Course Workload: What Influences Student Perceptions?

courses with heavy workloads

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 a heavy workload can create feelings of stress. Their beliefs about the amount of work involved in a course sometimes (or is it regularly?) influence their decisions about what courses to take. In an end-of-course rating comment, a student wrote of a colleague’s course: “It’s very good. She’s an excellent teacher, but engineering students should be advised not to take it. It’s too much work for a required course not related to the major.”

Teaching Professor Blog Our initial thinking about course workload equates it with the amount of time spent in class or online, and on studying for the course. But research explorations of workload have documented that students’ determinations of it are not as related to time measures as might be suspected. In a “diary” study in which students in 17 different courses kept an hourly account of course activities for one week, with a subset of four or five students from each course then participating in interviews, David Kember found, “perceptions of workload are not synonymous with time spent studying, but can be weakly influenced by them.” (p. 165) Examples in his research illustrate the point. One student did the least amount of work in a course but had the highest workload perception score and complained about the workload throughout his interview. The diaries of two other students revealed 64 hours of study during the week but they did not have workload perception scores above the average.

So, what makes students think that the workload in a course is heavy or light? Several factors emerged in Kember’s work. As might be expected, content is related to workload. Sometimes it’s the amount of content and the array of different topics covered in the course. For example, content in entry-level courses is usually not all that complex, but there’s so much of it that students perceive they’re in courses with heavy workloads. However, it can also be that the course covers complex content or content students find difficult to understand, which gives it that heavy label.

In Kember’s study, relationships were also related to perceptions of workload. For example, if students worked together on course material, if they tried to help each other understand the content, those relationships mitigated perceptions of a heavy workload. Teacher-student relationships play a role as well. Students have been known to work long hours for teachers and in courses they “like,” paying little attention to the amount of effort they are expending.

Perhaps most troubling in this research, and supported in other works as well, is the relationship between perceptions of workload and the approaches to learning students select. When students indicate that the workload in a course is heavy, they usually opt for surface approaches to learning. They memorize facts and focus on details, often at the expense of understanding. Students who take deep learning approaches do not usually perceive the course workload as heavy. Assessment, particularly the kind of tests given, also plays into the mix here. If the tests are frequent and the questions focus on recall, students (rightfully) opt for surface approaches. However, it may be that the relationship here is reciprocal. Kember believes there’s a “strong probability” that perceptions of workload and approaches to learning are “co-dependent upon on range of curricular factors, which may all act in concert” and are either directly or indirectly related.

What’s most clear in the research on course workload to date is that the determination of it is a function of perception, rather than fact. Now, courses do get reputations for being difficult and requiring a lot of work and that certainly influences student expectations of and experiences in the course. However, those reputations grow out of and build on students’ perceptions, and those perceptions are often unrelated to how much time students are devoting to the course or how much time mastering the material actually requires.

Kember, D. (2004). Interpreting student workload and the factor which shape students’ perceptions of their workload. Studies in Higher Education, 29 (2), 165-184.