Recently some faculty and administrators in my college were considering what sort of expectations we have for clinical instructors, in terms of their teaching, scholarship, and service. This inspired me to consider how much hours it takes to teach well, and what time this leaves us for committee meetings, service to the college and department and community, advising, research, keeping up-to-date in our fields of expertise, and so forth. I’d like to share my calculations here.
First of all, let’s model an ideal situation, where faculty work a reasonable number of hours per week. I think 44 hours per week is a reasonable workload, and in a 44 hour work week for university faculty, I would suppose about 8 hours of labor are actually spent at lunch, breaks, walking around campus to get to meetings, and various other activities that don’t really contribute to teaching, service, or scholarship. So, a typical faculty in this ideal state would about 36 hours of productive working time per week in a semester in which to do what they are paid to do.
And how long is a semester? Well, faculty probably work on their courses and administrative duties a couple weeks before classes start, and then classes go on for about 15 weeks, and then there is the week of final exams, and the week after final exams when faculty are grading those exams or final papers and so forth, so that’s 19 weeks of work. Usually there is a week of vacation in there somewhere, either spring break or the Thanksgiving break, but in this ideal scenario we’re just ignoring that in the hopes that in this ideal world the faculty get a week of vacation in there. That gives a typical faculty member about 684 hours to labor in a typical semester, at least in this model in which they are working a reasonable work week.
During the 15 weeks of courses, faculty must show up for classes, and that usually involves 2-4 hours of time per class each week (for simplicity’s sake, we’ll say 3 hours). Each week a faculty member teaching three courses must be present with the classes of students for about 9 hours. This time is the same whether a class has four students or 84 students.
Then there is a flexible amount of time a faculty member can devote to preparing for each class session or preparing for their class before the semester begins. They can design and prepare exercises, simulations, lab assignments, lecture notes, and so forth. They can update everything. They can make new tests, new discussion questions, and choose new readings. They must design a syllabus, and they must prepare assignment descriptions or tests. There is a minimum threshold to all this work, and there is probably a maximum number beyond which additional hours of labor get someone no discernible improvements in the quality of instruction.
Another significant variable shaping the need for this sort of labor is the experience of the faculty in teaching the course. If it is the faculty’s first time teaching the course, and the faculty is new, and the course is in an area the faculty knows about, but it’s not the faculty’s specialty, then preparation time can be immense, easily 10 hours per week just to do a reasonable job. If the faculty has taught the course a few times before, and the course is directly related to the faculty’s special interests and expertise, then class preparation times are drastically reduced, and one can probably do an excellent job with just 2-3 hours of preparation per week of classes. Typically there is more time devoted to this class preparation in the two weeks preceding the start of classes, and then a fairly constant amount of time throughout the weeks of classes, and then almost no time devoted to it in the weeks following classes, so all in all, the average over the 19 weeks of work in a semester is probably close to the average spent in a typical week. This is a number of labor hours that is also fairly constant and independent of class sizes. In fact, preparing lectures and group exercises and discussion questions for a class of 55 may require less time than the more detailed preparation one might need to do for a more intimate and personal class of 15.
Then there is the time devoted to evaluating student work and giving students individual attention, mainly through writing comments on their papers or lab work, but also in grading tests, answering questions or e-mails related to class during office hours, and so forth. On one extreme, a faculty member can give almost no feedback and use only multiple-choice tests. On the other extreme, a faculty can give copious feedback on writing style, reasoning, critical thinking, sources, grammar, and so forth. The minimum requirement that leads to almost no feedback aside from submission of grades at the end of the semester probably averages out over 19 weeks to about 5 minutes per student in class per week (slightly over 90 minutes per student per semester). If one gives five assignments and a few tests and gives copious helpful feedback on each assignment, assigns a great amount of writing and actually carefully reads all the writing and comments on a fair portion of it, then one could easily devote 12 hours per student per class per semester, averaging nearly an hour per week per student during the 15 weeks of classes (although not spread evenly across the 15 weeks of classes, but rather concentrated in weeks following submission of assignments).
So, here are my hour estimates for the time required to teach three courses with 18 students in each course over a semester, at a minimal level, a high level, and the highest level that still makes sense, using 1.5, 8, and 13 hours per student per semester as the times faculty would devote to student feedback; 2 hours, 5 hours, and 10 hours as the time faculty would devote to class preparation on average per week; and 3 hours per week for actual in-class time for each course during the 15 weeks of the semester for all three scenarios:
Time in a semester per course:
Average reasonable time for an experienced faculty member giving high quality feedback: 280.
Time for a newer faculty teaching some new courses and giving outstanding help to students in the class: 460 hours.
Time for an experienced faculty member doing a minimal effort with minimal feedback to students: 110 hours.
