Last year I interviewed a few of my mature students and one of the things that struck me about how they worked was the length of time they spent on their essays. They recognised that it was unsustainable but I couldn’t really give them any guidance.
This year I find myself telling students not to spend ‘too long’ on their essays, and describing the law of diminishing returns but I’m still not sure how long they should be spending. As teachers surely we should have some expectation of how much work we are asking for?
I thought I’d have a quick look at the academic literature. There is, as you’d expect plenty of stuff about essay writing, in particular in the psychology literature (and therefor studies of psychology students!). One study of note looked at the essay writing strategies of a cohort of students over their degrees, which appears to note that students stick to whatever strategy (ie how many drafts to do, if any) they start with. This study did ask students to estimate how many hours they spent writing their essay (including library research). The actual time spent on essays isn’t really reported, although the median time taken for the four writing strategies discussed is given as between 9 hours (minimal drafting) and 15 hours (detailed drafting), which gives an idea, but doesn’t really tell us the full range of time taken. We are told that “reported length of time to complete the essay was unrelated to the mark received” (p.192), which is interesting in itself.
There are a few threads on the student room forums asking this question and some interesting responses. A number of students seem to reply with a day for reading and a day for writing, which seems about right in my opinion and kind of matches up with the study above.
I guess ultimately students should spend as much time as they can on their essays, and this will vary due to outside commitments (and internal commitments to their studies!). I do think it’s odd to give an assignment without a clear expectation of time taken though, and many of my students are particularly anxious about their studies and prone to over commit an unsustainable amount of time to their early essays, which can be unproductive (in terms of mark) and could lead to them thinking that they are not cut out for HE.