Gas station without pumps

2015 January 17

How big is a course?

Filed under: Circuits course,freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:42
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One of the questions that comes up when designing a course is how much work the course should be. When deciding whether to include a particular topic, exercise, reading assignment, project, test, paper, or whatever, there is always the question whether there is enough time for it, and whether it is important enough to be worth the time.  So how much time is there to allocate for a course?

In the UC system, most of the campus are on a quarter system (UCB and UC Merced are on semesters), with approximately 10 weeks of instruction followed by one week of exams. The exact number of instructional hours varies a bit from quarter to quarter, and between MWF and TTh classes, thanks to almost all holidays now being scheduled for Mondays.  All the quarter-based campuses have a 180-unit graduation requirement, where a unit is supposed to represent 3 hours of work a week for the 11 weeks of the quarter, so the 180-unit graduation requirement is supposed to mean 5940 hours of work (about 1485 a year).

UCSC is different from the other campuses, in that our courses are by default 5 units, while the other campuses generally have 3-unit or 4-unit courses. What I was not aware of until recently, however, is that UCSC also differs from the other campuses in terms of how many contact hours the students get with the professors per unit. UCSC 5-unit courses meet for 210 minutes per week. A full course, including exam, is 2100+180=2280 minutes, or 456 minutes per credit. Not counting the exam, there are 420 minutes per credit.  (In actual schedules, there may be up to 105 minutes of lecture missing due to holidays, reducing the time to as little as 399 minutes of lecture per credit.)

According to a proposal about changing class scheduling at UCSC, written in 2011, the other quarter-based campuses have at most 375 lecture minutes per credit, which lets them pack more class credits per classroom seat than UCSC does. (UCSC suffers a double whammy here, as it has the fewest classroom seats per student, thanks to former chancellors who grew the student population rapidly, on the theory that this would force the state to provide the needed infrastructure—the administrators who made this bone-headed prediction have since gone elsewhere, while the faculty are left with too many students and too few classroom seats.)

Of course, some classes involve far more contact hours. I’m a great believer in high-contact courses, where the students spend time with the faculty. For example, my Applied Circuits class in the spring has me in the classroom with the students for 3.5 hours a week, and in lab with them for another 6 hours a week, for 5700 minutes—at 7 credits that’s 814 minutes per credit,  80–90% more than the usual course. The senior design seminar I’m teaching this quarter has 1155 minutes of class for 2 credits plus 180 minutes per student of one-on-one meetings, or 668 minutes per credit—50–60% more than normal.  (Note: my time for 19 students is 76.25 hours for that class—over 5 times the usual contact hours for a 2-unit course, and that’s not counting the grading time for reading 4 drafts each of 19 theses, nor prep time.)  The freshman design seminar I’m also teaching  this quarter has 2030 contact minutes, for a 2-unit course, or 1015 minutes per credit (2.2–2.4 times normal contact hours). Those are just the scheduled contact hours—I also generally have 2–3 hours a week of office hours, and during the circuits course, I often have to stay late in the lab to help students finish.

So when I’m deciding how much homework to assign in, say, the freshman design seminar, I have to start with the 66 hours that the students are supposed to work for a 2-unit course, then subtract off the 33.83 hours of class time, and divide by 10 weeks to get about 3.2 hours of homework a week (or 3 hours a week, if some is done during exam week).  That is not a lot of homework, particularly if I want students to do some web searching and reading on their own, or do design tasks, which tend to be rather open-ended. It’s a good thing that the freshman design course doesn’t have any specifically mandated content—I can take the classes wherever student interests and abilities lead, without having to worry about whether I’ve covered everything.

Note that engineering students typically take a 17–18-unit load at UCSC (3 5-unit classes, plus labs), which comes to a 51–54-hour week, if they are doing what they are supposed to for all their classes. This workload does not allow much time for students to do a part-time job, and certainly not a full-time one. Some students, forced by the legislature’s defunding of the University to work to pay their tuition, end up with 20-hour work weeks on top of the 54 hours they are (or should be) putting in as students. The legislators may have partied their way through school and think that all students do, but the engineering students I see don’t have that luxury—being a full-time engineering student is not compatible with more than 5–10 hours a week of non-class-related work.

Engineering students at UCSC are usually advised to take two technical courses and one non-technical one. The justification is not that the students need the humanities for intellectual balance (even if it is true, students wouldn’t buy into that justification). Instead, the justification that the students accept is that grade inflation has gotten so extreme in the humanities that they can get an A– doing only half as much work as a 5-unit class should require, so that they have enough time to work on their technical courses or hold a part-time job to pay for college.

 

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