Planning for credit hours compliance in an online course

Last Updated: January 15, 2024
A man sitting at a desk writes on a piece of paper

How this will help:

Understand why the workload for an online course may feel different.
Estimate the workload for students in an online course.

The basics

How do you know how much work is in a credit hour? For many of us, credit hours indicate how long and often your class meets in person. What happens when that “classroom” moves online? Regardless of how we are teaching (face-to-face, distance, or online) student engagement and workload should be relatively even across courses with similar credit hour requirements. 

A credit hour is an expectation: students gain a better understanding of how much work the course will entail. The same is true for faculty, a credit hour helps you manage your time, your workload, and the amount of content. You most likely know what a 3 credit course “feels” like. At least, you likely do with your normal in-person classes. But what about online? Time frequently feels different in online spaces. If you are running synchronous videoconferences in place of lectures, what might that change for the experience of both students and instructors? Let’s consider the next section as an example.

How might credit hours look in an online course

Online instruction will feel very different than what you are used to; in the space you occupy with students, in the amount of time the material takes, and in the perceived effort that you all put forth to teach and learn together. This difference will confound the contexts on which we would normally rely to guide us. “Am I assigning too much reading?” you might ask yourself, “Or maybe not enough?”

A 3-credit hour, 15-week course might look like this in each format:

two 1.5-hour lectures/week4-5 short videos on key content/week
one 1-hour discussion section/week2 discussion postings + 3 responses/week
50-100 pages of reading/weekOne 30-45 minute videoconference/week
three 5-page papers50-100 pages of reading/week
a midterm with 10 hours of study/prepthree 5-page papers
a final exam that anticipates 20 hours of study/prepa midterm with 10 hours of study/prep
a final take-home exam that anticipates 20 hours of study/prep

The primary difference is that instead of focusing on “seat time” (how often and long students are in the physical classroom), online learning focuses on total effort or course effort. Course effort recognizes that some activities (like asynchronous discussions) require time to engage with the material and create, as opposed to face-to-face classes where only presence is counted. If you compare the two formats, there isn’t a lot of difference in terms of assignments given. Often, the largest difference will be that there are fewer lectures and more engagement through class discussions. A class discussion in a face-to-face class will be bounded by seat time in the class. An equivalent discussion in an online format for a student might take 2-3 times as long, as an asynchronous online discussion often takes longer than in-person discussions. Students might first compose an original post (basically a 250-500 word essay), then read and respond to several of their classmate’s posts. Recognizing these nuances can help you and your students properly level set the expectations for work in the course, leading to a more positive experience for all involved.

How do I make these time estimates?

We recommend using a commonly used tool called the Workload Estimator from Rice University (  to help estimate how much time students should be spending working based on readings and assignments. This tool takes into account not only reading and writing but also what type of reading or writing is assigned. For example, it takes less time to reflect than it does to synthesize research. For things like class discussion postings, make an estimate of how long you would like the post to be, and consider it a narrative writing piece for purposes of estimating time. These guidelines are helpful to create baseline expectations, and can potentially be refined as you develop your own experiences in these spaces.

Practical tips

  • Filming a lecture can be straightforward for counting time, but there might be other time to account for, including time spent reviewing any potential notes or slide decks that are shared.
  • Changing between many tasks has transition time that may not be accounted for, but that will have an impact on your students. Be mindful of administrative tasks that you might inadvertently give to your students while changing modality. For example, you may send more emails in an online course than you did in your face-to-face class, which is also part of instruction.
  • Learning (and teaching!) online requires good time management, accurate estimates for the amount of time different tasks will take will benefit your students’ ability to plan their online study habits, benefitting both students and faculty.


University of Michigan

CAI – Keep complying

Other Resources

Rice University – Workload calculator 

Rochester Institute of Technology –  Calculating time on task in online courses 

Loyola University Maryland – Online calculator users guide 

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