Are Students Lazier or More Productive?

May 3rd 2010 at 11:00am, By Dave Guerin

US economics researchers have found that students have decreased study time from 40 hours per week in 1961 to 27 hours per week in 2003 (a 32.5% decline). The authors, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, apparently controlled for hours worked, study period (completion in four years) and student body makeup. The abstract for the NBER paper is here, but the fulltext is paid content (I’ll review the paper itself in the next few days, but today I’ll focus on the headline item).

I thought I’d compare it with NZ. The 2008 Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE), run by the Australian Council for Education Research, includes NZ and Australian institutions and has some figures on the time students spend preparing for class (p.70). I calculated a mean by multiplying the mid-range value by the percentage of respondents and averaging the total to get 10.25 hours. If you added 12-16 hours of contact time/week in a university setting, you would get close to the US 2003 result. Not a perfect analysis, but it’s in the ballpark, especially since it covers full and part-time students, whereas the US figure is only for full-time students.

Next, I wondered if 10 minutes of historical analysis could help me create a 1960s comparison figure for NZ (no, it took 25…). I went to the vast ED library (about 400 NZ education books) and found JJ Small’s1966 book on Achievement and Adjustment in the First Year of the University (published by NZCER) – I think the research was done in 1965. It had a similar question to the AUSSE survey on estimated hours of private study, again using full and part time students (p.30), Using the same method as above, I came up with a mean of 19.0 hours, meaning that there is a decline of 8.75 hours to the 10.25 hours in AUSSE (a 46% decline).

Using my quick assessment, it looks like we have had a decline in private study hours in NZ that is similar to the US total study time figures (well, the NZ decline is higher).

Going back to what this all means, I found the story at The Chronicle of Higher Education and there were some interesting arguments in the text and, especially, in the comments. (NB the US study controlled for several factors, including hours of employment – my estimates don’t control for anything.)

  • Students could be lazier.
  • Classes (and grades) could be easier.
  • There could be more alternative uses for students’ time (TV, video games, social networking, web surfing…).
  • Older people could have been boring, stay at home people even when they were young.
  • Computers have improved the productivity of research and writing – online catalogues (not card indexes), fulltext journal (and sometimes book) search plus onscreen editing save a lot of time.

So, I’ll open it up to your theories, be they erudite or bigoted, as Gordon Brown would say.

6 Responses to Are Students Lazier or More Productive?



May 4th, 2010 at 6:47 pm

I think IT has made a difference to the time it takes to locate reference materials, but you still need time to actually read them and to write the essays.

I suspect that university has become easier, but also that students’ expectations have lessoned. These days large numbers of students from certain demographics go to university and so a university education is seen as something everyone does, rather than as something only available to a priviledged few. Related to this, the income boost that you expect from a tertiary education has also lessened. So I think that as the value students and society place on tertiary education decreases, then the incentive the work hard and make the most of it also decreases.


Stephen Marshall

May 5th, 2010 at 9:37 am

Hi Dave,

I have bad news for you. Your analysis of the AUSSE results is seriously flawed. The problem is that when you add the median values you get the result you reported, but when you add the results for the several workload questions up on a student by student basis you get a significantly higher number (around 40 hours per week). Essentially this arises from the students having a fixed amount of time to allocate to their studies and making decisions about how best to use that time (with some significant differences based on discipline).

Internally at VUW we are conducting detailed time use studies that suggest students are generally working to the level we expect – between 40-50 hours per week for full time study.

As for the US study, again I urge caution. A review of the literature will show you that different countries report significantly different student workloads – the pattern is more complex than the US report suggests.

Student workload is a complex area, it combines issues around the quantity of work, the quality of the work effort, and the perception of the workload. Students respond well to meaningful activities and will often invest significant time in them while not describing that as work, while less meaningful activities result in the perception of higher workload for fewer hours invested.



Dave Guerin

May 5th, 2010 at 9:40 am

Thanks Stephen – will look into that and get back to you, but maybe tonight as I’m busy today.


Stephen Marshall

May 5th, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Hi Dave,

I ended up thinking about this some more:



Dave Guerin

May 5th, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Stephen and I have exchanged some emails and now I can respond properly. You should also read his own blog post (see link in previosu comment), which sheds more light on the issue.

1) As Vic Uni is an AUSSE participant, Stephen has access to data for additional questions asked on “being on campus, including time spent in class” and “being on campus, excluding time spent in class”. He has combined this with the data I already had on “time spent preparing for class” to get a total figure of 40-50 hours per week. You can view the relevant question on time allocation (no.9) at the following link:

2) I agree that we could usefully add the difference between the two extra AUSSE questions (ie the time spent in class) to the AUSSE private study question to get a figure that is closer to that used in the US. Essentially, this would replace my class contact time estimate of 12-16 hours. Coincidentally, the AUSSE private study question is based on a US survey, and US answers are used in the US research that kicked off this post.

3) I would not want to add the hours spent on campus, excluding class time, as this would overlap with both private study time and extracurricular activities, as well as other questions (eg relaxing and socilaising). I certainly spent a lot of time on campus that could not be described as study time.

4) Overall, I thank Steven for the extra context on AUSSE and would welcome it if he could provide the data on those other two questions, but I feel he has overestimated students’ study time by including all time spent on campus. If I gte the new data, I will update the post.

5) I’m not convinced that there is a serious flaw in my analysis, as Stephen suggested. I was trying to compare the 1966 and 2008 figures, both of which covered private study, and Stephen’s comments don’t address that issue. Having access to the additional data would certainly allow a better comparison between the total study time (private and class) in the US in 2003 and NZ in 2008. It would fill a gap that I acknowledged by replacing an estimate, rather than fix a flaw.

Great to have some feedback on this and, as I wrote above, check out Stephen’s work on this issue as he has taken it further at Vic.

And thanks for your comment too Julie!



May 6th, 2010 at 11:52 am

I would agree with your wariness of including time spent on campus, excluding class time. People’s experience of campus life is quite different. On some, you go in for your lectures and get out. For Canterbury there are more people that come fairly long journeys, by NZ standards, and stay from their first lecture until their last. Some of that will be gym time, some philosophizing in the cafes, some people watching, some fagging, some Foundry time, AND some library/ lab/ study time.

I suspect some time does need to be added but can’t come up with a rational proportion.

Another small wrinkle will be those well-informed students that know their Hall of residence is on campus and answer literally. At Canterbury, all Halls (some 2,000 students) are on campus.

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