Credit Hours and "Time on Task"

When designing an online course, it can be hard to determine how much to ask of students each week. In a standard face-to-face class, time is obvious. For a 3 credit hour course, you spend 3 hours "in class" each week. Students are expected to complete assignments or readings between class sessions.

According to the "Carnegie Unit", students should be expected to spend 3 hours per week for every 1 credit hour (1 hour of class time, plus 2 hours of outside of class work). But without the contact time in the classroom, how do you judge how much instruction to give, assignments to expect, and time to spend in the online class?

This is where the concept of "Time on Task" comes in. Time on Task in the online environment refers to the amount of time students will be expected to engage with the required material. For example, if you record two lecture videos, one that is 7 minutes long and the other 12 minutes long, you should add that 19 minutes to the expected Time on Task for that week. Ideally, you will strive for the Carnegie Unit each week. If you have a 3 credit hour course, that means you want students to spend 9 hours of Time on Task.

Videos are easy to figure out, but what about a textbook chapter? Or responding to a discussion question? Or writing a reflection paper? Such tasks can be harder to time. To estimate as precisely as possible, follow the guidelines below.

Readings: Estimate about 2 minutes for every page you ask students to read. Add more time if the reading includes highly technical or advanced language.

Discussion Boards: Time investment depends on the requirements and approximate length of the discussion. Estimate ½-1 hour if the expectation is a thoughtful discussion post of ½ to one page in length. (One page = approximately 250 words.)

Papers: Consider page count, but also consider the type of paper. A research paper will take longer than a reflection paper, for example. You could reasonably estimate about ½ - 1 hour per page for less strenuous writing assignments, and up to 3-4 hours per page if a lot of researching and synthesizing of material is involved.

Exams: Assume students will need approximately 1 minute per multiple choice exam question. Other question types may require more time. Add time (amount depends on the # of questions) to review the exam before submitting it. Also consider study time. How much material do students need to review before the exam? How many hours would you reasonably expect students to study? (You can refer to the “reading” recommendations above if the exam is based on textbook chapters.)

Projects or Presentations: This is where it gets tricky. With so many possible parameters, you will need to rely on your past experiences or best “guestimate” for these learning activities. Contact Amy Simolo at if you want individual guidance for specific assignments.

These online estimators can help you to determine the Time on Task for a variety of learning activities:

Some things to consider:

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  • There will always be students who complete tasks faster than others, and students who complete tasks slower. “Time on Task” aims for the average student.
  • Accommodations may still need to be made. These may be made informally through you (extending an assignment deadline, for example), or formally through the CTLE.
  • If you are unsure that your estimates are accurate, survey your students to determine approximately how much time they spent on different activities, and make adjustments accordingly.
  • Contact Amy Simolo, your Faculty Development Specialist with any questions about the design or delivery of your online course, including estimation of Time on Task.

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Last Modified: July 29, 2020