How Much Homework is Too Much?

student working in library

When redesigning a course or putting together a new course, faculty often struggle with how much homework and readings to assign. Too little homework and students might not be prepared for the class sessions or be able to adequately practice basic skills or produce sufficient in-depth work to properly master the learning goals of the course. Too much and some students may feel overwhelmed and find it difficult to keep up or have to sacrifice work in other courses.

A common rule of thumb is that students should study three hours for each credit hour of the course, but this isn’t definitive. Universities might recommend that students spend anywhere from two or three hours of study or as much as six to nine hours of study or more for each course credit hour. A 2014 study found that, nationwide, college students self reported spending about 17 hours each week on homework, reading and assignments. Studies of high school students show that too much homework can produce diminishing returns on student learning, so finding the right balance can be difficult.

There are no hard and fast rules about the amount of readings and homework that faculty assign. It will vary according to the university, the department, the level of the classes, and even other external factors that impact students in your course. (Duke’s faculty handbook addresses many facets of courses, such as absences, but not the typical amount of homework specifically.)

To consider the perspective of a typical student that might be similar to the situations faced at Duke, Harvard posted a blog entry by one of their students aimed at giving students new to the university about what they could expect. There are lots of readings, of course, but time has to be spent on completing problem sets, sometimes elaborate multimedia or research projects, responding to discussion posts and writing essays. Your class is one of several, and students have to balance the needs of your class with others and with clubs, special projects, volunteer work or other activities they’re involved with as part of their overall experience.

The Rice Center for Teaching Excellence has some online calculators for estimating class workload that can help you get a general understanding of the time it may take for a student to read a particular number of pages of material at different levels or to complete essays or other types of homework.

To narrow down your decision-making about homework when redesigning or creating your own course, you might consider situational factors that may influence the amount of homework that’s appropriate.

Connection with your learning goals

Is the homework clearly connected with the learning goals of your students for a particular class session or week in the course? Students will find homework beneficial and valuable if they feel that it is meaningful. If you think students might see readings or assignments as busy work, think about ways to modify the homework to make a clearer connection with what is happening in class. Resist the temptation to assign something because the students need to know it. Ask yourself if they will actually use it immediately in the course or if the material or exercises should be relegated to supplementary material.

Levels of performance

The type of readings and homework given to first year students will be very different from those given to more experienced individuals in higher-level courses. If you’re unsure if your readings or other work might be too easy (or too complex) for students in your course, ask a colleague in your department or at another university to give feedback on your assignment. If former students in the course (or a similar course) are available, ask them for feedback on a sample reading or assignment.

Common practices

What are the common practices in your department or discipline? Some departments, with particular classes, may have general guidelines or best practices you can keep in mind when assigning homework.

External factors

What type of typical student will be taking your course? If it’s a course preparing for a major or within an area of study, are there other courses with heavy workloads they might be taking at the same time? Are they completing projects, research, or community work that might make it difficult for them to keep up with a heavy homework load for your course?

Equity

Students who speak English as a second language, are first generation students, or who may be having to work to support themselves as they take courses may need support to get the most out of homework. Detailed instructions for the homework, along with outlining your learning goals and how the assignment connects the course, can help students understand how the readings and assignments fit into their studies. A reading guide, with questions prompts or background, can help students gain a better understanding of a reading. Resources to look up unfamiliar cultural references or terms can make readings and assignments less overwhelming.

If you would like more ideas about planning homework and assignments for your course or more information and guidance on course design and assessment, contact Duke Learning Innovation to speak with one of our consultants.

Randy Riddle

Author: Randy Riddle

Randy Riddle is a Senior Consultant in Duke Learning Innovation and consults with faculty in the Social Sciences on pedagogy, learning, student assessment, and integrating technology into teaching practices. His professional interests include active learning, “flipped” classroom methods, inclusive classroom strategies, and integration of e-learning tools, social networking, video and multimedia, and data visualization into the daily work of teaching.