Asko Karjalainen

  • Struggle against overload and superficially in learning

    Asko Karjalainen, Olli Silvén and Miia Wennström
    University of Oulu

    Research seminar

    Themes: the student experience and learning

    Wednesday 3 September 2008, 09.00-10.00 in Teasdale

    Do we give enough time for learning in the academic curricula? Do our students exploit the time allocated to study for the benefit of learning? Regulating the student workload in academic studies plays very important role in the curriculum development not only related to educational resources but also because it is closely connected to the quality of the learning outcomes.

    Based on our understanding obtained via student surveys, curriculum and course analysis, the student effort depends essentially on the proper design of the curriculum and balancing of the workloads of the courses. These are issues that depend on the traditions of the degree programs and on the expertise of the teachers, rather than on the students. These problems have been increasingly exposed by the study reform following the guidelines of the Bologna process.

    The typical weekly study effort expected from students is approximately 40 hours, estimated to result in approximately 1.5 ECTS credits. The recent surveys have revealed that the typical actual weekly effort is around 25 hours that results in around 1 ECTS credit. The trend in weekly study effort has been a decreasing one, although many alarmed universities believe they are using every measure possible, including increased tutoring, time surveys, and draconian supervision of deadlines. Unfortunately, these support activities leave the underlying structural problems untouched.

    We hypothesize that paying attention to the core curriculum structures, course contents and formats at the same time, can have a substantial impact on the student effort. First, evidence on the adverse impacts on overcrowded curricula exists:  perceived excessive workload results in surface and strategic approaches to learning, rather than deep learning which would be most efficient in the long run. Second, it is often difficult for teachers to estimate the time a student needs for quality learning. The teacher might select too much material to cover all the facts and methods considered necessary. If the students even fear running out of time, or information overflow, they resort into surface learning. Third, the way a course is organized and its learning outcomes evaluated have a significant impact on the effort distribution of the students and their perceptions on (over)load. If learning is evaluated by an exam with a single deadline, students’ level of effort is (too)heavily concentrated on the short period of time preceding the test. If teacher applies continuous assessment or mastery learning techniques the workload is more evenly distributed throughout the course.

    In this research seminar we will present a brief review of the methods and results of Finnish inquiries of student workload. We will make also some critical remarks over the research designs. Our experiences of the national curriculum reform are also elaborated. The broader aim of the seminar is to introduce the importance of the student workload research. We should learn to regulate students’ workload the way that promotes deep approach to learning. University students’ surface orientation for the studies is destructive not only to the students themselves, but also to the broader scientific community.


    • Silvén, O. & Ojansivu, V. 2006. Experiences from three approaches in implementing a basic DSP course.
    • International Conference on Engineering, Education and Active Students, Uppsala, Sweden.
    • Chambers, E. 1992. Work-load and the Quality of student learning. Studies in Higher Education 17:2.
    • Karjalainen, A; Alha, K. & Jutila, S. 2006. Give me time to Think. Determining Student Workload in Higher Education. University of Oulu. Teaching Development Unit.
    • Kember, D; Leung, D.Y.P. 1998. Influences upon students' perceptions of workload. Educational Psychology. 18:3.
    • Lawless, C. 2000. Using Learning Activities in Mathematics: Workload and study time. Studies in Higher Education. 25:1.
    • Lizzio, A.; Wilson, K. & Simons, R. 2002. University Students' Perceptions of the Learning Environment and Academic Outcomes: implications for theory and practice. Studies in Higher Education. 27:1, 27-52.