Class Organization and Workload

(Small) Tips for Class Organization and Student Workload

The following short series of articles is meant to provide a few low-effort high-impact changes faculty can make to their upcoming courses to increase student success. They are largely organizational in nature, ways to make sure students spend more time learning material, and less time learning how to navigate a specific course. We also include a section on determining weekly student workload, which links to a tool faculty can use to calculate the total student workload for their class assignments.

Each suggestion below is linked to a more in-depth article. Most are simple tweaks, but if you need technical assistance with implementing them in either Canvas or Blackboard, and you work at Washington State University Vancouver, contact WSU Vancouver’s Academic Services.

  • Publish your course while you tweak it by adding a “start here” module or folder. Instead of waiting until the class is done to publish it, publish it with at least a minimal module outlining the basics of the course (weekly meeting times, textbooks, Zoom link, etc) while you work on the rest of the course (keep the materials you are still working on hidden). This allows students to log in and prepare for the course while you tweak, and can ease the anxiety of some students. 
  • Organize the course for week-by-week clarity. Use a folder (Blackboard) or module (Canvas) structure for the course that organizes all materials by course week rather than material type. Make sure students have all the links to the materials and pages they need to complete that week’s work in one place. Try to have a set sequence of activities each week, and send a short (3 or 4 sentence) outline of the week’s work to students each week. 
  • Double-check student workload. Use a student workload calculator to double-check your estimates of how much time per week the course will require of students. If the amount is more than the credits require, consider reducing the size or scope of some assignments or assessments. If the pandemic makes some tasks more difficult for students, you may choose to account for that as well.
Class Organization and Workload

Publish your course while you tweak it using a “Start Here!” module

We all know the feeling: we want to publish the class so that students can look at it before the start of the semester. But we want to make one last change before that. Or maybe swap week seven for week five, and reallocate the points from… 

And then we end up publishing the course right before the first class. 

You might think we’re about to tell you that you need to have everything locked in earlier, make earlier decisions. Not at all. The fretting over the best way to deliver the course, the concern with keeping it up to date? These are good things. Some of the best course decisions are made a week before class. 

But students right now are also worried about their courses, concerned they won’t know how to access the Zoom link on the first day, worried they won’t get the textbook on time, or get the right textbook. That age-old contract — show up in the right physical classroom on day one, and take notes on what to do next — it’s fallen apart a bit. 

Experts in online learning environments suggest adding a “Start Here!” module or document to your online class. You can add the things you are already sure of to this section: 

  • Class time, and expected meeting days
  • Link to the appropriate LMS (Blackboard:, or Canvas: for those receiving this information by email.
  • Zoom link (if applicable) for class
  • Required texts and textbooks for class
  • Office hours
  • Email for students to reach Crimson Service Desk, for any technical issues they may want to work through before class (or during the semester)
  • Either:
    • Add an introduction video talking about why you are excited about the course, what the course will be like in general, and your commitment to working through this semester with their success in mind, or
    • Add a short document explaining this things in prose

Then publish the class (make it available to students) while keeping the pieces you are still working on unpublished. Send out an email to students telling them you are still working on the class but wanted them to have access to the basics as soon as possible. 

This will allow you to tweak your class design while giving students the opportunity over the break to make sure that they are set up for success.

Class Organization and Workload

Organize your course for week-by-week clarity

Students — even students who may miss a class session or two — still need to understand what they need to do each week, budget appropriate time for it, and spend the majority of their time learning and not figuring out how to navigate each individual class. 

The suggestions below may seem like overkill to some — do we really have to tell our students what to do in all these different ways? But teaching in this way does not take any more time than teaching another, and will pay dividends almost immediately in reducing the amount of late work and requests for exceptions, at least by a bit. And the things below? They address the complaints that we hear most from students: that they spend far too much time each week trying to figure out what is due, what order to do assignments in, how much time they should budget.

