Think back to when you were enrolled in college. How long were your courses in terms of weeks and hours spent in the classroom? Chances are, if your college education was traditional—which is to say, typical—you likely enrolled in semesters. If that was the case, your classes probably took about 15 weeks to complete, and you were probably enrolled in classes for the “Fall” and “Spring” semesters. And as far as hours, you probably got used to around three to four hours a week for one class, with each class being around, say, 50 minutes.
Do online courses work the same way? Not at all—or rather, not necessarily. An online college course can range anywhere from 5 to 15 weeks, depending on what schedule the college follows: semester, quarter, trimester, or accelerated terms. Even hours can vary, and more so since the class doesn’t necessarily meet at a certain time. There are a lot of factors, then, to consider when thinking about online course “length.”
Research has shown that course length has no bearing on a student’s academic performance. Whether five weeks or fifteen, a student can get the same learning. So it is that you may find a variety of course lengths as you apply for online teaching jobs.
How Many Hours in a College Course?
This may be a good place to start, since the hours a class may take in order to get college credit will be generally around the same amount of time. Whatever the duration of a class—whether it happens over a semester, quarter, or an accelerated term—the contact hours generally will be 45 or so for the duration of the course. In a typical week of a semester, which many of us did back in the day before online education took off, that means you spend roughly three hours a week in a given class. By that I mean, three hours sitting in a classroom with a professor!
The online course, though, is far from “typical,” at least in relation to the traditional campus semester. In fact, even the “semester” is no longer the only schedule for college courses. And for online courses, “hours” don’t always matter, especially if the class is asynchronous—meaning, the class doesn’t meet for several hours a week. It may not meet at all.
What will probably matter more is how often a student logs in to class. That could be 2 to 5 times a week, depending on the teacher’s expectation. The student might expect to devote anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week of work. If there is an interactive aspect of the course, like a class meeting done over video, that could range dramatically from 5 minutes to an hour a week. Experts differ on what is effective, but they all agree that maintaining attention is important: making content that engages the student and keeps their attention is important to consider in terms of time.
In an online course, students will essentially establish their own schedule for getting work done, responding to message boards and doing their readings. It may be more beneficial to think instead in terms of how many weeks an online course could encompass. That way, we can get a sense of what our yearly schedule as online adjuncts might look like. Let’s look at the various term lengths colleges typically schedule.
The most common course length—the most traditional, even the most ordinary—is the semester. “What classes are you taking this semester?” is probably the most frequently heard question among college students as they sit around over coffees talking about their plans—at least a few decades ago, anyway. Fall and Spring, with a holiday break in between, followed by summer break—that’s the tradition. Or, in some cases, fall and spring may be followed by a summer semester! the Semester: What could be more nostalgic?
When we say “semester,” particularly for fall and spring, we are generally talking about 15 weeks, though they can vary around that number as well. Summer semesters, if they are offered, can be 12 weeks instead. In a semester’s worth of time, a student can reasonably take 5 courses at a time, give or take a class. Maintaining 15 credits is the norm.
At least one of the benefits of a semester should be obvious: students have lots of time. An instructor, too, has plenty of time to create and deliver the content, and students have plenty of time to get their work done. Given the amount of time, a student can expect things like midterm tests within a couple months of the course beginning—in shorter terms, those midterms will come far quicker!
In traditional brick-and-mortar colleges that offer online programs, students will take online courses that follow the same schedule as regular in-person classrooms. The semester, given the amount of time it entails, happens at a relaxed pace. Textbooks frequently have chapters that fit comfortably into one-chapter-a-week. For you, the teacher, you will have more flexibility when it comes to drafting out your schedule in terms of learning objectives, content, assignments, and discussions.
The Trimester and the Quarter
Colleges aren’t the only schools to use the trimester; many high schools have found this an efficient unit of time. Many first-time freshman will show up in their college campuses used to the trimester schedule, which may be around 12 weeks long. Three trimesters fit comfortably into the school year.
One of the benefits of the trimester is that the student can take more courses in the year. Classes can stretch over Fall, Winter, and Spring trimesters—and there may still be the option for additional summer courses, too. That said, students can’t take the full load of classes you’d take in a semester—instead, three or four classes at a time will be the norm.
Really, the quarter is not too different from the trimester. A quarter can generally be around 10 weeks. Like the trimester, this allows students to take more of a variety of classes over the course of a year because the terms are shorter—though the number of classes they could take during the quarter will be restricted: like the trimester, being enrolled in three or four classes during a quarter is a normal load.
Beginning with these shortened terms, content will begin to get more compressed for student and teacher both. You as the instructor will need to squeeze the same material into a shorter time frame, and you’ll have to think about how much time to give students to complete assignments—especially papers.
It may seem unbelievable, but you can do an incredible amount of teaching—and learning, if you’re on the student side—in a very short time. How short? Anywhere from 5 to 8 weeks. This accelerated term will certainly be more demanding of students, and in all honesty, it can pose more of a challenge for the teacher, as well. The main issue is being constrained; students may feel like they don’t have enough time to complete the work. You might feel a bit rushed, too.
Colorado College, as an extreme example, has courses that last three-and-a-half weeks, meeting from 9 a.m. to noon every weekday for a total of 18 days. With that schedule, students take only one course at a time: this is a block schedule. Eight blocks are offered per year, and the break between blocks is only four-and-a-half days! This block schedule includes online courses.
Oregon’s Linfield University, which hosts online programs, operates on a 4-1-4 system: the fall and spring semesters are a traditional 15 weeks, and in January they offer a condensed 4-week semester where students can take up to 5 semester credits, which amounts to one academic course and one paracurricular course.
Many colleges offer accelerated courses because they know that adult students just want to get done. Older students may be trying to get certifications for their careers, and they frequently have to juggle classes with real-world obligations. But just because the class is short doesn’t mean it has to be run at a breakneck pace.
Are Any of the Term-Lengths Better?
The short answer is, No. A 2019 study found that course length has no significant effect on how students perform between a 13-week and a 6-week version of the same course. That said, what contributed to their success was the extent of interaction the students had with the instructor. Keep this in mind! The shorter the class, the more important it is to encourage interaction—and not just encourage it but expect it. Which brings us to the issue of actually making a class that fits these different terms.
There are a lot of things to consider when crafting a course of any length. The course objectives must be taken into account to see that all are met. Content has to be measured out to meet them, and you have to consider how much time the students themselves have. No one should be overloaded, neither you nor the students.
Of course, there are pros and cons to every length of term. You may sacrifice the flexibility of longer classes and terms for a faster graduation time aided by accelerated courses, for example. But any term length can be made to work and benefit students.
In fact, many online courses are designed to meet the needs of students that differ from traditional freshman. Many online students are adults, and they have work and family obligations that need to be maintained while taking a course. There are a lot of students, too, who are simply more comfortable with the online version of classes, and they may simply appreciate the flexibility of time that an online class offers.
Columbia College in Missouri offers an online bachelor’s degree in less than four years. Post University in Connecticut offers an online business degree in as little as only two years. Colleges like these are hiring for people like you to teach their classes. Where do you begin?