised how much time to spend outside of class (e.g., 3 hours outside of class per hour in class) but are not often told how best to spend that time.

1. On the Course Site or Syllabus

Once the visual has been created, you can share it with students on the syllabus or the course site. If you would like to create a digital copy of your student hours of effort, download the excel template below.

Example Student Hours of Effort Section on a Course Site:

Tips for Time Management in Geography 1300b

You may have heard a general rule of thumb that you can expect to spend 8-10 hours per week on each course. For this course, coming to class and completing all assignments will take just over half that time. So, what are you to do with the other half of your time for this course?

The answer to this question is one of the trickiest parts of being a self-motivated learner. You will have to employ self-regulation and motivation in order to keep up with readings, weekly study, and other class and lab preparations.  The benefit is deeper learning and a much less stressful exam period.  

Below, I’ve put together a graph of predicted student hours of effort on a per-week basis, which may help you as you enter your course work into your personal calendar.  Revisit the graph throughout the course and ask yourself how you are doing on your weekly efforts. How will the amount of reading and study time required at the end of the course differ from the graph below if you don’t study and read each week?

2. In class (face-to-face or online)

Discuss the student hours of effort diagram and ask students to answer reflection questions in class. Consider discussing or asking students about:

  • How to engage with readings
  • How to use this weekly breakdown to plan their weekly schedules
  • What would the graph look like if students don’t read / study throughout the course?
  • What strengths and areas for growth do students have, and how would that affect how this graph looks for them?


Lockett, M., (2017) “Curriculum Cartography: Methods for Mapping Multiple Aspects.” Educational Developers Caucus, Guelph, Ontario.

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