Motivating Students to Spend Sufficient Time on Weekly Assignments

Professor Heller, that’s voodoo math” was one of the funniest student comments I ever received after going through an in-class exercise in a college course.  The topic I was addressing was how much time students should expect to spend completing assignments and reading preparation materials for class during a non-testing week (weekly homework). My classroom exercise extrapolates student survey responses that typically conclude that five to six hours of weekly homework is very reasonable.  I feel that roughly five to six hours of weekly homework can propel students to benefit greatly from the class content and weekly graded assignments that enhance problem solving skills, computer skills and written presentation skills. This article will take you through this great tool that can establish a basis for your students to exert a quality effort towards your class.  

I also frequently ask students pursuing various fields of study at universities across the country about weekly homework effort. The threshold number of time effort towards weekly homework at undergraduate business schools has declined significantly over the decades as faculty priorities have shifted to conducting research, publishing, presenting findings at meetings and performing committee work. These non-teaching priorities make it rather difficult for professors to have sufficient time to develop, grade and field the questions associated with assigning frequent enough (weekly) assignments. The notion of declining student effort is also supported by research by the American Enterprise Institute that the average college student spends 42% less time studying compared to 1961.

Who Spends More Time Academically: College or High School Students?

Many of you will probably be surprised to know that the majority of undergraduate students spend less overall time on academics in college than in high school. How is this conclusion reached and possible? The following table shows that college students spend 25% less time per class than in high school. This leads to the conclusion that college students spend 38% less time for all classes, knowing that in high school, students take more subjects than in college.

In non-test weeks, I would estimate that most undergraduate business schools require two hours of weekly homework, and many of them less. Most undergraduate courses have structured class time of 2½ hours per week (one 2½ hour class, two 1¼ hour classes or three 50-minute classes). Most standard high school classes that are not on a block program meet five times for 50 minutes each or a total of 4¼ hours per week. In surveys I have conducted with hundreds of students, I am repeatedly informed through student surveys that the weekly homework in high school averages 1¾ hours per class. The student survey I use is available as a Free Attachment – Class One Survey on Academic Time Commitment. 

                                                   TIME SPENT ON HOMEWORK IN HIGH SCHOOL vs COLLEGE
Average Time Consumed High School College
Class time per Week 4.25 Hours 2.5 Hours
Homework per Week – Non-test Week (Assignments, Projects, and Readings) 1.75 2.0
Commute Time (not considered for this computation)  N/A N/A
Total time per Week for Each Class 6.0 4.5
% of Time Spent in College Compared to High School per Class                25% Less in College


Academic Classes Taken (Excludes Physical Education, etc.) 6.0 5.0
Total per Week Cumulative for all Classes 36.0 22.5
% of Time Spent in College Compared to High School for all Classes 38% Less in College

My average estimate of two hours of weekly homework at most undergraduate business programs is supported by the 2006  National Survey of Student Engagement Annual Report (NSSE), which said, “NSSE consistently finds that, across institutions, the average first-year student expects 14 hours a week preparing for classes. This number seems low, considering it encompasses all of the time a student is reading, preparing assignments, doing lab work and rehearsing. FSSE data indicates that faculty members expect students to spend more than twice that amount preparing.” Fourteen hours across five courses equates to 2.8 hours. Students past the first year do not necessarily spend more time on homework assignments than first-year students. I believe that business students spend less time than the 2.8 hour average as other disciplines are more demanding. Courses in fields including engineering, sciences, architecture, and liberal arts typically require significantly more time than business school courses completing readings, rehearsing, labs, major projects, performances, etc.

Motivating College Students to Spend More Work Time Outside the Classroom

How can a professor motivate students to spend five to six hours per class on weekly homework?

To motivate students effectively, it is vital that assignments and readings are engaging and worthwhile. During a first lecture, I have the students complete a survey, and then apply their responses to a progressive table similar to that above. I assure the students that their answers are anonymous and will be passed randomly to other students before being collectively queried in class to determine averages. The survey asks students to respond to the following questions.

  •  “How much weekly homework did you have in high school, on average, in a non-test week per class?”
  • “Including class time and weekly homework, should you be spending less time, the same amount, or more time in college than in high school?”  The survey gives students “more time” options of 15%, 30%, 50%, and 100%.
                                                                            ANALYSIS OF ACADEMIC COMMITMENT
Average Time Consumed High School College
Class time per Week 4.25 Hours 2.5 Hours
Homework per Week – Non-test Week(Assignments, Projects, and Assigned Readings) 1.75 (Survey) 5.3 Hours= (Plugged)
Commute Time (ignored in this computation)  N/A  N/A
Total per Week for Each Class 6.0  7.8 (Survey)
Higher % that College Should Require over High School                                                               30% (Survey)  = 7.80

 The above chart illustrates that students’ expectations result in five to six hours of weekly homework. It is this exact lecture process that resulted in a student comically yelling out, “Professor Heller, that’s voodoo math.”

 Is Five to Six Hours of Weekly Homework Reasonable?

Wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that time commitment toward undergraduate business school should be at least comparable to a full-time, 40-hour work week? A college student taking five classes with five to six hours of weekly homework equates to the following total weekly commitment to academics:

  Computation Assumption Hours per Week
Class time  Five classes @ 2 ½ hours/class 12.5
Homework  Five classes @ 5.5 hours/class 27.5
Total   40.0

What a coincidence that this is exactly equal to a standard 40 hour work-week! How is this possible? The obvious difference between high school and college is that class time is drastically reduced in each class: 4¼ versus 2½ hours weekly; a 40% reduction. Students need to realize two conclusive arguments from this important class-time:

  • Consistent with their survey, college should demand a higher time expectation than high school.
  • In college, you are in class a lot less—approximately 40% less—which gives you a great deal of free time during the day to spend on completing weekly homework.

Motivating Students to Exert Quality Time towards Weekly Homework Creates an All-Star Experience

Just like coaching a sport, motivating students to commit quality time toward a course can result in an all-star experience. Recognizing that elevated levels of student weekly homework are necessary to achieve this all-star experience is the first step. The second step is creatively selling students on the idea that five to six hours of weekly homework is reasonable. This article should provide the ammunition for “climbing” both of these steps and reaching the summit of academic success with your students.

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