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How to Respond When Things Get HardJennifer Sullivan
Most college students want to do well, but they don’t always know what is required to do well. Finding and spending quality study time is one of the first and most important skills that your student can master, but it's rarely as simple as it sounds.
If a student is struggling in class, one of the first questions I ask is, “How much time do you spend studying?”
Although it’s not the only element, time spent studying is one of the basics, so it’s a good place to start. Once we examine time, we can move on to other factors such as how, where, what and when students are studying, but we start with time.
If your student is struggling, help them explore how much time they are spending on schoolwork.
Very often, a student’s answer to how much time they spend hitting the books doesn’t match the expectation that most professors have for college students. There’s a disconnect about “how much is enough?”
Most college classes meet for a number of “credit hours” – typically 3 or 4. The general rule of thumb (and the definition of credit hour adopted by the Department of Education) is that students should spend approximately 2–3 hours on outside-of-class work for each credit hour or hour spent in the classroom.
Therefore, a student taking five 3-credit classes spends 15 hours each week in class and should be spending 30 hours on work outside of class, or 45 hours/week total.
When we talk about this, I can see on students’ faces that for most of them this isn’t even close to their reality!
According to one survey conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement, most college students spend an average of 10–13 hours/week studying, or less than 2 hours/day and less than half of what is expected. Only about 11% of students spend more than 25 hours/week on schoolwork.
Warning: math ahead!
It may be that students fail to do the math – or fail to flip the equation.
College expectations are significantly different from the actual time that most high school students spend on outside-of-school work, but the total picture may not be that far off. In order to help students understand, we crunch some more numbers.
Most high school students spend approximately 6 hours/day or 30 hours/week in school. In a 180 day school year, students spend approximately 1,080 hours in school. Some surveys suggest that the average amount of time that most high school students spend on homework is 4–5 hours/week. That’s approximately 1 hour/day or 180 hours/year. So that puts the average time spent on class and homework combined at 1,260 hours/school year.
Now let’s look at college: Most semesters are approximately 15 weeks long. That student with 15 credits (5 classes) spends 225 hours in class and, with the formula above, should be spending 450 hours studying. That’s 675 hours/semester or 1,350 for the year. That’s a bit more than the 1,260 in high school, but only 90 hours, or an average of 3 hours more/week.
The problem is not necessarily the number of hours, it's that many students haven’t flipped the equation and recognized the time expected outside of class.
In high school, students’ 6-hour school day was not under their control but they did much of their work during that time. That hour-or-so a day of homework was an add-on. (Some students definitely spend more than 1 hour/day, but we’re looking at averages.)
In college, students spend a small number of hours in class (approximately 15/week) and are expected to complete almost all their reading, writing and studying outside of class. The expectation doesn’t require significantly more hours; the hours are simply allocated differently – and require discipline to make sure they happen. What students sometimes see as “free time” is really just time that they are responsible for scheduling themselves.
Once we look at these numbers, the question that students often ask is, “How am I supposed to fit that into my week? There aren’t enough hours!”
Again: more math.
I remind students that there are 168 hours in a week. If a student spends 45 hours on class and studying, that leaves 123 hours. If the student sleeps 8 hours per night (few do!), that’s another 56 hours which leaves 67 hours, or at least 9.5 hours/day for work or play.
Many colleges recommend that full-time students should work no more than 20 hours/week at a job if they want to do well in their classes and this calculation shows why.
Many students may not spend 30 or more hours/week studying, but understanding what is expected may motivate them to put in some additional study time. That takes planning, organizing and discipline. Students need to be aware of obstacles and distractions (social media, partying, working too many hours) that may interfere with their ability to find balance.
Here are a few things your student can try.
Being a full-time student is a full-time job. Start by looking at the numbers with your student and then encourage them to create strategies that will keep them on task.
With understanding and practice, your student can plan for and spend the time needed to succeed in college.
Big choices — and big changes — are on the horizon for your senior and your entire family.