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Tips for Teaching Online: Estimating Time for Course Activities

Updated on June 9, 2015

Timing Matters

So you're an online instructor and have your learning objectives written. You've considered the types of assessments you might use, and are ready to select the types of learning activities to use in your course.

In this article, you'll be introduced to ideas about timing course activities that are vital to success in online teaching and learning.

Introduction to Systematic Instructional Design for Traditional, Online, and Blended Environments,
Introduction to Systematic Instructional Design for Traditional, Online, and Blended Environments, | Source

Adherence to Policy

You should have a time estimate for each learning activity and assessment in your course. The total amount of time students that should spend on course work each week is defined by university policies.

For example, see Boise State University policy #4080. This directive states that for a 15-week course, students should spend three "Clock Hours" per week per credit. For a three-credit course, this would mean 7.5 to 9.0 hours of instruction every week.

By making these time estimates for your learning activities, you can be confident that your course meets the requirements your school's policy, which in turn will ensure your course is in compliance with the Northwest Commission on College and Universities’ Policy on Credit Hour (which is required for accreditation), Idaho State Board of Education policy, and U.S. Department of Education policy. Consequently, estimating the time it takes a student to complete a learning activity is one of the most important things that you will do as you plan this course!

Time Estimates Benefit The Instructor

Besides helping you meet university policy and accreditation requirements, these time estimates provide additional benefits to you. Most importantly, they will reduce the amount of work it takes to design and develop your course. This is because the time estimates make it much easier to write directions for the learning activities.

There is something very powerful that happens when you reflect on how much time your students will need to devote to the assigned work. You conduct small, rapid “mind experiments” or mental simulations in which you imagine the students doing the work. This makes it easier for you to see the relationships between the learning activities, and it helps you formulate instructional strategies that will allow the students to carry out the activities. As a result, the course design takes shape much more quickly and there tends to be fewer revisions to the design later on.

Time Estimates Benefit The Student

While online students save time on commuting, they spend much more time reading and studying, says Charlotte Babb, a Spartanburg, S.C., writer who has taught English and communications classes online and at two bricks-and-mortar campuses.

It's better to find out the work expectations before you sign the tuition check, rather than be swamped when it is too late. Be warned: Many online courses require students to post thoughtful, well-written comments at least twice a day, at least four days a week. Some of Babb's University of Phoenix courses are so compressed that in the first week, students have to write a 700-word essay and complete five grammar quizzes. The rest of the five-work term is similarly loaded with papers and quizzes. Don't think, as one of her students did, that you can skate by while taking a long-planned honeymoon in the middle of the course. The newlywed got a zero for that week, Babb remembers. Students who want an A often spend 15 to 20 hours a week on the class, or about 100 hours over a five-week course, she says. The good news, she notes, is that some of the time can be broken up into 10-minute blocks at convenient intervals: before breakfast, during lunch, or even while waiting in line at the supermarket, if your school offers good phone apps.

Other Ideas


While online learning is self-directed, educators play a large and vital role in student success. They must give the learner the responsibility of learning, expect success and be there. Below are further suggestions from Five-step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning:

  • Outline expectations for students thoroughly, By articulating expectations and the role of the student in the course, we ‘give’ the student the responsibility.
  • Expect questions in the first two weeks of the course. This is the ‘syllabus blues’ phase. Students require more support during this phase than any other.
  • Respond promptly to student questions. The twenty-four hour rule is a good benchmark.
  • Don’t expect students to know how to be self-directed, they may need to develop this skill set. Direct students to resources that support students in developing their self-direction skills. Many higher education institutions provide excellent resources for online students. Find out if your school offers these resources, and inform your students about them. If not, consider including a list of resources in your syllabus for students.

A Better Way

Even as most educators recognize that they should be prepared to teach effectively before they go into a classroom or before they develop a distance learning unit, they usually use a fairly general and unstructured approach to address this preparation, according to M. D. Roblyer.

They may consider the general needs of the topic in terms of who is being taught, what has to be covered, the context in which it will be used, and any required test associated with the course or content. Then they go about setting up a series of activities based on these general needs and the available materials.

Thus, the planning of activities suggested here is a better way to prepare instruction, one that is more systematic and based on a long history of successful use in business, industry, and military training and, less often, in schools and universities.

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