Organize your course in a week to week module/folder structure. Students can spend significant time in online courses just trying to figure out what is due when. While your syllabus is still the ultimate guide, setting each week of the course up in your LMS as a separate folder (Blackboard) or module (Canvas) that contains links to all the documents, assignments, and assessments the student needs to complete that week can significantly increase the time the student spends learning rather than navigating your class and decrease student stress.

Give a weekly summary via announcement or small document. In the physical classroom, you likely often begin the class week with a concise summary of what the work for the week will be, and what ongoing efforts students should be engaged in. It might sound like “As of last week, you should have started your group projects, make sure your groups have met. This week you’re going to continue work on that project. We’re also going to read chapters nine and ten, and on Friday there will be a short quiz.” Often you’ll have it on an initial slide. That is, even though the week’s schedule can be found in the syllabus, you break it down for the students, and it helps students stay on track, and encourages them to plan their week accordingly.

You may be doing this in synchronous Zoom sessions as well. All the same, it doesn’t hurt to take that text of the slide, or copy that week’s portion of the syllabus into a course announcement you send out to all students, or, alternatively, put it as a small document at the top of your weekly module/folder.

Establish a “rhythm of the class” Experts sometimes talk about establishing the “rhythm” of an online class, by which they mean trying to make the sequence of activities in the class each week as similar as possible. As an example, each week the students may need to read a chapter or two of the textbook, answer a short quiz, read or view a relevant news story, and apply the concepts in the textbook to the news story before coming to class. A math class might have students read a chapter, watch an explanatory video, try some practice problems, come to class with questions, then take a short test. 

Not every week can be exactly the same. Midterm and finals weeks will be different, and many classes shift into project based work later in the semester. But by following a common pattern when possible, students will be better able to judge workload and build a weekly schedule that can rely on repetition and habit.

Class Organization and Workload

Double-check student workload with the Workload Estimator

Faculty sometimes underestimate the time it takes novices to get through reading containing unfamiliar terms. Similarly, writing workloads vary by the type of the writing and the outcomes: personal reflections in a discussion board, for instance, are far less time-consuming to write than academic essays. Even there, however, lots of smaller writing assignments can add up to substantial student workload.

Once you have your class set up, we encourage you to check the time required with the student workload calculator. A three credit hour class typically has six hours of work outside three hours of synchronous meetings (9 hours total). A student taking five courses at these rates already has significantly more than forty hours of work assigned a week. 

The link to the estimator is below. The research behind the tool is linked from there as well.

You might want to note the following definitions to use it effectively:

Page Density

  • 450 words: Typical of paperback pages, as well as the 6″ x 9″ pages of academic journal articles
  • 600 words: Typical of academic monograph pages
  • 750 words: Typical of textbook pages that are 25% images, as well as the full-size pages of two-column academic journal articles 

Text Difficulty

  • No New Concepts: The reader knows the meaning of each word and has enough background knowledge to immediately understand the ideas expressed
  • Some New Concepts: The reader is unfamiliar with the meaning of some words and doesn’t have enough background knowledge to immediately understand some of the ideas expressed.
  • Many New Concepts: The reader is unfamiliar with the meaning of many words and doesn’t have enough background knowledge to immediately understand most of the ideas expressed

Reading Purpose

  • Survey: Reading to survey main ideas; OK to skip entire portions of text
  • Understand:  Reading to understand the meaning of each sentence
  • Engage:  Reading while also working problems, drawing inferences, questioning, and evaluating

The workload calculator was not designed with the pandemic in mind. It is worth considering that we are all less productive during this pandemic, for a variety of reasons, and you may want to account for that by multiplying the result of the calculator by a chosen percentage. E.g. if the calculator gives you an outcome of 4 hours a week and you believe that most things are taking students 25% longer because of pandemic issues, it is reasonable to add this in (e.g. 4 * 1.25 = 5). This is obviously at your discretion, but as the credit hour definition is rooted in time expected to complete tasks, and such calculations should be rooted in real-world conditions, not idealized circumstances.