By Kevin Cheung, Associate Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed refers to a study that describes an unsuccessful attempt at helping students increase study time from 15 hours a week to 25 hours a week. Perhaps the results are not too surprising. Anyone who has attempted to go on a diet can attest to the difficulty of changing behaviours and habits and sustaining them. If students are used to spending 15 hours a week studying, nothing short of a shock (e.g. being put on academic probation) might be required to change their approach. Nudges might simply become noise that is ignored.

Before putting the blame entirely on students’ habits, it might be worth thinking about where the target number 25 could have come from. It seems to be part of higher education folklore that for every lecture hour, one should devote two hours of study time. Obviously, some courses will require more and some will require less. But if one regards full-time study as something that requires 40-50 hours a week, a full course load of 15 lecture hours a week leaves 25-35 hours a week for studying outside class. So, 25 hours a week is at the low end of what is expected of a full-time student.

Nevertheless, it is not clear if the majority of full-time students should be expected to devote 25 hours or more a week outside class studying. Uncertainties of modern life and financial pressure could make it difficult for students to maintain such a weekly schedule. Given that many universities often report six-year or seven-year graduation rates for four-year programs, it makes me wonder if a typical four-year program is actually beyond what a substantial number of undergraduate students can handle.

In any case, should boosting weekly study time turn out to be practically impossible, perhaps attention can be shifted towards improving efficiency of the learning process through the use of technology and the science of learning. Fortunately, numerous books and research articles have already been written on the subject. A library catalogue search turned up the title Efficiency in learning: evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load by Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen and John Sweller. For STEM subjects, techniques such as spaced retrieval and interleaved practice have shown to work well.

A major challenge for educators lies in devising effective activities so that even if students spend less than the ideal number of hours a week studying, they still have a chance to progress to the next level.