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Collegiate demands unsuitable for learning

Current education practices unsustainable; excessive work devalues students' worth

Our committee was thinking about how to make college courses better by using the knowledge of cognitive science, particularly learning theory, and the skills of successful developers of video games. Such knowledge with the technology afforded by computers and the Internet can probably be used to improve college courses.1 Because the best educational practices might be time and effort intensive, we addressed a basic issue: What is a reasonable amount of study (“work” at learning) that is expected to successfully complete a college course?

Apparently, a college credit-hour is a unit of measurement for substantiating meaningful effort devoted to a course of study. Most colleges require about 120-128 Ch to earn a Bachelor’s degree. That usually involves separate courses of one to six Ch; most courses being three Ch (uniquely at RPI, most are four Ch). Usually, a degree involves eight semesters of about 16 weeks. These educational activities should culminate in students being considerably more knowledgeable than those not so engaged.

Historically, the primary means of imparting knowledge was a lecture or a demonstration lasting an hour. That practice transitioned into the standard that courses that meet three times a week for an hour across a semester should be a three credit course. In addition, learning outside of class meetings is typically required. An informal standard is that students spend two hours out of class studying for each hour of lecture [(2 X 4) + 4 = 12 hr/week or for 4 courses, 48 hours]. If students should work as much as adults usually work during a week, 40 hours, the standard would be 1.5 hours for every hour in class. Establishing a norm for serious study for a full-time student to be nearly 40-hours a week, i.e., about 1.5 hours of study outside of class-time for every credit hour, allows flexibility to account for individual differences in preparedness among those enrolling in a course of study.

A convenience sample of 103 undergraduates at RPI indicated that nearly all understood, as related by many of their course-managers, that 1.5 to 2.5 hours of study outside of the class-meeting time was required for each one hour of credit. A case can be made that a course demanding as much as 2.5 hours beyond the scheduled time in class is probably excessive, unless class-time is limited. The demand of 2.5 hours of studying for each Ch is excessive on the grounds that if all courses demanded that much, students would be required to do intensive studying for 56 hr a week. If work is a routine chore, many can manage 60 hours of work a week. However, 56 hours of intense studying is very demanding and probably so demanding that it cannot be sustained for a semester (known in Troy as the Tute Screw; no matter which way it turns, you are screwed).

Professors understand that immersion into a subject matter is essential to eventual development of expertise. What some professors evidently do not understand is that that kind of immersion usually does not come about by requiring large, fixed amounts of work, particularly under the threat of failure. It comes about by choices of how to spend one’s time, what is rewarding to a person (be it artistic creation, scientific research, building better devices and structures, or creating and contributing to organizations). To allow for this transition from work to devotion (from a job to a vocation), scheduled work should not be all consuming. The curriculum of a residential college should provide sufficient time for students to pursue their own academic pursuits; should provide opportunities to be creative and develop a love of attainment, for attainment’s sake.

If students are to be efficient learners, they must have time to remain healthy; therefore, the curriculum must regularly allow for such things as adequate sleep, nutritious eating, and other health-maintenance activities. And, of course, who doesn’t want college students to be efficient learners?

Residential colleges are considered valuable because they provide for many opportunities for valuable extracurricular activities such as student-governance, student-journalism, drama, sports, a lively social life, work-study, general reading, tinkering with building things, and doing research. These take time and effort. Therefore, course-work should be limited to allow for these valuable activities.

As stated, most students understand that attending class and studying outside of class time is a requirement for getting course credit. Further, very many agree that the outside of class work should be from 1.5 to 2.0 hours for every hour of class time. In our survey, however, there were a few outliers. A few students indicated that the norm was less than 1 hour of studying outside of class for every hour in class. There evidently is a professor or two who dictates that 4 hours of studying outside of class and lab is expected and required to pass their courses.

There are implications of disconnects between the number of credits earnable for a course and the amount of work (usually study) demanded by course-managers. When the demands for work are greater than the credit-to-be-earned, the instructor is infringing on students’ personal time and likely reducing the time they can spend with their other courses. Putting it simply, the instructor who demands more work for a given amount of credit is devaluing a student’s worth; cheating the student in a manner similar to those notorious “sweat shops” where there was no union to bargain for fairness. We learned, for example, that an instructor for a course on organic chemistry has demanded 4 or more hours of study outside of class for each credit hour earnable (with an associated lab, 12 hours plus time in class and lab or approaching 20 hours a week). Such excess has a number of ramifications. For example, no ROTC student could reasonably take this course; there are just not enough hours in a week to deal with this demand and the demands of their other four courses (as much as 60 hr a week of intense study of topics of usually, initially, of marginal interest). Further, the same instructor, by rumor and some data-collection, was constantly threatening poor grades by making tests nearly impossible and apparently gloating over the fact that many students were not getting scores usually indicative of passing grades. Given that grades are a valued “commodity,” and given that a nearly required course of study such as organic chemistry is necessary for further education along a variety of lines, e.g., entrance to some schools of medicine, the student is put at an unfair advantage compared to students at other universities where instructors are more reasonable. The continuance of excessive demands by an instructor represents a failure of the instructor, the instructor’s department head, curriculum committees, deans, and the provost; persons who should be looking after students by keeping things reasonable and fair (incidentally and sadly, some of us expect each of these responsible persons will blame others for their failures and continue to do nothing).

There is also “cheating,” when the demands for work are less than the credit to be earned. The student is prevented from taking other courses by the limits on credits that can be taken during a semester. Theoretically, we value a broad education, but limit such by almost demanding that each course be a fixed number of credits. Theoretically, there is nothing amiss in having one credit courses that address an interesting topic for less than a semester. Relatedly, there is nothing amiss in having a course of study for a major in chemistry that has many credits during each of two semesters if, indeed, such is an integral part of a major. That intensity of course-material, however, is not necessary for many students pursuing goals other than becoming a chemist.

The student who has the understanding that the norm is to study only a fraction of an hour outside of class to earn one credit is probably not planning sufficiently to earn good grades. Most course-managers at RPI indicate that more is required.

There is evidence that modern college students are more distressed than previously.2 Stress can occur as a result of excessive cost of a college education coupled with the possibility that such money-outlay will not yield sufficient benefit. There is the sad fact of students ending their quest for a degree with only some credits and considerable debt. This usually means that the student has a reduced way of paying their debt (a truly stressful circumstance made worse by the understanding that loans are often given at high interest rates and collection agencies are vicious). Trying to meet unreasonable demands is stressful in proportion to the consequences of failure. Excessive stress is a setting condition for clinically significant anxiety and depression which, in turn, have consequences such as reduced cognitive ability and potentially suicide. In brief, this is serious stuff. A residential university should be a community that surely does not induce high stress and has institutional norms supporting both accomplishment and freedom to innovate.

We started thinking about what a college credit signified in terms of hours of learning for a credit hour. We confirmed what we thought was the informal norm: college students are expected to work at a level of those with full-time jobs, i.e., about 40 hours a week, leaving considerable time for extracurricular activities. We also learned that some individuals of our community apparently have not incorporated the cultural norms of excellent residential colleges.

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Dr. Larry Reid

Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

1 The consideration of video games as teaching us how to teach follows from the work of James Paul Gee whose work one reviewer suggested will inform you of the possibility that video games are templates of instructional tools of the future. Gee, J.P. (2007, revised ed.) What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Macmillan.

2 Novoteny, A. (2014). Students under pressure. Monitor on psychology, 45, 37-41.