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Am I missing something here? January 27, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, science, teaching.
Tags: , ,

Like everyone else, I came across the article on why college students leave engineering.

I was reading it with my jaw hanging open.  Specifically this:

The typical engineering major today spends 18.5 hours per week studying. The typical social sciences major, by contrast, spends about 14.6 hours.

My first thought was: Where the heck can you go to school and study for 18.5 hrs/wk and still manage to pass enough classes to get an engineering degree?!

My second thought was that it explained something that has been puzzling me.  Last semester, my students complained about the amount of homework I assigned for my 1-credit class.  There was about 1  homework assignment per week, and I figured this meant they’d be spending an average of 1-2 hours outside of class on assignments.

When I started school, the rule of thumb was that 3 hours per week outside of class PER CREDIT was required for an A, two for a B, one for a C.  This meant that if you planned to go to school full time (which was 12 credits per semester) and get an A average, you needed to be spending about 36 hours per week just on homework in addition to your 12 hours of seat time in a classroom.

I also learned that, for some classes, this was a significant underestimate (usually math, engineering and physics classes) while for other classes, it was an overestimate.  I remember one senior-level sociology class that I took where I spent, on average, three hours per week on homework and still came out with one of the highest grades in the class.  This is why I always felt it was a good idea to have a nice balance between technical and non-technical classes: it would even out the homework load a bit.

My understanding of a typical homework load is obviously a couple decades behind.  (Although I am not sure I plan to change my tune any time soon.)  However, I did feel good about one point in the article:

STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) have also had less grade inflation than the humanities and social sciences have in the last several decades.

Apparently you can study less in engineering than you used to have to obtain a degree, which I have to admit bothers me a bit.  However, it’s still harder than humanities and you’re more likely to actually have to earn those grades.  Despite the fact that we’re probably pushing STEM fields more than we really need to, I do hope employers take that into consideration.  STEM students have to be more committed to make it through their fields, which are also more technically challenging.  I’d think that should be worth something.



1. Alison - January 27, 2012

What was interesting to me about the original article was that there seems to be concern about the high attrition rates among engineering students. I guess I’d have to actually look at the study and past studies to see the real data, but hasn’t this been the case for a long time? Back in 1996, we received the old “look to your left, look to your right, only one of you will be here in 4 years” speech in freshman engineering. I don’t see it as a bad thing. Right now, engineering departments seem to market themselves and recruit students with this type of attrition in mind — more students are admitted than they expect will graduate. Unless they tighten up admissions, that won’t change. Incidently, I don’t think they should tighten up admissions…Mr. Looks-Good-On-Paper 4.0 High School StuCo president can wash out while average student without a lot going for him can be an engineering natural.


mareserinitatis - January 30, 2012

I think a lot of that is the ‘business model’ that most colleges are using: students changing majors are also more likely to drop out, they bring down the overall satisfaction levels represented in surveys (making the school look bad), and they don’t give any money as alums.

On the other hand, giving someone a degree for something they don’t or can’t understand doesn’t seem like a terribly good business model, either. 🙂


2. Anon - January 27, 2012

Perhaps the greatly accelerated classes many students take in high school contributes to this? I went to a top 100 public high school, was a Bio major, and all my intro science classes in college were substantially easier than my high school classes, thus I spent way less time on them. This was not true for friends (who were easily as smart as I am, so that’s not the difference) in the same classes that had not gone to such good high schools.


mareserinitatis - January 30, 2012

That may be true in some fields, but most students in engineering will have only had calc and some basic physics. A lot of classes starting at sophomore level will be completely new to students (and this was the case in my physics courses, as well). I can’t see them spending only 18 hours per week when you’re doing senior-level engineering courses.


3. paul hopwood - January 27, 2012

This (to me) highlights an interesting difference between Europe & the US.

