How long do you need to learn something new?

Or build on something old?

A recent article from the Inside Higher Ed highlighted how experimentation in the delivery of online courses are driving the discussion on what the proper length of a class should be.

The familiar 12 to 15-week blocks align with my experience, and it was only after starting my position at the University of Utah where I realized this was no longer the norm. In my department, two, 3-credit, semester-long courses, were broken up (long ago) into six, 1-credit, 5-week courses. For upper division and graduate level classes, other departments offer “first-half” and “second-half” courses during the traditional semester allowing students the opportunity to broaden their experiences as they can select from a broader range of topics than what might otherwise be available. What has been the shortest course length? A single 3-credit course over five days (8:00 am to 5:00 pm), with a caveat that readings and assignments are due before the first day of class (i.e., there is pre-work involved) and they should expect additional homework each evening.

Most academics consider the last example extreme; however, this model is typical for professional development in many industries. I was fortunate to work in a company that valued professional development and participated in two courses—each taught as full days over a single week—that were similar to a university course. While not graded in the traditional sense, managers have to approve the cost of the course and weigh the loss of immediate work against the promise of improved productivity in the future. Good luck getting additional professional development approved if you cannot demonstrate benefits from your previous development courses. One of the biggest challenges in professional development is getting people to focus on the course and set aside the distractions of work—easier said than done.

So, back to my original question: How long does it take to learn something new or to build upon a previous skill? Can this be done in a single week? Or does it take three-plus months? For a traditional course, the mantra is two to three hours of study per credit hour—for three hours in the classroom each week, the expectation is a minimum of six hours of work outside — a total of 9 hours per week or 135 hours over the 15-weeks of a traditional semester. Assuming that the class-to-study ratio is closer to 1:1, the total time is 90 hours; depending on the topic, 90 hours would be manageable, and this could be more viable with structured pre-work. Of course, one is not an expert at this point but has obtained a level of competency with the subject. As a “self-directed” learner, 45 to 90 hours is a good approximation of the time needed for learning as I’ve built up various skill sets.

Could this type of intense schedule work? Would it be possible to take a three-course calculus series over 15 weeks if that was the focus? Probably, but we also need to consider the instructors. University faculty members need time outside the class for non-teaching activities: research, service, administration, course preparation, and advising are the most visible out-of-class activities expected at the modern university, and this out-of-class engagement is needed. But there might be some appeal to faculty as completing a teaching assignment in five weeks may open up opportunities for focused work during the rest of the semester.

If universities can exploit technology to maximize the high-value activities of their faculty, the traditional classroom will change, and it may reflect the time-intensive learning environments used by industry for professional development. It is worth exploring as the need for life-long learning will force us to become more efficient in education.