Columns

Steinman ’19: A case for hours on syllabi

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, October 7, 2016

Two recent articles in The Herald have taken note of a new requirement for this year’s syllabi: the delineation of hours to be spent on work outside of class. The reaction to these new criteria has been mixed. Herald columnist Ameer Malik ’18 wrote a column Friday criticizing the new measurements as “inaccurate and lazy.” The requirements spring from rules implemented by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in 2010 that define three hours of work per week as one “credit hour.” A four-credit class over a 15-week semester therefore requires 180 hours of work. This year is the first time since the implementation of the new rules that Brown is being reaccredited by NEASC, a process described by Deputy Provost Joe Meisel as a “kind of peer review system,” hence the change in the syllabi.

One problem that many, including Malik, have raised with the requirement is that the hours seem contrived to meet the 180-hour baseline set by the federal government and NEASC. I couldn’t find the reasoning behind the 180 hours in NEASC’s “Policy on Credits and Degrees.” It may well be an arbitrary federal requirement. Given this seemingly top-down regulation, it’s not hard to understand why professors made rough estimates or felt obliged to “(scramble) to come up with a time scheme that would reach 180 hours,” as Professor of International and Public Affairs and Political Science Ross Cheit explained in the Oct. 4 Herald article.

But despite the complications associated with the 180-hour requirement, assessing a class based on hours per week is nothing new. The Critical Review, which releases reviews of undergraduate courses at Brown, includes in its assessments the number of hours students say they spent on the course in a typical week and at a maximum. I’ve often wondered how accurate these self-assessments end up being; I know personally that I tend to have no idea how many hours I’ve spent over the course of the semester. Clearly, basing a class’ workload off a metric of hours spent is flawed, but I believe the flaw is not systemic and can be fixed relatively easily.

When I first looked at the syllabi for my classes at the beginning of the semester, I didn’t know about NEASC or the reaccreditation process. My gut reaction was to see the hours requirement as a positive change, particularly for incoming first-years. Homework in college is vastly different from homework in high school, both in terms of the time invested and in what is expected by professors. Thinking back to my freshman fall, I would have found it reassuring to know that it’s normal to spend two, even three hours on reading for a single lecture in a humanities class.

Of course, everyone works at their own pace, and that varies day to day as well. Weekly assignments that took half an hour last week might take an hour and a half this week. Interpreting these requirements as hard and fast is unproductive. But there is another way to view the hours listed on the syllabus: as part of an ongoing conversation between professor and student about how to achieve class goals. A general guideline, perhaps a range, for time to spend on an assignment can help both sides understand how much work is expected. If both students and professors are somewhat in the dark about how to value work, it is because both sides are attempting to do so independently when this process should be nothing but collaborative. Now that the syllabus has hourly guidelines, professors should request feedback on how well the guidelines — which should always be treated as suggestions — reflect the actual course load. By seeking responses from students at the end of a unit or assignment on the amount of time they spent on work, professors can gain a greater understanding of the impact and difficulty of their curricula. This would shed more light upon both the estimates currently in the syllabi and the broad metric in the Critical Review. From there, the syllabus can be refined for the next semester, furthering future students’ understanding of how the class will function.

The point is not to make students feel that they don’t work quickly enough, but to ensure that the work they do and the time they spend is valued and accounted for. Both professors and students will get more out of a class when both sides are made more fully aware of the effort required to thrive in a course. Some of my most frustrating moments in college have been when I’ve felt unable to understand what a professor is asking for. I’m sure that professors feel similarly when their expectations go unheeded. Being open when it comes to these expectations would benefit both professors and students, and noting the hours to spend on an assignment on the syllabus is a good way to start. Nothing in college is more limited than time. If allotted in a way that involves input from both professors and students, the time that we spend on our work and in our lives will be enriched for it.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu.

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