Monday, December 18, 2017

How undergrads spend their time

The 2017 results from the National Survey of Student Engagement have been out for a little while. I tell my undergrad students the "3 hours outside of class per credit" rule of thumb, but we all know no one really spends that much time on average on classwork--I certainly didn't. But I did spend more than the current average of 17 hours per week on my classes! For a typical 4-5 course load, this averages to about 3-4 hours spent outside scheduled hours per course. This result is in line with the results from 5 year averages (2011-2015) found by the American Time Use Survey at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, where students said they spent 3.5 hours per day on educational activities on a typical weekday. My first year teaching a new class, I can spend about that much time per lecture!

This does explain a lot of my observations in my sophomore level undergrad class, though. A surprisingly large number of my students are convinced that attending class should be enough to teach them everything they need to know to get an A, no matter what I say about problem solving and practicing. Some of those appear to be attempting to learn by class osmosis, since they pay no attention to me while in class. Another cohort of students is convinced that there is no reason to attend class, since they can just cram from the textbook or the problem set answer keys the night before the exam like they did in high school. I'd say that about 40-50% of my students regularly attend class, and at least 20-30% of the students in class are doing something else instead of paying attention. I teach a required class that is a prerequisite for many later courses in the undergrad program, so I get that many of the students are not all that interested in the subject matter, but it is definitely material they will need to know in upper level courses. The lack of understanding about this is a bit concerning. It also makes me glad I don't teach the required upper level courses!

Since so many of my students are mailing it in, I sometimes have a hard time pitching the level of the class. Recently, I decided to focus on my more engaged students, and not worry so much about the ones who don't seem to be working, and that strategy seems to be working well. The separation between the top of the class (I have many really great, hard working students in my courses) and the bottom is getting larger, and the middle is emptying out.  My grade distributions have always been a bit bimodal, but now it is getting extremely so. I usually put one or more questions assigned on problem sets on my exams unmodified, and find that fewer than 60% of the students get them correct anyway, implying that many (most!?!) of my students are not doing the assigned work, or don't understand it and don't care enough to get help. Concentrating on those who are there to learn is less frustrating for me and I think for the students who care. My teaching evaluations are consistently good, so I am not getting feedback otherwise.

I actually think that a number of the students who seemingly don't care are just lacking study and/or time management skills. They don't know how to learn material on their own or how to prioritize, which are part of any University level course. I've started giving in class study tips on the first day, and exam taking tips right before my exams, but I feel like that is preaching to the choir in a lot of ways. Also, many of my students who need such help are convinced that they know better, and ignore me anyway.

The time management is a much bigger problem. Some of my students are convinced that they have an exam conflict when they have more than one exam on the same day. Some of my students ask me to change exam dates due to an exam the day before, or a major assignment due that day. Some of my students tell me about exam conflicts the week of the exam, rather than at the beginning of the course when it is easier for me to do something about it. For almost every course at ProdigalU, exam dates are given on the syllabus, which is available on the first day of class, as are the due dates for major assignments. It boggles my mind that some students don't think to use a calendar to help them plan their study time. A really large number of my students lurch from deadline to deadline, working on whatever is due in the next day or so, rather than using any sort of schedule to reduce the pressure on themselves. Even stranger, many of my unsuccessful students seem to have no idea what they need to do to pass the classes they are in danger of failing.

When I was a student, I wasted a lot of time during the day to do most of my work at night, I started a lot of assignments much later than I should have (sometimes the night before), and I didn't always do problem sets that weren't graded, all of which are pretty typical student behaviors. I also didn't "discover" office hours until junior year. So I do get where my students are coming from. But I also attended lectures and tried to concentrate on class when I was there, I focused on work when I was working (no multitasking), and I made sure I did enough to get at least a C+, even in required classes I hated.

I don't want this to be a "kids today" post, because current students also spend a lot of time on average working for pay (13 hours), volunteering (2 hours), doing extracurricular activities (4.5 hours), and caring for dependents (3.5 hours), all of which are also important. The standard deviations on all of these values are quite large (50-140%), because the range of experience is so large. It is still concerning that 1) there is a huge disconnect for many students between desired outcome and what is required to get there, and that 2) each generation of students has more and more background knowledge they need to know and tries to learn it in less and less time. 


GradStudent said...

So many high schools (at least around where I went to high school) emphasize SO MUCH that "extracurriculars are vital, join every committee you can, be involved in all societies related to your field." The rationale I was given is that you have to set yourself apart from everyone else in your major to get a good job upon graduation. I think it's good to be involved in some things, but a lot of people took it to the extent that it really interfered with the actual academic part of college.

Just out of curiosity, for undergraduate courses that you teach, what is your expectation for amount of work outside the classroom? One of my professors my sophomore year pointed out that every credit hour of in-class time should correspond to three hours of out-of-class work. Is this standard? For some reason that helped me so much to actually be able to schedule in the number of hours I needed to spend on each class because it was so easy to just procrastinate. I hope to be a professor some day and want to make sure to point out that rule-of-thumb, since I think a lot of times the students are coming from high school where they didn't have to work exceptionally hard and are just now trying to develop good study skills. Just thought I'd ask your perspective!

prodigal academic said...

The 3 credits per in-class credit hour is pretty standard. It is what I was told at PhDU, and it is what I tell the students in my courses to start with as a rule of thumb. Of course, some things are easier/harder for some people to learn, so the time spent outside of class needs to be adjusted accordingly.

I agree with you that many of my students are unused to/did not need to work that hard in high school, and that the jump to University level can be a rough one at first. Many of my undergrad students need to improve their study habits if they want to succeed, which is something I begin with for my sophomore level courses.