How Much Should I Assign? Estimating Workload in Asynchronous Classes

Over nearly ten years of designing and developing online classes at different Higher Education Institutions in Canada, one question I have found consistently in all contexts is, “how much content should I include in my online class?” Now that we are looking at remote teaching in the fall, that question has become a lot more frequent, so let’s take a deeper look at the question and hopefully provide some useful resources.

First, the question about “how much content” tends to lead to the broader question of, “how much time and effort are students expected to put into a single class?” When we teach face-to-face, in flipped classrooms, blended classrooms, or even in synchronous online classes (those with webinar like sessions), we have a proxy for how much time students spend on our classes based on the assigned class time. We expect that students will come to class (e.g. three 1-hour lectures per week) as well as complete readings, assignments, or other activities out-side of class time.

What does this mean for asynchronous classes? Every class will be a bit different, based on the country, province, institution, Faculty/College/School, and department norms. It will also depend on the level of the class, expectations for 100-level classes are different than 400-level classes and graduate level classes. There is no hard-rule about number of expected hours, but this post will hopefully provide you with some tools to look critically at your course and manage expectations for your students as well as for your own workload teaching remotely.

Overall, we can assume that for a course that was comprised of three 1-hour lectures per week can be the baseline to start with. At the top end of our estimate we might consider a 2:1 ratio of “out of class time” to “in class time”, so about 9 hours per week. Note that students may be taking a number of classes, so if every week was at the top end of this range and a student was taking five classes they reach 45 hours per week very quickly. Many of our students are also working, have classes that also have lab components or tutorials, co-curricular activities and other commitments which should be in the back of our mind while we are planning out a course. Most of the time your course will be more work in one week, and less work another, depending on the topics you are discussing and assignments you have in place. The main takeaway here is that we will work within a range. It’s worth mentioning here that DEU has found that students report spending on average about 6 hours of on task time for online classes including reading, watching videos, completing learning activities, engaging in discussions, and working on assignments.

Take an Inventory of Your Course Activities

This is one way the course design plan really shines as a planning tool. Using the design plan as a guide, you will have a high level view or everything you’re asking a student to review and engage with in a given week. If you’ve selected a textbook chapter, you’ll be able to see the page count. Including websites, articles and other documents here will give you an overall picture of the reading required each week. Next, the media such as podcasts or video can be accounted for based on the segments selected or the total run time. As you fill out the course design plan you might start to get something like this:

Week Module/ Topic Objectives Readings Media Activities and Assessments 
1 Introduction to the discipline

differentiate our topic from similar areas of study

identify conceptual approaches used in our topic

describe examples our topic in the real world

list traits associated with our topic

differentiate these three concepts within our topic

Textbook, chapter 2, pages 21-38 (17 pages) Lecture Video (5:39)

YouTube video (3:49)

Films on Demand (45:13)

Quiz (15 questions)

Discussion Forum (chain discussion format)


Wake Forest University has developed a second version of an online workload calculator which can assist you in estimating the workload of your class. The calculator does not provide any descriptors, so for further detail expand the relevant content below:

Course Duration
The number of weeks the class is offered. Note that if you are trying to calculate your course at a week by week level, set this to one week and only include information from that row in your course design plan.
Reading Assignments

Using the page count listed in your course design plan you can make more specific adjustments to the reading estimate:

Density (words per page) Difficulty Purpose
450 e.g. paperback book pages, or 6″ x 9″ pages of journal articles No new concepts students have enough background knowledge to immediately understand the ideas Survey students scan the reading an possibly skip entire sections
600 e.g. academic monograph pages Some new concepts students are not familiar with the meaning of some ideas expressed Understand students read to understand each sentence in the text
750 e.g. textbook pages that are 25% images, or full-size pages of two-column journal articles Many new concepts students are not familiar with the meaning of many of the ideas expressed Engage students answer questions or complete tasks related to the reading
The calculator matches the time you put into this field (i.e. if you add one hour of video, it calculates as one hour of effort). While the calculator assumes a 1:1 ratio, DEU recommends increasing this value by 25% (e.g. a one hour video actually takes 1 hour and 15 minutes for students to work through). The reason for this is to account for any active note taking, rewinding and reviewing, or pausing students will do while they watch the video. For example, if you include a series of questions students should be completing  while watching a video, they will need additional time to complete that work.
Writing Assignments

