V. Fester

The Waikato Institute of Technology (NEW ZEALAND)
A thorough knowledge of expected student workload, together with students’ perceptions thereof, is required of higher education instructors and course planners to avoid overloading of curricula. Unrealistic expectations of students and an ignorance of student workload issues could, in turn, affect student success rates, course completion rates and drop-out rates in a negative way (Darmody, Smyth & Unger, 2008). New concerns around student workload have also been raised over the last decade, especially since the higher education student population is now demographically very different.

Research on the topic of student workload during the last twenty years has been conducted using a variety of approaches, including ways of measuring the time spent by students on their studies (see, for example, Kember, 2004; Kember, Jamieson, Pomfret & Wong, 1995) and surveying students’ perceptions of their workload (see, for example, Giles, 2009; Otrel-Cass, Cowie & Campbell, 2009; Ruohoniemi & Lindblom-Ylänne, 2009). Both approaches can inform more equitable planning of the curriculum in terms of student workload, however, each approach has its own benefits and limitations.

This paper will introduce the concept of student workload together with an overview of the research conducted in this field. The benefits and limitations, for instructors and curriculum planners, of ascertaining student workload both in terms of time spent on their studies and students’ perceptions of their workload are also summarised. Next, lessons learnt from two separate case studies undertaken amongst science students at a New Zealand institute of technology during the last three years, using the two approaches mentioned above, will be shared. Finally, recommendations will be made to enable instructors and curriculum planners to plan for more equitable workloads for science students.


Darmody, M., Smyth, E., & Unger, M. (2008). Field of study and students’ workload in higher education: Ireland and Austria in comparative perspective. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 49(4-5), 329-346.

Giles, L. (2009). Effects of students’ perception of workload on the quality of learning in higher education. The International Journal of Learning, 16(3), 399-408.

Kember, D. (2004). Interpreting student workload and the factors which shape students’ perceptions of their workload. Studies in Higher Education, 29(2), 165-184.

Kember, D., Jamieson, Q. W., Pomfret, M., & Wong, E. T. T. (1995). Learning approaches, study time and academic performance. Higher Education, 29(3), 329-343.

Otrel-Cass, K., Cowie, B., & Campbell, A. (2009). What determines perseverance in studying science? Journal of Institutional Research, 14(2), 30-44.

Ruohoniemi, M., & Lindblom-Ylänne, S. (2009). Students’ experiences concerning course workload and factors enhancing and impeding their learning – a useful resource for quality enhancement in teaching and curriculum planning. International Journal for Academic Development, 14(1), 69-81.