“How long does this take?”: Foregrounding student labor in a course with lengths and times

The longer I have taught, the more I find myself interested in the time it takes my students to complete things like reading articles, writing papers, and creating code. What I try to strive for, knowing many of my students also work part-time jobs on top of taking multiple courses (as I did myself, not too long ago), is a good balance between the frameworks or theories needed to complete a task and some practical application of those concepts in such a way that they might be included in a showcase, CV, or portfolio. I currently work as part of a program with a strong digital portfolio focus, so I always try to point my students toward making things they can show off or help them with advancing their plans for a career or more education.

Generally, when the term student labor is used in regard to teaching, it applies to titles and positions like a teaching assistant, lab assistant, or grader. Depending on the institution and their structures, these are usually students who are paid to help with a course and either take on some of the grading or might even be responsible for giving lecture content or running discussions outside of class. When I use the term here, I don’t mean those contexts. I am specifically interested in the labor of a course. How much work does a student need to perform each week? What is the labor requirement?

Time-to-read and time-to-write

Reading and writing are intersectionality activities. How someone thinks about reading is based on a nexus of many different factors including, but not limited to, economic access, previous educational experiences, and the cultural perception of reading or other, related intellectual activities. Even the term intellectual might be pejorative to some communities. Add on to that the perception of writing, which is always deeply tangled in perceptions of self-worth, and the two add up to a mess of tasks many students do not find appealing and will only tolerate for short amounts of times.

Reading Time

There are many ways to calculate how long it takes someone to read. Some of them are based on averages from surveys and others on measuring eye movement. Generally, assume most people can read (process, not comprehend) between 100-300 words-per-minute. This makes all manner of assumptions such as reading level, how complicated the topic is, and if the person can understand the language the text is composed in, but let’s just assume the range is 100-300 words-per-minute for now.

In the classic use of Times New Roman, 12 pt, and double-spaced writing formatting, there are an average of 250 words per page. In other words, and taking in a large number of assumptions, an average learner can read a page of text per minute. Given 30 pages, this will take them at least 30 minutes to process. The use of word process is important because it takes most people much more time to comprehend a text than to process it. This can be anywhere from 30-100% more time depending on a large number of other factors mentioned like reading comprehension level, how technical or complex the text is, and if there are any language comprehension issues. However, let’s assume it can take a learner 30 minutes to process and another 30 minutes to comprehend what they read.

In other words, for many, but not all, learners, it will probably take them between 45 minutes to 1.5 hours to read 30 pages and comprehend it. Factors like reading comprehension, topic complexity, previous exposure to concepts, and number of interruptions all play a role, but an average is around an hour to read and comprehend 30 pages of a text.

Writing Time

Because the average length of an assignment is around 1000 words, a simple web search shows a wide array of different answers to how long it can take to write a paper of that length. Like with reading, many factors can complicate how long it takes someone to write. Are they handwriting? Are they typing? Do they have to perform research or cite works? Are they being interrupted and need to re-start as they go? Do they know how to type? Are any other tasks such as translation or composition also going on at the same time?

Let’s make some assumptions. Generally, and taking into account a large number of assumptions, a learner can type between 5-20 words per minute. That works out to between 300-1200 words per hour. For many learners, this means a 1000-word essay will take them around three hours to write (not including research time).

10 hours a week for a three-credit course

While it is not universal or even enforced, having worked at multiple institutions, what I have been told and sometimes even shown is that a three-credit course (usually the default number of credits for an undergraduate course) is expected to take a student 10 hours a week. Usually, this is broken up to include anywhere between 3-4 hours of in-class or lab activities and the remainder spend outside the classroom on labor including reading, writing, or creating something.

Assuming in-class time is four hours a week, that leaves six hours remaining of the estimate.

How much time does it take?

I don’t like assigning my students six hours of work outside of in-class time per week. I consider that cruel. It is also disrespectful of them, any other courses they might be taking, and any other responsibilities they might have. At most, I try to assign between two-to-three hours of work on average outside of the in-class time they might get with me. Trying to work out what the two-to-three hours looks like, however, can become complicated based on the time it takes to read (and comprehend) and any other writing or creative processes the student might also need to perform.

I know learners have a better idea of how long it will take for them to perform some task than I do. They also have access to their own schedules, which I often have no knowledge of when creating assignments. With that in mind, I like to be explicit when including readings and videos by listing the number of pages or length of the video. I also like to be very up-front with my students about my assumptions for assignments and generally how long they might take. This, I’ve found, let’s them know I thought through why I selected some things over others for readings and why I have a specific page count. I also let them know the word count for assignments is not made-up on a whim, but carefully considered. I have worked out how long I want them to spend on a discussion post and then picked a word count based on this time request.