In addition to the number of pages of writing your students will complete, there are other variables that are tabulated as well:

Density (words per page) Genre Drafting
250 e.g. Double-Spaced, Times New Roman, 12-Point Font, 1″ Margins Reflection/ Narrative e.g. journal entries, reflections,  or response format essays requiring little planning No Drafting e.g. a draft essay or paper
500 e.g. Single-Spaced, Times New Roman, 12-Point Font, 1″ Margins Argument e.g. journal entries, reflections, or essays requiring deep engagement with content Minimal Drafting e.g. an essay or paper that was revised at least once
Research e.g. journal entries, reflections, or essays requiring detailed planning an further research Extensive Drafting e.g. an essay or paper with several revisions
Discussion Posts
Discussions come in all shapes, sizes, and formats. Keep in mind that the estimator assumes the more traditional online discussion of “post once, reply twice” format. Alternative discussion formats are available. One notable elements included here is that a 3 minute audio/video recording is calculated as an hour of students activity. If you’ve recorded short learning videos before, this should not come as a surprise.
Once your syllabus is set, you will know how long students will have to write their exam. As students prepare for the exam, you can add that estimate to the calculator as well.
Other Assignments
For assignments in your course such as group presentations, your best guess is what can be used here. Generally speaking, consider how long it might take you to complete the task, and then multiply that by three or four if this is one of the first times students are completing this type of assignment.
Class Meetings
Most of the online and remote learning courses offered will be asynchronous so this field will generally be empty, but if you have informal synchronous meetings or happen to be planning for one of the synchronous course offerings then this field can be filled out based on your class schedule.

What are my options if I’ve asked my students to do more than I assumed?

Now that you have an estimate of the workload for your class you have a high level view of weeks that are more work and those that are less work. For cases where you have a lot more work than the upper range discussed at the beginning of this post you have a few options:

  • Revise the reading list or the expectations of the readings. For example, if the key takeaways for a particular reading are on select pages you can let students know where to focus their attention or write instructional material that weaves portions of a single longer reading together.
  • Let students know the expectations. For example, if they are just meant to survey a reading (as you input into the calculator) then make that clear. If they are meant to engage deeply with the reading, provide guiding questions well in advance.
  • Reduce or consolidate assignments. For example, if students are asked to create a journal entry every week for submission you might consider having students submit a synthesis drawing on several journal entries. While students would still be encouraged to create the journal entries, this would allow them to focus on expressing ideas rather than on the formatting and function of a formal assignment.
  • Provide opportunities for students to check their understanding. If there are key takeaways from a particular video or reading, providing students an opportunity to check their understanding with feedback can help them to focus their attention and promotes learning. This is more effective for learning than having students review material over and over again without an opportunity to practice.
  • Prioritize the types of activities students will do in a given week. If one week the focus in on a discussion, consider moving any readings or videos that are not directly related to that discussion into a “supplementary resources” area in your course. Distinguish for yourself, and for your students what elements in your course are directed-study and which are self-directed study.

The above are just a few suggestions. As always, if you would like assistance with your course planning and development contact the instructional designers at the distance education unit at


Pile of open books flickr photo by bjwhite66212 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Additional Resources

Brysbaert, M. (2019). How many words do we read per minute? A review and meta-analysis of reading rate. Journal of Memory and Language, 109, 104047.

Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual review of psychology, 64, 417-444.

Koedinger, K. R., McLaughlin, E. A., Jia, J. Z., & Bier, N. L. (2016, April). Is the doer effect a causal relationship? How can we tell and why it’s important. In Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Learning Analytics & Knowledge (pp. 388-397).

McDaniel, E. A. (2011). Level of student effort should replace contact time in course design. Journal of Information Technology Education, 10(10). “Time on Task in Online Courses” by Michael Starenko, Rochester Institute of Technology is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Powell, K., Stephens‐Helm, J., Layne, M., & Ice, P. (2012). Quantifying Online Learning Contact Hours. Administration Issues Journal: Education, Practice, and Research, Vol. 2, Issue 2.

Samuels, S. J., & Dahl, P. R. (1975). Establishing Appropriate Purpose for Reading and Its Effect on Flexibility of Reading Rate. Journal of Educational Psychology, 67(1), 38.