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Background: Just completed my PhD, have to teach one part of a graduate course in EE. Remaining course is taught by another senior prof. Course has two classes, totalling 3 hours per week, and one assignment every week which involves one or more of simulation (SPICE), some programming (MATLAB) and some hand-calculation / circuit design. The assignments are worth 40% of the course eval, the remaining being in-class exams.

How long should each assignment be? For instance, I can design the assignment such that it takes the average student (who has attended the lectures) X hours of effort. How do I choose X?

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    I think this really strongly depends on the content of the course and depends a ton on opinions. Universities often have guidelines (more directed towards students) about how much work to expect for a given course. For US universities I have been familiar with based on "credit hours" (where 15 credits per semester, 2 semesters per year = graduation in 4 years), the guideline is typically "1 credit = 1 hour class time, 2 hours effort outside class weekly" - of course in reality there is a ton of variance around those numbers. – Bryan Krause Mar 24 '17 at 18:49
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    (also, with programming assignments in particular, the time to complete assignments is likely to depend heavily on programming experience, even in other languages, moreso than whether students attend your lectures; if the learning goal is only to master EE concepts rather than learn about simulation environments, I would suggest assignments that build on each other or where some of the backbone of the code is provided) – Bryan Krause Mar 24 '17 at 18:52
  • I ask because university has a guideline (for students) stating something like: for graduate courses each credit is worth over 3 hours of time per week including classroom and/or lab and/or studio hours. courses in medicine will require much more. – kabZX Mar 24 '17 at 19:04
  • So then I think it depends on what you think your students best use of time is out of class: if you think they will learn more from working on the assignments, then those assignments should take most of the 2 hours per credit per week; if there is substantial time that you expect them to spend reading materials, preparing for the major exams, etc, then adjust accordingly. I don't think anyone can give you a more precise answer than that. – Bryan Krause Mar 24 '17 at 19:15
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    How long should each assignment be? -- To quote Abraham Lincoln: Long enough to reach the ground. Assignments should take as long as they need to reach the educational goals/requirements of the course. – JeffE Mar 25 '17 at 3:08
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I use a rule of thumb that out-of-class work, including assigned reading, should be about twice the in-class hours. So, a class with 2-1/2 hours of classroom work per week should have about five hours of outside work per week.

For a 15-hour load with 2-1/2 contact hours per three credit course, that works out to 37-1/2 hours a week, a fair approximation of full time.

For any class, some students will find the work to be easy and it'll take less time than you estimate. Others will find it difficult and it will take much more time. You're looking for the median and a fairly low standard deviation.

Early in my teaching career, I asked some classes to keep a journal in which they recorded the time spent out of class. The responses seemed highly suspect, so now I just talk to some of the better students from time to time and ask about how long they spend.

  • A great answer in all respects, very useful. – aparente001 Mar 24 '17 at 23:58
  • Maybe it's me, but I find that rules of thumb like "x number of hours in class means y hours outside of class" to be rather (for lack of a better word, and I mean no disrespect) ridiculous. If I assign 5 problems per week for a typical credit-hour course, however long students take to do it is how long it takes. As you have also observed, some students will spend an hour or two, and some probably put in 8 hours or more, but I'm not sure why I would bother trying to figure out the standard deviation, median, or anything else. – Mad Jack Mar 25 '17 at 21:20
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    @MadJack In principle one's experience as student and educator should inform you (and other professors) of how long a task will take a moderate to good student to complete. Just as it should inform you on how long it will take you to do an example in-class, or cover a theorem, etc. Similarly for how long an exam problem will take to solve. You encounter significant problems if you accidentally make a 6 question exam for a 50 minute period and one or more of the problems reasonably takes 20+ minutes. In practice this is can be hard as hell, of course. – zibadawa timmy Mar 26 '17 at 0:49
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For undergraduate courses, the usual rule of thumb is 2 hours of work per hour of lecture. As a (US) undergraduate is considered full-time if they are taking 12 credit hours, this jives well: 12 hrs lecture + 2*12hrs work = 36 hrs /week, which is roughly equivalent to a full-time job.

On this basis, consider that a (US) graduate student is generally considered a full-time student if they are enrolled in 9 credit hours. If we consider full-time to equate to ~40hrs of involvement per week, we find that the multiplier should be closer to 3: 9 hrs lecture + 3*9 hrs work = 36 hrs/week. Given that you are placing 40% of the grade on assignments, the extra time seems reasonable.

As always, however, feedback from your trusted students should steer the length of assignments. Several other considerations worth factoring in:

  • Are your students primarily TAs / RAs / employed in industry? Are they actively working on dissertations? What sort of time demands are involved by these other activities?
  • Some graduate level problems can be difficult to solve in a consistent amount of time---a typical assignment is harder to break apart as "solve for x in these 20 problems." From my personal experience as a graduate student, the time I took to complete a graduate level assignment was much more variable.
  • A useful estimation for gauging the length of an assignment is to honestly complete the assignment yourself (writing out complete sentences, commenting code written from scratch, etc), preferably a few days after writing up the assignment so the problems aren't fresh in your mind, and time how it takes you to produce solutions. This is a baseline for how fast a student could ever possibly complete the assignment; multiply this by an appropriate factor to account for thinking / debugging / erasing, etc. I have personally found that a multiplier of 5 to 6 works well for me.
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I have heard before that two-three hours of homework per hour of class is appropriate. However, I think that a more effective way of looking at homework is how meaningful and thought-provoking the assignment is.

Students today are very busy - many have families and jobs outside of class. If they view their weekly 6-9 hours of homework as busy work, they won't do it or they will do it with minimal attention. My suggestion is to make specific goals for each week's assignment ("I want them to be able to do X after today's lecture" or "I want them to know A, B, and C before the next lecture.") and then build the homework assignments around that. Research shows that particularly millennial students value assignments that "get to the point." So, I design reading and writing assignments that convey the goals I want in the least amount of time. So, my students only have about 2-3 hours of reading and writing each week outside of their 3-hour course. However, they always show up prepared and ready to apply their home assignments in-class!

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