In actual practice, I think something like 200-250 hours per course is the actual labor time for teaching at a level of excellence with some degree of efficiency after you’ve had two or three years of experience as a professor. However, most faculty teach at a level of high quality (very good work) rather than a level of outstanding excellence, so most faculty get by with some sort of effort around 170-200 hours in a semester per class they teach, assuming the class sizes are around 18-20 students.
What is the amount of time this leaves faculty for their research, their scholarly work, their attending meetings of their department or college, their service to various governance committees and other sorts of clubs or committees on campus? What about their time meeting with their advisees, or the time they spend talking to prospective students or alumni? What if they must travel for a three-day trip to a conference where they present a paper and attend many hours of sessions? What if they are volunteering in the community or in a scholarly association, and helping to serve on an advisory board, or organize a conference, or do accreditation site visits? What about the memos they must write, the schedules and book requests they must submit? What about service on search committees, hosting potential colleagues to campus visits or reviewing scores of files of job applicants? What about training sessions? What about the 40-60 e-mails they receive each day? What about showing support for students by attending student events? Anyway, if a faculty member is spending 200 hours per course per semester, this leaves about 84 hours per semester for all the research and service. If a faculty member is spending 170 hours per course, they will have about the same number of hours per semester (174 hours) to do all their scholarly and service and administrative work.
Now, how many hours are faculty expected to devote to service, and how many hours are required to produce high quality scholarship? Assuming a professor puts 510 hours into teaching three courses with 54 students across the three courses over the semester, and then divides their time with 90 hours in scholarship and 84 hours in service, that gives them about 4 hours and 45 minutes each week for scholarship and 4 hours and 25 minutes each week for service and administration.
1). If a faculty is expected to teach 4 courses per semester rather than 3 (as clinical instructors may be asked to do), there will be no significant time left for scholarship or service. Faculty teaching 4 courses per semester should have no expectations for service or scholarship.
2). If class sizes increase from 18 to 25, average hours devoted to feedback to each student will decrease (assuming hours allocated to scholarship and service remain constant). If a faculty member devotes 3-4 hours to individualized attention and feedback for each student (in reading and critiquing assignments and so forth) over the course of a whole semester, can this give the student an equally high quality education as when faculty devote 6-8 hours per semester to each student? We are assuming here that class preparation hours from the faculty and actual class time are held constant, and we’re just reducing individualized instruction and feedback. Is that individualized feedback and evaluation so important that a reduction of two or three hours per student in the time faculty give to individualized attention (over the course of a whole semester) going to harm students? I think it will.
3) Taxpayers who help fund universities should insist that public universities organize their spending and administrative structures in such a way that average class sizes remain at or below 20 students per class. A change in average class sizes from the 15-20 range up to the 20-25 range probably diminishes the quality of education in colleges that are not highly selective (students at highly selective schools probably need less individualized time from their instructors). Certainly a rise from the 15-20 class size range to the 25-30 students per class will greatly diminish individualized feedback from faculty. Faculty will need to compensate by training students to give peer feedback and using peer feedback to supplement the greatly reduced faculty feedback.
But still, faculty and the taxpaying public should fight to keep class sizes smaller. Universities ought to spend more than 50% of all revenue gained from tuition payments and allocations from unrestricted state funding to the costs of direct student advising and teaching (and library services). Efficiency gains in the structure of universities and allocation of money toward direct provision of services should be a high priority, and take precedence over attempts to squeeze greater “teaching efficiency” from faculty. Teaching 25 students rather that 15 students per class is not necessarily more efficient in terms of actual learning gained by the students in a classroom. That is, economic efficiency is not the same as pedagogical efficiency. Given the constraints of reasonable workloads and working hours and the need for quality scholarship and service, and given the actual numbers of hours needed for class preparation and individualized feedback, maximum efficiencies in teaching are probably obtained in class sizes of 15-20. Average class sizes of 20 are sustainable if public subsidy of teaching costs are set at close to 50% and average tuition costs actually paid for a year of public university education are set at about 20% of median year-round full-time income and faculty earn incomes at close to the median year-round full-time income for college-educated males, provided that over half of tuition and unrestricted state subsidies go to direct instructional and advising and library costs, and administrative and support costs are kept at less than 50%.
3). If quality scholarship requires more than 4-5 hours of work per week over a semester, and faculty are expected to have a reasonable work week of about 44 hours, then faculty will need to reduce time devoted to courses or to service and administration. Universities should be careful not to lay administrative burdens on faculty that would likely exceed an average of 4-5 hours per week. If university governance requires that some faculty give significantly more than 5 hours per week to departmental service or university service, then a system should be created to allow those faculty to teach fewer courses or smaller courses.