Determining Time on Task in Online Courses

Time on task is the total learning time spent by a student in a college course, including instructional time as well as time spent studying and completing course assignments (e.g., reading, research, writing, individual and group projects.) Regardless of the delivery method or the particular learning activities employed, the amount of learning time in any college course should meet the guideline of the Carnegie unit, a total of 45 hours for one semester credit (in conventional classroom education this breaks down into 15 hours of instruction plus 30 hours of student work/study out of class.) "Instruction" is provided differently in online courses than in classroom-based courses. Despite the difference in methodology and activities, however, the total "learning time" online can usually be counted. Rather than try to distinguish between "in-class" and "outside-class" time for students, the faculty member developing and/or teaching the online course should calculate how much time a student doing satisfactory work would take to complete the work of the course, including: 

  • Reading course presentations/ "lectures"  
  • Reviewing course notes 
  • Reading other materials  
  • Participation in online discussions 
  • Doing research  
  • Writing papers or other assignments 
  • Completing all other assignments (e.g. projects) 

The total time spent on these tasks should be roughly equal to that spent on comparable tasks in a classroom-based course. Time spent downloading or uploading documents, troubleshooting technical problems, or in chat rooms (unless on course assignments such as group projects) should not be counted. 

In sum, regardless of course mode or type of learning activities assigned, the total amount of student time on task for any course (campus, online, blended, independent study, etc.) should total 45 hours per credit/contact hour. (To get the total number of time-on-task hours, multiply 45 times the number of credits.) For a 3-credit course, for instance, that works out to 135 hours total and for a 4-credit course, it would be 180 hours.  

The hours per week will, of course, vary depending upon the length (in weeks) of the course. See Figure 1 below for a breakdown of the time on task for hypothetical 3-credit course formats. 

Figure 1. Learning hours per week for 3-credit course formats

Course weeks Hours per weekTotal course hours
15  9 135
12 11.3 135
7 19.3 135
6 22.5  135

Figure 2. Learning hours per week for a 4-credit course formats

Course weeks Hours per weekTotal course hours
15  12 180
12 15 180
8 22.5 180
6 30 180

Tools for Estimating Time on Task

Example Tasks And Completion Times For One Week Of An Online Course

Here is an example of one week (8.5 hours) of learning tasks or activities and respective completion times for a 16-week, 3-credit course (Turner, 2005):

Viewing three, 15-minute lectures (text or video), with web links 1 hour
Reviewing lectures and expoloring links 1/2 hour
Posting a short "knowledge check" self-addessment statement to the drop box 1/2 hour
Reading assignments 1 hour
Completing a 10-item online quiz 1 hour
Posting to discussions (original post, responses to three classmates' posts, responses to responses) 2 hours
Small group project meetings (web conference or asynchronous discussion) 1 hour
Work on final research paper and presentation 1-1/2 hours
Total 8-1/2 hours


Carnegie Mellon University, 2013. Solve a teaching problem: Assign a reasonable amount of work. Retrieved Dec. 9, 2015, from 

McDaniel, E. A. (2011). Level of student effort should replace contact time in course design. Journal of Information Technology Education, 10(10).  

New York State Education Department, Office of College and University Evaluation (2013). Policies: Determining time on task in online education. Retrieved Dec. 9, 2015, from 

RIT Online Course Design Time On Task  ©2017 Open Learning Initiative is licensed by licensed under CC BY-NC-SA. 

Turner, T. (2005). Student workload in the online course: Balancing on a rule-of-thumb. Educator’s Voice, 6(3). Retrieved July 3, 2013, from V  

Vai, M. & Sosulski, K. (2011). Essentials of online course design: A standards-based guide. New York and London: Routledge. 

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