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Questioning the Two-Hour Rule for Studying

Faculty often tell students to study two hours for every credit hour. Where and when did this rule of thumb originate? I’ve been unable to track down its genesis. I suspect it started around 1909, when the Carnegie Unit (CU) was accepted as the standard measure of class time. [See Heffernan (1973) and Shedd (2003) for thorough histories of the credit hour.] The U.S. Department of Education defines the credit hour as “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…” The expectation was the norm when I was in college in the 1980s and more seasoned professors indicate it was expected in the 1970s too.

Is the two-hour rule relevant today? Why two hours? Why not one? Or three? Study resources and tools have changed dramatically in the past century. Typing papers, researching, and collaborating required a lot more time in prior decades. Personal computers, mobile devices, and the Internet have dramatically changed what goes on in and out of class, yet the two-hour rule persists.

What should be done during study time? Of bigger concern than the emphasis on time is the lack of direction about what to do during those hours. Some schools (Binghamton University, is one) require that course syllabi state what students might do outside of class, “completing assigned readings, studying for tests and examinations, participating in lab sessions, preparing written assignments, and other course-related tasks.” That’s a start, but it’s not enough.

Before we blame students by saying they should already know what to do, let’s consider an example. I studied classical piano for a dozen years. Each week the teacher would instruct on notation, technique, and interpretation. Lessons always included detailed descriptions and a discussion of what I was to do during practice. How long I was to practice was only an estimate. The emphasis was on what needed to be done, not how long it would take. Practice time consisted of warm-up exercises, scales, and work on compositions. I didn’t always practice diligently (sorry, Mrs. Farr), but I consistently knew what I should be doing during practice to improve as a pianist.

Can most students say the same? A statement on the syllabus, particularly one that emphasizes policies, probably doesn’t get much attention from students during study time. Likewise, a teacher’s admonition to “study X hours per week” is easily forgotten or ignored. In addition, we lose credibility with our students if we tell them to “study two hours per credit” for no other reason than that’s the way it’s always been done. We should be more concerned with outcomes than time.

Shift focus from time to task. I recognize that telling students to study doesn’t mean it will happen. I’m also not suggesting everything students do outside of class should be graded. But instead of telling students how long to study, emphasize mastery. Provide examples of active learning strategies so they can use their time more effectively. In addition to active reading assignments and graded homework, the following activities promote engagement and go beyond students’ typical study strategies, such as creating note cards or “looking over” their notes.

I think it’s time to retire the two-hour rule. For many students, studying is something only done before an exam and homework is completed because it’s graded. If we want to develop self-directed learners, these narrow conceptions of what it means to “study” must change. Teachers broaden and reshape students’ perceptions of homework and study by de-emphasizing time and focusing on substance. We can help students see class time, study time, and homework as an integrated system of activities designed to advance learning. We do that by being as specific and intentional about structuring students’ out-of-class study activities, graded or otherwise, as we are about what goes on during class.

Berry, J.W. & Chew, S.L. (2008). Improving Learning Through Interventions of Student-Generated Questions and Concept Maps. Teaching of Psychology, 35: 305-312.

Binghamton University Syllabus Policy. https://www.binghamton.edu/academics/provost/faculty-staff-handbook/handbook-vii.html#A8 Accessed: July 26, 2017.

Heffernan, J.M. (1973). The Credibility of the Credit Hour: The History, Use and Shortcomings of the Credit System. The Journal of Higher Education, 44(1): 61-72.

Shedd, J.M. (2003). The History of the Student Credit Hour, New Directions for Higher Education, 122 (Summer): 3-12.

US Department of Education Credit Hour Definition. https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?rgn=div8&node=34: Accessed: July 26, 2017

Dr. Lolita Paff is an associate professor of business and economics at Penn State Berks. She also serves on the advisory board of the Teaching Professor Conference.