Workload mapping part 1: The student perspective

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In this series of three posts, we’ll be looking at student workload mapping. This first post explains why planning is so important from a student perspective – and some of the thinking behind it.

Alex is studying a 60 credit Level 1 module. Curriculum guidance suggest this should involve around 20 hours of study per week, 65% of which is module directed (direct teaching) and 35% student directed (personal study and revision around the subject). Subsequently, Alex expects around 13 hours of module directed workload each week.

The first few weeks go well, with Alex getting the hang of both study and the subject. The teaching scales up to the 13 hour mark – and Alex gets used to balancing study against other life commitments, such as work and family. Confidence builds up, and Alex is on course to pass the module.

Unfortunately Alex hits a stumble in week 5. A large unit collides with assessment preparation and a group activity, and suddenly Alex needs to squeeze 20 hours of work in to 13. If we assume Alex is studying Monday-Friday then this is a jump of 1.4 hours a day to 4. If also working full time (with a 9 hour day including commute, a conservative estimate for modern adult learners) then the scale of the problem becomes even more apparent…

  • hours module directed study 
  • 1.5 hour of student directed study 
  • 9 hours work 
  • 8 hours sleep 

resulting in a 22.5 hour day, leaving and hour and a half to fit in cooking, eating, washing, shopping, waking up and the rest of life. 

In this case, Alex attempts to study in the same manner as before, but is unable to keep up. The first blow is to confidence, ‘Am I falling behind because I’m not up to it?’ Unable to find additional time during the week, Alex squeezes’ in a few hours at the weekend, and plans to play catch up next week. 

Unfortunately the assessment is due next week, and Alex’s performance on it takes a hit. The following week is another unexpectedly lumpy one – and Alex gives up on playing catch up in order to try and nail the new material. Unfortunately there just isn’t enough time in the day, and Alex starts the following week with a another backlog of teaching.  

In this example, a three week spike in workload could have resulted in a student suffering: 

  • reduced confidence 
  • lower assessment performance 
  • less certain achievement of learning outcomes 
  • damaged work/study/life balance 

Alex may choose to drop out of the module, or stay on with the risk of the issues worsening. If the blow to confidence is really big, Alex may withdraw from study altogether, a decision that could have a profound impact on Alex’s life – and it’s all entirely avoidable. 

In ‘Student workload: a case study of its significance, evaluation and management at the Open University’ (Whitelock, Thorpe and Galley, 2014), workload was cited as a significant factor in student withdrawals in both the Open University and the wider HE sector.

In the next post in this series, we’ll take a look at one of the ways the Open University addresses this through the module design process. 


Whitelock, Denise; Thorpe, Mary and Galley, Rebecca (2015). Student workload: a case study of its significance, evaluation and management at the Open University. Distance Education, 36(2) pp. 161–176.