Dutch universities have an arguably peculiar academic calendar: each semester breaks down in two blocks (actually 3, but only 2 are teaching blocks) so 4 blocks in total. Each full course is block-long (around 32-36 hours per block, usually 7 teaching weeks with 4-6 hours per week) which might seems short and "rushed". Each such course is 4-6 ECTS.

When I am talking with some other Dutch colleagues, they are not exactly able to justify this but they claim that "is about quality, not quantity". Sure, but how can you teach, for example, Calculus in 34 hours total including tutorials etc.? (I am using the example of calculus because they try to fit in such a course single and multi-variate calculus, series, differential equations etc.).

Anyway, I am wondering if there exists any particular study or report that argues that is more beneficial to have more blocks with fewer hours per block/course than the traditional break-out of the academic calendar.

I am not sure if other countries have similar systems, Netherlands is the only one I know so it might be country-specific.

  • In is there...any study [on] the potential benefits of such a system, what exactly do you mean by such a system?
    – user2768
    May 28, 2019 at 13:23
  • Is this really a country-specific question? Can you generalise, e.g., are there any studies that consider the number of contact hours in relation to X? (I'm not sure what specifically what the OP is asking, hence, I'm unsure what X should be.) If so, then maybe generalise and use the Dutch example to illustrate a particular case.
    – user2768
    May 28, 2019 at 13:25
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    To the people voting to close as "primarily opinion-based": The question specifically asks, " I am wondering if there exists any study or report that argues that is more beneficial". Asking for evidence as to the benefits of a way of organising academic terms is clearly not opinion-based, and IMHO is also clearly on-topic. Voting to leave open.
    – Flyto
    May 28, 2019 at 17:13
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    What is your field and where are you teaching? I completed both a bachelor and a master in The Netherlands, and I now teach at master level here, but I've never been in this system. Generally speaking, 40 hours counts for 1.5 ECTS. So a course of 6 ECTS takes 4 full time weeks. Some of that is allowed to be self study and it can be spread out over more than 4 weeks, though for me it never was. Disclaimer: I'm in the exact sciences and I have heard contact hours can be far less in the social sciences.
    – Maximus
    May 28, 2019 at 21:08
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    You have misunderstood this system or are working at an institution that is doing some really strange (possibly illlegal) stuff. At my university's CS degree it works like this: each semester is broken down into 2 blocks of 10 weeks. Each block contains 3 courses of 5 ECTS and a 40h per week work load (per week, not per block). Meaning you will spend roughly 13-14h per week per course, for 10 weeks, for a total of 140h for a 5ECTS course. 1 ECTS = 28h, so there is no way what you are saying is correct, or is it illegal. May 29, 2019 at 7:53

2 Answers 2


I doubt that there is a demonstrated benefit, but I also doubt that it is a problem or an issue. The length of a term is basically arbitrary. The number of credits assigned to a "term length course" is just a number. What matters is that (a) there is a fair amount of consistence within a system and (b) that a translation to other systems is possible and rational.

Some national systems are historical and based on the country's past. In the US, terms were heavily influenced by the agricultural past. In some countries, say UK, terms are somewhat determined by religious holidays and conventions. But, if a student has some sense that the system behaves in a stable and predictable manner, then it isn't an issue.

Universities are good about knowing how to do the translations when students move from one system to another. Again, no real issue.

But, I'll guess that over, say a year, a student from The Netherlands and one from UK or US who applies him/herself equally to the study, will learn about the same.

Breaking up a total curriculum into more or fewer longer or shorter "chunks" with more or fewer credit numbers is not especially relevant as long as the student knows what to expect.

Trying to do it 36 contact course what other do in 45, would possibly be an issue, but even that can be "about the same" depending on what students are expected to do overall and what is expected of them when not face to face with a professor.

Local consistency and predictability is enough.

  • This answer would be improved by providing a study or report, as asked for, or explaining how widely one searched for such but did not find it.
    – Tommi
    May 29, 2019 at 7:37
  • Thanks. Of course each country/uni is free to choose whatever they see fit for their purposes. I would just like to know if there is any study about the potential merits of having short blocks over long semesters.
    – PsySp
    May 29, 2019 at 9:38

Your question is unclear. Your real problem seems to be with the amount of contact hours, as you put in the comments:

"A typical course consists of about twelve 2-hour lectures plus a set of six 2-hour tutorials. In this duration it is supposed to cover the entire content of a semester-long course (which typically is 48+ contact hours)."

But the amount of contact hours has nothing to do with the use of a 4 block year rather than a 2 block year (i.e. semesters). The amount of contact hours differs per course and each university does it differently; there is no law that decides this*. Some universities prefer very few contact hours, others more. That is not really a property of the Dutch education system as a whole.

Having said that, Dutch universities do rely heavily on self-study, although I'm sure universities in other countries do too. A course that takes up 5 ECTS (=140h) in 10 weeks will take a student 14h per week. Any number of this might be contact hours, but usually it will range from 2 to 6 hours. The rest will be filled up with self-study, which includes reading material, doing assignments, and everything else.

I couldn't find any research about what the best ratio of contact hours to self-study is. But at my university, and at others as well from what I've seen, courses are evaluated through individual student feedback and student committees every year, which is treated seriously by the university. Courses change every year to better fit the needs of students and the appropriate learning goals and difficulty level.

Looking internationally, Dutch universities rank pretty well: several, especially the technical universities, frequently rank within the top 100 globally. So it seems to be working fine.

*Since 2013 Bachelor degrees are mandated to have at least 12 contact hours in the first year. Other than that universities can do as they like.

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    Thank you. But I made a clear distinction between "contact hours" not about total hours spent per student which can be highly subjective. I came in NL from another system and having to teach the exact same course, I can tell you that we cover far less material (and in far less detail) in NL that I was covering otherwise simply because there are too few contact hours. Ranking of uni's depend on many factors, and I am not so sure if breaking a semester into 2 teaching block enhances the learning capabilities of the students. In any case, I would like to see some report/study justifying this.
    – PsySp
    May 29, 2019 at 9:26
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    Once again I posit that the duration of a course and the total amount of contact hours are not related. You can have a 10 week course with a total of 80 contact hours, and a 20 week course with 20 contact hours total. Your issue seems to be that there are too few contact hours. You can easily raise the amount of contact hours and decrease the self-study hours while keeping a 4 block system. Moreover, as I've already mentioned, the ratio of contact hours to self-study differs per course, per degree, and per institution. May 29, 2019 at 12:51

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