Professor John Zimmerman sent me an article from the New York Times the other day. It reported results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that suggest the average college student taking a full slate of classes studies only about 15 hours per week. Engineering students reported studying the most (19 hours), business students the least (14 hours).
To put these numbers into perspective, the rule of thumb most professors follow is two hours outside of class for every hour inside of class. So, if you are taking five classes or fifteen credit hours, you should be putting 30 hours a week into studying. That standard produces a forty-five hour week: fifteen hours class time and thirty hours studying. Professor Zimmerman, like faculty everywhere, was dismayed to learn that the average NSSE respondent fell far short of what professors expect. John assured me that his tax accounting students are putting in many more hours than that. I believe him.
A closer look at the NSSE numbers reveals that business majors spend more hours engaged in productive activity than any other student group (57 per week). All majors report the same number of hours per week socializing or relaxing (ten to eleven). But business majors report seven more hours a week working and three more hours caring for dependents than aspiring engineers. Business students were the only group to report more hours working for pay (16 hours) than studying (14 hours).
Some of the difference in the numbers is the result of contrasting demographics: business majors are a bit older and more likely to be domestic students than their engineering counterparts. The first difference means they are more likely to have dependents in their care, both differences help to explain the difference in average hours worked for pay. International students typically cannot work off of campus.
Yet, there is plenty of incentive for business students to hit the books. Many b-schools are selective admission colleges: They only admit students who have proven themselves academically in their freshmen and sophomore years through prerequisite courses. Many do not make the cut. Some b-schools even limit enrollment, resulting in direct competition among sophomores to gain admission. And, business faculty have the same expectations for class preparation as faculty in most other areas–six hours a week per course. Many of us do encourage students to develop a balanced portfolio while in college that includes participation in co-curricular activities that promote leadership skills (e.g., student organizations) and internships that provide realistic job previews as well as deliverables that can impress prospective employers. Great grades alone are not enough to differentiate students in a competitive job market. But no one tells students these activities should come at the expense of studying.
Frankly all this angst over the amount of time students study detracts us from the fundamental question: Are we graduating competent business professionals ready for the challenges of today’s global marketplace? The focus should be on outcomes, not inputs.
Accreditation bodies have required business schools to put lots of energy into developing learning objectives and assessing outcomes. But I doubt these efforts will get us where we want to go. The results are too easily manipulated by faculty and administrators and lack a sufficient link to the real world. What we need to do is separate teaching from entry into the profession. Some areas of business already do this: Accountants have their CPA, financial planners, the CFP. These tests are developed and administered by practitioners working with faculty to ensure that the exams are valid and assess what students need to know to successfully compete in the marketplace. The tests are not school specific, but administered profession-wide. Accounting programs, for example, track and compete on their graduates’ passage rates on these exams and students understand the importance of preparing for this challenge. If we require such professional credentialing of people who certify balance sheets and income statements, we sure should require it of people who are put in charge of subordinates or a company’s IT infrastructure.
Nobody asks whether there is a crisis in studying among medical students, would-be lawyers or dentists. They shouldn’t be asking this of business students either.