Time on Task

How long will it take?

New online instructors often run into various questions when beginning to design their online and hybrid courses.

  • Just how long will this assignment take my students?
  • How long do I want my students to spend on this assignment?
  • How much time will my students spend in the course?
  • What is an appropriate amount of time students should spend on the material?

Perhaps it is best to begin with converting seat time and homework to total learning time.

In order for your course to be considered as distance learning at the University of Kentucky, it must meet the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) definition of distance learning.

For the purposes of the Commission on College's accreditation review, distance education is a formal educational process in which the majority of the instruction (interaction between students and instructors and among students) in a course occurs when students and instructors are not in the same place. Instruction may be synchronous or asynchronous. A distance education course may use the internet; one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices; audio conferencing; or video cassettes, DVD's, and CD-ROMs if used as part of the distance learning course or program.

Converting seat time and homework to total learning time:

Our academic credit model is based on classroom contact hours. The consensus in American higher education is that one college credit requires 15 hours of classroom time plus two or three additional hours of homework per hour of class time.

How can this model accommodate courses that have no to little seat time? The answer is to focus on total time on task.

Regardless of course mode or type of learning activities, the total amount of student time on task for any UK course-campus, online, blended, independent study, etc.  – should total 45 hours per credit/contact hour. For a 3-credit course, this works out to 135 total hours.

Course Weeks

Total Course Hours

Hours per Week













Calculating student time:

We did the research, and it looks like the literature points to three variable methods for calculating how long students will spend on a particular task.

  • The Experiential Method:
    • Faculty use their experience to estimate the time and effort needed by the typical student to successfully complete each of the learning activities in the class. Ex: Based on my class last semester, it took students about an hour to complete the activity.  (McDaniel, 2011)
  • The Proxy Method:
    • The instructor or course calculates how long it would take someone familiar with the material and assignment, like themselves or a TA, and multiplies it by some factor. Ex: Faculty takes one hour to complete assignment X, the student should take 3x as long. (Carnegie Mellon University, 2013)
  • Survey Method:
    • Faculty survey students following various assignments to poll how long it took them to complete a given activity, and use this data to design future activities and courses. Ex: Student poll data indicated 50% of the students finished the assignment in one hour, with the other majority falling within one standard deviation of the mean. (Carnegie Mellon University, 2013)

Keeping the students busy, some ideas for activities:

Best practices in higher education indicate that how students spend their time in on-campus and online courses is directly related to the assignments, assessments, and other tasks given by instructors.

Typical ON-CAMPUS Activities



  • Attending and taking notes on lectures and presentations
  • Participating in class discussions
  • Engaging in experiential learning activities (labs, studios, simulations, etc.)
  • Practicing new competencies
  • Taking quizzes or exams
  • Writing short essays



  • Reading
  • Reviewing class notes
  • Solving homework problems
  • Conducting research
  • Completing projects and major assignments
  • Preparing classroom presentations
  • Meeting with the instructor during office hours

The same categories of learning tasks or activities exist in online courses, though modified to make best use of online technologies and pedagogies.

On-campus learning activities modified for online learning (Turner 2005)

On-campus activities

Online version


Instructor’s commentary on the readings, with links to illustrative images, media, or text

Small-group work

Participation in the discussion area

Experiential learning activities

Online labs, interviews, activities within the community, and online field trips

Class discussion

Asynchronous forum where the instructor expands upon the lecture, answers questions, and facilitates student interaction

Example tasks and completion times for one week of a 16-week, 3-credit online course (Turner, 2005)



Viewing three, 15-minute lectures (text or video), with web links

1 hour

Reviewing lectures and exploring links

½ hour

Posting a short “knowledge check” self-assessment statement to the drop box.

½ hour

Reading assignments

1 hour

Completing a 10-item online quiz

1 hour

Posting to discussions (original post, responses to three classmates’ posts, responses to responses)

2 hours

Small group project meetings (web conference or asynchronous discussion) 

1 hour

Work on final research paper and presentation

1½ hours


8½ hour

Instructor activity in online courses

  • Designing the course
  • Posting new material after the course has been fully designed and is “live”
  • Checking in on student interactions, participation, and questions about the course
  • Giving feedback on assignments
  • Class management

(Vai & Sosulski, 2011)


Carnegie Mellon University, 2013. Solve a teaching problem: Assign a reasonable amount of work. Retrieved June, 2015.

McDaniel, E. A. (2011). Level of student effort should replace contact time in course design. Journal of Information Technology Education, 10(10).

New York State Education Department, Office of College and University Evaluation (2013). Policies: Determining time on task in online education. Retrieved July 3, 2013. 

Rhode Island Institute of Technology, 2014. Time on task. Retrieved June, 2015.

Turner, T. (2005). Student workload in the online course: Balancing on a rule-of-thumb. Educator’s Voice, 6(3). 

Vai, M. & Sosulski, K. (2011). Essentials of online course design: A standards-based guide. New York and London: Routledge.

The information on this page was created by the Rochester Institute of Technology Innovative Learning Institute and adapted for use. Other than institution-specific monikers, no changes were made to content. 


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