I’d guess in my 1st yr I had 10-15hrs of homework (study 🙂 ) per week but I was in lectures for 32-40 hrs per week (ok that does include tutorial sessions which aren’t proper lessons)

Each year the time in lectures dropped & the amount of homework or coursework increased, I think in my final year I had around 15-20 hrs of lectures.

My uni was well regarded for civil engineering & both self-study & lecture times for that course made my electronics engineering degree look like a sports science degree! Only 10% made it to graduation in the same year as me, that’s like a venture funded dotcom companies burn rate!

For me, I’d always prefer more lecture time than self learning but I don’t see how you could drop below 12hrs of self-learning to demonstrate the skills & commitment you need outside university.


4. FrauTech - January 29, 2012

I’ve always heard the same metric you describe (3 hours of homework studying per credit outside of the class). So for my part time engineering study that would be an “expected” 24 hours a week of studying in addition to the fact I was working full time 40 hours a week. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t doing that much. I’m also pretty sure I wasn’t doing the 18 hours a week cited in the study. Maybe 5-6 hours per class on average, so 10-12 for part time study. Maybe more for lab classes (but less difficult hours spent).

I saw this study mentioned elsewhere, I can’t remember if these numbers are self reported. As a person who did a BA I can absolutely assure you I spent nowhere near 14 hours a week when I was full time studying some useless liberal arts degree. Probably 1-2 hours per class. So 4-8 hours per week. And I got mostly A’s and a few B’s. Versus 5-6 hours a class in engineering earned me mostly C’s (and a few B’s). However I’d guess if students are asked they are going to inflate their actual hours. I think we’re all guilted into feeling bad for not studying more or not doing more. Maybe many people party, in my case I’ve always focused more on work than I probably should have. I suspect we all have our demons.

As to grade inflation…I’ve talked about this before but I think it’s misleading. Maybe I’m not doing the same by-hand calculations engineers had to do 20 years ago. However, I am expected to program in C++ and Matlab. I am expected to model parts in ProEngineer, create drawings, manage lists in Excel and MS Project. Have to keep up with making models for rapid prototyping machines and changes in composites technologies. I’ll change jobs more times than engineers 20 years ago and probably receive far less on the job training or mentorship over my career. Engineers before were probably able to focus on a single specialty and work at that. Engineers now have to know their specialty AND be good with computers and project management. Support staffs are cut, IT staff is offshored…it’d be nice and easy to say that college is just “easier” now and students are slackers. But so much has changed I think it’s unfair to draw too many direct comparisons.


5. ferd - January 31, 2012

I’m not sure that homework loads or engineering drop-out rates have really changed that much since I was in school (1977-1982), but I admit that times have certainly changed. Study time outside of class really depends upon the individual student — self-motivation and ability. I studied at least six hours per weekday (after classes and part-time jobs) and at least fifteen hours on weekends (in engineering) but I noticed that I had to study more than many of my classmates. However, I also remember doing a lot of studying while the liberal arts and business students were partying. I knew several people who switched from engineering to liberal arts or business because it seemed easier. Others left engineering because they became disenchanted with the program, usually due to professors’ attitudes or disappointment with facilities or disliking the coursework. The engineers who graduated shared a compulsion to figure out how stuff works / modify and design stuff that the others did not feel strongly. In general (but not always true) kids today seem to feel more entitled than we did, and seem to feel less guilt about quitting or taking an easier route. But even in my day those kids probably wouldn’t graduate as engineers.

Today those partying business students are our bosses, and although I wouldn’t classify them as wildly successful they do enjoy more perks and salary than I originally thought they would earn. But life is never fair. The NY Times article misses another reason why students drop out of engineering – they realize that the job market and career longevity is not good. An engineering degree requires a lot of time and effort and money but too many graduates (new and old) are unemployed or underemployed, and it is easy to get pushed out of engineering due to age discrimination before the mortgage is paid. The educational sources cited by the NY Times are not going to bring up that point because it runs counter to their need to sell engineering degrees.


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