How long should a student spend on an essay?


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.

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About digitalscholar

I am a sociologist with an interest in new technology. Previously I’ve worked on a number of projects at Lancaster University and the Open University looking at the use of new technologies and social media by researchers. I was also a social sciences teaching fellow at the foundation centre at Durham University teaching sociology and anthropology. I am now a senior lecturer at the University of West London's Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning where I oversee the foundation provision and support retention. I'm sure I'll still be interested in, and occasionally blog about, tech related things. I use this blog to post thoughts about using new technologies in my professional academic life and wider thoughts and links relating to technology more generally.
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5 Responses to How long should a student spend on an essay?

  1. anacanhoto says:

    One component of developing a module is to decide how long students should spend on preparing for their assessment (vs. face to face teaching, for instance). Then, you design assessment that meets that criteria. And course handbooks usually stipulate that (at least, ours do). It is vital for managing expectations, as you say.

    Having said that, you need to add the caveat that some students may need a lot more time than mentioned – for instance, because they are reading and writing in a second language, or because they are not familiar with using journal databases.

  2. Hi Ana,

    Thanks for your comment, yes I did think to look at the module description. At Durham we assume 100 hours or work for a 10 credit module, and for us that’s 30 hours class time and 70 hours preperation, which includes a 2000 word essay, but also preparation for class, and presumably revision for exams? That still seems like a lot more time than we actually want students to spend on their essay! Maybe it’s different at other institions?

    One of my students this year is writing everything out long hand before typing it up, which I think will definitely slow the process down, and typing speed will be an issue for some students (as well as familiarity with English of course).

  3. Dan Smith says:

    Nick
    A really interesting post- i have no idea how long students should spend on an essay, but i agree it seems odd not to be able to give some guidance to students.My initial, naive assumption was that that more time on essay = a better grade, but on reflection i wonder if this is really true. One approach might be to survey UGs about the time they spend vs the mark they get to get an idea of student actually do. My guess is the shape of the curve would stay the same across different years, but the distribution would be shifted to the right.

  4. timlaztimlaz says:

    I’m all for keeping things simple KISS, keep it simple stupid. So for me the whole writing essay experience started very badly not understanding exactly how to plan and structure an essay meant that I wandered aimlessly putting a lot of effort and reading but not delivering a constructive well planned paper. Something I’m sure that was addressed in academic practice and in other parts of the course was planning, content and structure but for some reason it just eluded me.
    Then my nephew whom is in the last year of a masters in medicine told me something he was taught when he first started Uni; “Tell them what your going to tell them, the tell them what you said you are going to tell them and then tell them what you just told them”.

    Makes perfect sense to me.

  5. Safran says:

    This is coming late, but it may well help anyone reading this in the future. You did the initial math for a 10-credit module at Durham; I did the math for a 2500-3000-word undergraduate essay at UCL.

    The average workload is 4 modules per 10-week term, 8 modules per year. The full-time student workload is officially 40 hours per week, which at least suggests that we aren’t expected to exceed this even if we want to do well. That means 400 hours per term, including 80 hours of lectures (each of the 4 modules has 2 hours teaching time; 8 hours per week; 80 hours per term). This leaves 320 hours for preparation. If it takes an average of 2 hours to do the readings for each class, that’s another 80 hours of class preparation per term. 400 – (80 x 2) = 240 hours left. I’m going to dangerously assume there are no presentations, and this leaves us with 240 hours for 4 essays – assuming (this time realistically) that each module is composed of 1 essay and 1 exam and all exams will be studied for during Easter holidays.

    240 hours for 4 essays means 60 hours per essay, or a week and a half of work with no other commitments, for example during the winter break. For an essay written during term time, those 60 hours might be spread over 2 or 3 weeks, but it’s also highly unlikely that an undergraduate is going to spend the full 60 hours on a single essay.

    As a final comment, I use time-tracking software and have spent 80 to 100 hours on research papers which included reading 30-40 full-length articles, planning, writing and editing. Those were spread over months rather than weeks, but it seems more advisable to spend a full 60 hours (or indeed less) over a couple of weeks than 80 hours over months – not least because nobody is expecting that amount of work – in order to get things out of the way more quickly.

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