Time on Task
Understanding how time “works” in online courses can be a challenge for instructors:
- How do I determine the total time on task expected of students?
- How can I calculate the time students will need to complete course work?
- What should students be doing to accomplish course goals and learning outcomes?
- What should I be doing with my time as online instructor?
Converting seat time and homework to total learning time
The academic credit model is based on classroom contact hours. The consensus in U.S. higher education is that one college credit requires 15 hours of classroom time plus two or three additional hours of homework time per hour of classroom time.
How can this model accommodate courses that have no seat time? The answer is to focus instead on total time on task.
Regardless of course mode or type of learning activities, the total amount of student time on task for any RIT course—campus, online, blended, independent study, etc.—should total 45 hours per credit/contact hour. For a 3-credit course, that works out to 135 total hours.
Learning hours per week for 3-credit course formats
Hours per week
|Total course hours|
Calculating student time
Higher education literature offers at least three viable methods for calculating completion times for learning tasks:
- Experiential method:
Faculty use their experience to estimate the time and effort needed by the typical student to successfully complete each of the learning activities in a course. (McDaniel 2011)
- Proxy method:
The instructor/course designer calculates how much time it would take him or her to complete a task, and multiplies this figure is by some factor. (Carnegie Mellon University 2013)
- Survey method:
Faculty survey students following various assignments to ask how long it took them, and use this data to plan future courses. (Carnegie Mellon University 2013)
Student activity in online courses
How students spend their time in on-campus and online courses is directly related to the assignments, assessments, and other tasks given by instructors.
Typical on-campus course activities
- Attending and taking notes on lectures and presentations
- Participating in class discussions
- Engaging in experiential learning activities (labs, studios, simulations, etc.)
- Practicing new competencies
- Taking quizzes or exams
- Writing short essays
- Reviewing class notes
- Solving homework problems
- Conducting research
- Completing projects and major assignments
- Preparing classroom presentations
- Meeting with the instructor during office hours
The same categories of learning tasks or activities exist in in online courses, though modified to make best use of online technologies and pedagogies.
On-campus learning activities modified for online learning (Turner 2005)
Instructor’s commentary on the readings, with links to illustrative images, media, or text
Participation in the discussion area
Experiential learning activities
Online labs, interviews, activities within the community, and online field trips
Asynchronous forum where the instructor expands upon the lecture, answers questions, and facilitates student interaction
Example tasks and completion times for one week of a 16-week, 3-credit online course (Turner, 2005)
Viewing three, 15-minute lectures (text or video), with web links
Reviewing lectures and exploring links
Posting a short “knowledge check” self-assessment statement to the drop box.
Completing a 10-item online quiz
Posting to discussions (original post, responses to three classmates’ posts, responses to responses)
Small group project meetings (web conference or asynchronous discussion)
Work on final research paper and presentation
Instructor activity in online courses
- Designing the course
- Posting new material after the course has been fully designed and is “live”
- Checking in on student interactions, participation, and questions about the course
- Giving feedback on assignments
- Class management
(Vai & Sosulski, 2011)
Carnegie Mellon University, 2013. Solve a teaching problem: Assign a reasonable amount of work. Retrieved July 3, 2013.
McDaniel, E. A. (2011). Level of student effort should replace contact time in course design. Journal of Information Technology Education, 10(10).
New York State Education Department, Office of College and University Evaluation (2013). Policies: Determining time on task in online education. Retrieved July 3, 2013.
Turner, T. (2005). Student workload in the online course: Balancing on a rule-of-thumb. Educator’s Voice, 6(3).
Vai, M. & Sosulski, K. (2011). Essentials of online course design: A standards-based guide. New York and London: Routledge.